August 25th, 2020 / 1:38 pm

Places Where I Read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man

I bought The Complete Works of Primo Levi with unemployment money. It comes in a box and when the spines of the three volumes are put together they form the face of Primo Levi. When I am in my living room I can see Primo Levi and he watches me. We make eye contact. But I took the first volume out of the box and now he is missing a quarter of his face.

* * *

I am reading Levi’s first book, If This Is a Man, a memoir of his experience as an Italian Jew in Auschwitz. When the book was published in America it was given the title Survival in Auschwitz, a title almost as bad as Auschwitz for Dummies.

Put Auschwitz in the title or they won’t know it’s about Auschwitz, an editor must have said.

* * *

My great-bubby, Ethel Belgratsky, fled pogroms in what is now Ukraine long before the Holocaust and she lived in Montreal during the Second World War. But I don’t know what happened to the cousins and other relatives who never left. My Uncle’s wife’s mother survived the camps and fell in love with a Russian soldier. My grandfather—I call him Papa Howard—doesn’t know where our Novaks originate but the legend is that we are Lithuanian Jews. Litvaks. None of this is concrete to me. All of these people I never met swirl around in my head.

* * *

I like this book a lot. It is not a long book. I am reading it slowly because the sentences are rich and unique, simultaneously simple and complex, and the subject matter isn’t something I find myself able to breeze through. Every chapter is about life and death and pain and humiliation and hunger and thirst and hope and hopelessness and language and fear and the random stupidity of evil and innocence and cunning and chance and disease and excrement and chemistry and clothing and bowls and spoons and soup and bread and humor and fatigue and judgement and memory and war and almost no peace.

* * *

I read some of If This Is a Man on the blue couch in the living room in the morning. My back hurts. I don’t like our bed. Sometimes I sleep on this couch when I am sick of the way our bed is treating my back. It is winter and Primo Levi is in a crammed boxcar headed to Auschwitz. The men, women, children, and infants suffer “from thirst and cold.” Finally, after a long journey from Italy to Poland, the train stops. Primo and the woman who has been pressed against him for the entire journey, an acquaintance of his, say to each other “things that are not said among the living.” They say “farewell and it [i]s short; everybody s[ays] farewell to life through his neighbor.” Then the train car doors open and the men and women and children are separated by SS guards. The able-bodied men go one way and as for the women and children and old people, “the night swallow[s] them up, purely and simply.” The book is heavy in my hands. Each volume is a hardcover and Volume I is 747 pages long. IfThis Is a Man is the first book in Volume I and it ends on page 165. I am on page 16 and my eyes are wet after reading about a three-year-old named Emilia who had to be killed because she was a Jewish three-year-old. My hands and arms have to work to keep the book from falling onto my face.

* * *

I read some of If This Is a Man in the bathtub. I pour green tea/cucumber body wash under the running water to make it a bubble bath. Levi, a chemist, is brought before a German doctor for a chemistry examination. They want to see if he’ll be useful to them in a way that doesn’t involve manual labor. Levi mentions the way Doktor Pannwitz looks at him. Levi says, “[I]f I knew how to explain fully the nature of that look, exchanged as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds, I would also be able to explain the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.” Tammy walks around the rim of the bathtub. She is a cat. She touches the bubbles with her paws. She almost falls into the water.

* * *

I read some of If This Is a Man in bed before I go to sleep. Levi describes how for some reason “one always has the impression of being lucky.” Even if they are starving and freezing and it’s rainy and windy, “we could always go and touch the electric fence, or throw ourself under the shunting trains, and then the rain would stop.” I put the book on the bedside table and turn out the light. Ashleigh is already asleep. She falls asleep faster than I can. It takes me a while to find a suitable pillow.

* * *

I read some of If This Is a Man in bed in the afternoon after taking a nap. Levi and two other men are chosen by Doktor Pannwitz for a job in the Laboratory. His friend Alberto is happy for him, not envious at all. He is a good friend. And Levi “has the right to a new shirt and underpants and must be shaved every Wednesday.” I have to go to work in forty-five minutes. I used to work with a woman in her seventies who read all of the books I didn’t want to read and her mother was still alive and her mother survived Auschwitz. But now I work alone on a computer. I look at a spreadsheet and call customers when their books arrive.

* * *

I read some of If This Is a Man in bed during the commercial breaks of the San Francisco Giants baseball game I am watching while Ashleigh is out meeting a friend for drinks. The Giants are playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rumors of imminent selections spread in the camp. Everywhere they hear “Selekja,” the word a hybrid of Latin and Polish. The selected will be sent to the gas chambers to die. The rumors are true. When the selections begin, the men in Levi’s barracks are stripped of their clothes. They wear only their wooden clogs. Levi describes the warm feeling of their naked bodies pressed against each other as “unusual and not unpleasant.” Each man receives a card bearing their “number, name, profession, age, and nationality” which they must present to the SS guard who will determine their fate. The Giants win the game 5-4. I have watched every San Francisco Giants baseball game this year. It will be a short season. A week ago I bought a San Francisco Giants baseball cap on with unemployment money and it arrived a couple days ago. It’s too big for my head. I researched online about how to shrink a baseball cap. I boiled water and held the cap by the brim. I dipped the rest of hat into the boiling water and held it under for two minutes. I took the cap out of the boiling water and put it in the dryer for thirty minutes. It’s still too big for my head.

* * *

I find street parking on a hot day in Baltimore and I read some of If This Is a Man in the parked car while I wait for Ashleigh to buy a pair of jeans and a skirt with her unemployment money. Levi has survived one winter in the camp and the next winter is approaching. He knows that another winter means “seven out of ten” men will die. Levi understands that there is no language for what he, and everyone else in the camp, is experiencing. He says, “[O]ur way of being cold has need of a special word. We say ‘hunger,’ we say ‘tiredness,’ ‘fear,’ and ‘pain,’ we say ‘winter,’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived, in happiness and in suffering, in their homes.” I put the book on the backseat when Ashleigh returns with her new clothes. I have thirty-four pages left. We drive to Target and buy a TCL 32″ Roku TV for $137.80. We split the cost. $68.90 each. It is the first TV we have ever owned. We bought it with our unemployment money.

* * *

I finish reading If This Is a Man on the bed in the backroom with the fan blowing. Primo has scarlet fever. He is in a bed in the infirmary—Krankenbau—and the SS, along with the 20,000 prisoners deemed healthy enough to march, evacuate the camp to evade the fast-approaching Russians. Most of these 20,000 prisoners will die of fatigue or at the hands of the SS, including Primo’s closest friend Alberto. Air raids destroy much of the camp, Ka-Be is freezing because there is no longer power, the dysentery patients defecate everywhere so that “[y]ou [ca]n’t take a step without watching your feet; in the dark it [i]s impossible to get around.” Primo and two other men, Charles and Arthur, wander the camp and find a stove. They bring it back to their barracks in a wheelbarrow. They boil and eat potatoes. They have to blockade the door to their room so no other men can get inside. There are eleven men in the small room and only one of these eleven men dies in the barracks. His name is Sómogyi and he dies the night before the Russians arrive. The Russians arrive in the morning as Primo and Charles carry Sómogyi’s body on a stretcher away from the barracks. They drop Sómogyi onto the snow and Charles removes his cap. Primo doesn’t have a cap and he is sorry about that.

* * *

I close the book. The fan blows air into my face. The mattress in this room is too firm. It is uncomfortable. The bed belonged to the man who lived in this apartment before us. He sold us the bed. His name was Zeynel and he was from Turkey. He did not tell us that some of the slats that support the mattress are broken. The bottom two on the left side of the bed. They are duct taped together but it doesn’t matter. If you sit on the edge of the bed you will fall through. I get up off the bed and go into the living room. I put Primo’s face back together on the bookshelf and turn off the living room lamp.


  1. Bobby Dixon

      good to read this. thank you

  2. willis plummer

      many red flags on this bookshelf

  3. Juliet Escoria

      worse than a communist

  4. joseph grantham

      stay away from me ladies

  5. Eric Raymond

      Dug this. And also: Beat L.A.

  6. Chris_Dankland

      i enjoyed the double life aspect that u have in here, switching back and forth between lives. it makes me feel very depressed. i miss the schizophrenia of stuffing books into every spare hour. maybe i’ll do that more. god bless

  7. Ken Baumann

      Thanks for this. It makes me wanna read Levi and sad I haven’t already.

  8. crowjonah

      genuinely interested in what joey and ashleigh will spend unemployment money on next

  9. Chris Hodge

      Holy shit. Primo Levi is cool, but I want to know what you thought of the Henry Kissinger scene in Omon Ra because I think about that book a lot.