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marking yom hashoah at un headquarters

On Yom HaShoah (4 May 2016) the Holocaust and United Nations Outreach in partnership with the Centro Primo Levi, New York presented a program which explored the themes found in Levi’s writings: scientific ethics, history and memory, language and transmission, and justice and responsibility. 

Entiled: "AFTER THE HOLOCAUST - PRIMO LEVI AND THE NEXUS OF SCIENCE, RESPONSIBILITY AND HUMANISM", this was a roundtable discussion at UN Headquarters, attended by ICJW representatives Madeleine Brecher and Joan Lurie Goldberg. 

After a dramatic reading of four separate passages identified from recently published The Complete Works of Primo Levi, a panel of scholars and writers commented on the meaning of each reading. It was a profoundly intellectual presentation, as well as an emotionally-charged experience. The program clearly  demonstrated the universal appeal of Primo Levi’s writings as well as his remarkable contribution to humanity. 

Primo Michele Levi was an Italian chemist and writer from Turin, Italy. If This is a Man, published in 1947, was an account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. His literary work, The Periodic Table (1975), was called the best science book ever written. Levi was involved in the partisan resistance to the German occupation and spent two months in a fascist internment camp, 11 months in Auschwitz, and a further nine months in various Russian refugee camps. After the war, he dedicated much of his life to educating about the Holocaust. He died in 1987 in Turin. 

The program was introduced by several speakers – the most moving was Ms. Stella Levi, an Italian Jew who is on the Board of Directors of Centro Primo Levi of New York. In 1944, she was one of 1800 Jews taken from the Greek Island of Rhodes to Auschwitz; just 151 survived. Her life was particularly difficult because she did not speak Yiddish or German, the de facto languages of the camp. She does not feel “survivor guilt” but wonders why she was one of the few who survived. Her quote from Levi is particularly apt – “There are no “whys” here.” 

Dario Disegni, on the Board of Centro Internazionali di Studi Primo Levi in Turin, Italy, emphasized the breadth and clarity of Levi’s writings on science and on his experiences in the Holocaust. He told us Levi’s writing has been translated into English and 40 other languages. A National Museum of Italian Judaism will open shortly and will include Levi’s work. 

The introductions were followed by thought-provoking program with readings from Levi alternating with commentary on them. Ms. Natalia Indrimi, Executive Director of the Centro Primo Levi of NY moderated the panel and emphasized the importance of bringing Levi’s ideas to the UN where all are represented. Levi, a scientist, was a man of questions, interested in ordinary people and in what causes societies to make irreparable choices. Here are some highlights of the commentary. 

Ethiopian-American novelist and essayist Maaza Mengiste chose to speak about pages in Levi’s book The Drowned and the Saved focusing on the theme of language and transmission. Referring to the youngest victims of war and the magnitude of what was lost, Mengiste talked about the recent picture all over the media of the Syrian boy who washed up on the beach in Greece after drowning trying to escape with his parents in the latest violence taking place in the Middle East. Relating the words of Levi, a favorite author from whom she learned so much, to contemporary times, we felt the universal horrors of war and violence whenever and wherever it occurs. “Water is as cruel as a bullet.” She reminded us that we must attach a name to a body so that we can remember and properly grieve. A body with no name is just a corpse and naming the victims allows us all to be redeemed! 

Roger Cohen is a NY Times columnist since 2009 though he was a foreign correspondent and foreign editor for the Times for years before that. He has written several books about war and destruction. At this Yom HaShoah program. Cohen chose to discuss a page on history and memory from Levi’s best known work If This Is a Man. Cohen said that Levi survived the death camps because he saw prisoners as men, not things. He never lost his moral tenacity and lived always in pursuit of truth. Primo Levi wrote about the view from the ground and was determined to bear witness to Nazi barbarism. We must all stand vigilant against the wolves, indifference is never an option. Cohen said the United Nations means nothing if we ignore Levi’s words. His presentation was very sobering and truly superb. 

Lidia Santarelli, a professor at Harvard who is part of the Nuremberg Trial Project commented that Levi wrote that “language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for communication”. She addressed a reading from The Drowned and the Saved. The Holocaust is the defining event of the 20th century and yet Levi questions if its importance can ever be conveyed adequately. He asks “have we who have returned been able to convey what happened and give testimony about the experience?” It is clear that this question haunted his life and work. 

Santarelli asserts that Levi believed it was not possible to express the deepest sense of what Auschwitz really meant. Auschwitz was the outcome of human experience and centuries of anti-Semitism; it was not a sudden intrusion of evil into history. It is hard for survivors to be heard in the deepest sense because Auschwitz sounds too extreme to be true. Even in the Nuremberg archives, the survivors are barely heard; most of the testimony is from persecutors and prosecutors. Only in the 1980s did the Holocaust become the bar against which human cruelty is measured. 

Francesco Cassata, a professor of the History of Science at the University of Genoa, discussed the science fiction of Primo Levi as exemplified by the story entitled “Best is Water”. He believes that Levi used science fiction in order to broaden what he could say about the Holocaust without addressing the moral issues. Since Auschwitz was a universe turned upside down, perhaps its unreality could be captured better in science fiction. Levi also believed in the power of science and technology. He is quoted as saying that science has created Auschwitz and ecological disaster but only the knowledge embodied in science can change the consequences.