Commentary Magazine


Italian Jews

To the Editor:

I am responding to Fernanda Eberstadt’s article, “Reading Primo Levi” [October 1985]. I neither wish to nor am I able to discuss Miss Eberstadt’s opinions on the literary merits of my books; to our common good fortune, in your country as in mine, freedom of criticism exists. I would like, however, to comment on several passages in the article.

1. “It was only with the first signs of a decisive Allied victory and with the collapse of the fascist regime on July 25, 1943, that Levi found within himself the will to resist” (p. 43). This assertion amounts to an accusation of opportunism, and it strikes me as insulting. I was not the only one to take up arms so late. I am not speaking here of the minuscule Italian Jewish community, but the entire resistance movement against the Nazis, in all of Europe, did not begin until after the German invasion; before that, it would not have made sense. A soldier, even if animated by the best will in the world, does not mobilize alone, spontaneously, against an enemy who is not there. The decision to fight militarily was taken when it was possible to take it, but my anti-fascist commitment, and that of my family and the group of friends I belong to, goes back many years earlier (see, for example, the chapters “Zinc” and “Iron” in The Periodic Table), in fact, to the years of my adolescence.

A little further on: at the moment of my arrest by the fascists, “Levi . . . thought it safer . . . to declare himself a Jew.” That was the least important part of the motives that led me to declare myself a Jew. I expressed them clearly in The Periodic Table (p. 134 in the American edition): “Partly because I was tired, partly out of an irrational digging in of pride.”

2. On p. 45 and elsewhere I am accused of omission: that is, of not having tried to demonstrate that the slaughter of the Jews was provoked by the Nazi terror and by Hitler’s racist ideology. Such a drastic statement can spring only from an extremely superficial reading of my books, especially If This is a Man (now reissued in English under the title Survival in Auschwitz). Even if one simply relies on the narrated facts, the revulsion against and condemnation of Nazism leap from every page.

Moreover, the explanation which Miss Eberstadt seems to put forward—that Jews are persecuted where and when they tend to assimilate—seems to me false, or at least not generally true. They weren’t assimilated in Spain in 1500, and yet they were burned or expelled. They were assimilated in Italy, where they would have remained undisturbed or almost so if it had not been for the German invasion in the course of World War II. They were and are assimilated in Bulgaria, whose (pro-fascist) government opposed their deportation. They rejected assimilation in Poland and Russia in the last century and were paid back with pogroms. In short, I see no correlation between assimilation (desired or attained) and anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite hates the Jew no matter what: if he assimilates, because he “tries to hide himself”; if he remains faithful to tradition and religion, “because he is different.”

3. I am accused of irreligion. I am not religious; furthermore, the experience of Auschwitz led many religious people, Jewish and not, to doubt. All the same, I profoundly respect, and sometimes envy, those who have the support of a faith. The pious Lithuanian Jew on whom Miss Eberstadt dwells (p. 45) is plainly a positive character, and the episode described in the story in which he appears really happened. The line of reasoning has been misunderstood: it is known to everyone (even to me) that “cooking” on Yom Kippur is prohibited, but the discussion described hinges on whether it is permitted to “keep the soup warm,” that is, not to let it get cold. Whether this is allowed or not I personally do not know; my character, Ezra, maintains that it is not.

As for the suspension of the fast by rabbinical authorities, Miss Eberstadt must take my word for it; there was no communication between the camps and the outside world, and Ezra could not have been aware of this concession. However, in my opinion, he observed the fast because of his personal heroic zeal, and I remember quite well that he was not the only one.

In none of my books does there appear a malevolent representation of religious zeal; however, the way in which quotations taken from my books are used does seem inexplicably malevolent.

4. Even the characters in If Not Now, When? are not very religious. This fact should not surprise or scandalize anyone: most of them were born and raised in the Soviet Union, where all religions, and the Jewish religion in particular, were openly discouraged.

5. I am implicitly criticized for being assimilated. I am. There do not exist Jews in the Diaspora who are not, to a greater or lesser degree, if for nothing else than for the fact that they speak the language of the country in which they live. I reassert, for myself and for everyone, the right to choose the level of assimilation that best suits their culture and their environment.

I would finally like to say to Miss Eberstadt that likening me to Ausonius is inappropriate. I have not retired, like that late Roman gentleman, to cultivate roses and compose anagrams, nor have I ever eaten oysters; on the contrary, my civic involvement has been daily and constant, a fact well known not only in Italy. But I must thank Miss Eberstadt nevertheless for the praise she has bestowed on me, despite her manifest distaste.

Primo Levi
Turin, Italy

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To the Editor:

I know a hatchet job when I see it, and certainly Fernanda Eberstadt’s article on Primo Levi in your October issue qualifies for honors in the field. Usually such articles, which are not written (and edited) in good faith, do not deserve a comment, since intelligent people can be relied upon to have a suitable reaction. However, I must take up one single point, since I realize that historical memories are short and many (even those with good will) may consider justifiable a statement which is both absurd and deeply insulting. I refer to this sentence in Miss Eberstadt’s article; “It was only with the first signs of a decisive Allied victory and with the collapse of the fascist regime on July 5, 1943, that Levi found within himself the will to resist.”

The fact is that the organized resistance movement in Italy began at that date, for when Mussolini fell, Italy became an occupied country, occupied by the German army. So the sentence is absurd. It is also deeply insulting to Levi, because it implies that he, a twenty-two-year-old student and a Jew, was watching the war bulletins carefully to see which way to jump.

I demand an apology to him not only from the author of the article but also from the editors of COMMENTARY, who I am sure go thoroughly over everything published in their magazine.

Raymond Rosenthal
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Upon reading Fernanda Eberstadt’s article on Primo Levi, I was terribly disappointed to discover that she belongs to that class of reviewers who delight in attacking their subjects. . . .

Miss Eberstadt’s approach to Primo Levi’s works appears almost defensive. When Levi speaks of his own experiences—whether they concern his time in Auschwitz or vignettes of Italian Jewish life—she seems willing grudgingly to grant him some limited success. But when his literary talent focuses on the culture of other Jewish communities, Miss Eberstadt is vicious and unforgiving.

In discussing Levi’s If Not Now, When?, a novel about the adventures of a band of East European Jewish partisans during World War II, Miss Eberstadt offers no room for literary license and is disappointed to discover that the author has portrayed these individuals on a human scale. But her criticism that he fails to bring his characters to life is the most ludicrous of all, particularly since it follows three paragraphs detailing the complexities of some of the novel’s protagonists.

Miss Eberstadt nevertheless seems less troubled by artistic style than by Levi’s background and credentials for writing on such matters. In summing up her reasons for judging the novel a “failure,” she suggests that the distance “between Turin and the forests of Eastern Europe” proved too far for Levi to bridge. . . . Miss Eberstadt’s motives for devoting the first three pages of her article to the regurgitation of Italian Jewish statistics that are irrelevant to her analysis are clear. She is on the one hand establishing her supposed command of the material, while on the other hand preparing the reader for her conclusion that an assimilated Italian Jew is incapable of capturing the richness or vibrancy of Jewish life in the ghettos of the Pale of Settlement.

While it is true that Italian Jewry achieved a much higher level of acculturation and assimilation than most other European Jewries, it is irresponsible to ignore the vibrancy of Jewish life that has existed there historically. . . . Jewish learning and culture have always burned in the small Italian Jewish community. The most preposterous of all Miss Eberstadt’s statements, however, is that Levi “himself hailed from a country in which the Jew had never been a stranger” (emphasis in the original). Anyone who is at all familiar with either the development of modern anti-Semitism or the history of Italy’s 2,000-year-old Jewish community must know that the very word “ghetto” was coined in Italy. . . .

Perhaps if Miss Eberstadt were to spend less time coming to grand conclusions and more time studying her material, she would be able to offer a valuable critique of Primo Levi’s works. While I would not venture to offer myself as a dispassionate reader of Levi, both as a descendant of Italian Jewry and a not-at-all-distant relative of the author, I believe his works received a cursory and premeditated analysis in Miss Eberstadt’s article. This is particularly startling when compared with the outstanding reviews he has been accorded in other respected publications, some of which tout him to be of Nobel Prize stature.

Alan Viterbi
New York City
West Hollywood, California

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Fernanda Eberstadt writes:

To judge from the contentious, not to say litigious, nature of these letters one might think I had written a full-scale assault on Primo Levi’s life and character, not a piece of literary analysis (the longest, I believe, he has received in this country) in which praise and admiration figured amply along with criticism. Perhaps the interested reader will be moved to consult the original, not the caricature that emerges from these responses.

Primo Levi’s first objection is to my assertion that it was only after the fall of Mussolino that “he found within himself the will to resist.” (Since the letter of his American translator, Raymond Rosenthal, raises the same issue, I hope Mr. Rosenthal will consider himself answered by my reply.) Let me say at the outset that Mr. Levi misreads me sadly in imagining that I wished by such a statement to charge him with opportunism. I am the more surprised by his displeasure as it was precisely from his own book, The Periodic Table, that I took this information.

The sentence which offends Mr. Levi occurs in my essay at the end of a long passage in which I sought to explain the predicament of his generation—a generation of young Italians, Christians and Jews, who grew up under fascism (Mr. Levi was only three years old when Mussolini came to power) and who were in a sense sapped by it. Though his own “anti-fascist commitment” undoubtedly went back many years, nevertheless in The Periodic Table Mr. Levi adroitly focuses on his profound demoralization, and that of his generation: how, ignorant of even the possibility of active resistance to a regime they found “clownish and improvident,” he and his friends retreated from political reality into a world of poetry, conversation, chaste infatuations, country outings, and, for himself, science. Describing their life in the years 1941-42, Mr. Levi writes: “Neither in us or more generally in our generation, whether Aryan or Jew, had the idea yet gained ground that one must and could resist fascism. Our resistance at that time was passive and was limited to rejection, isolation, and avoiding contamination.”

In this state of alienation, which Mr. Levi describes so well, the war seemed like nothing more than an ugly stalemate between two distant and unreal giants: “Perhaps in the end [the Allies] would win—but it was their business, they were rich and powerful. . . .” But then everything changed: “In November came the Allied landings in North Africa, in December came the Russian resistance, and finally, victory at Stalingrad, and we realized that the war had drawn closer and that history had resumed its march. In the space of a few weeks each of us matured, more so than during the previous twenty years.” That these historic events—compounded by the fall of the fascist regime the following July—should have acted as a kind of catalyst moving a very demoralized twenty-two-year-old to action is no disgrace.

Mr. Levi’s accompanying argument, that the resistance to Nazism did not begin in Italy until after the German invasion, strikes me as both redundant and irrelevant. That there was no armed Italian resistance to a foreign power until that power had invaded goes without saying. But as Mr. Levi knows far better than I, the anti-fascist resistance movement in Italy was active as early as the 1920′s, when Giustizia è Libertà flourished under the guidance of such Turinese heroes (many of them alumni of Primo Levi’s own school) as Leone Ginzburg, the Rosselli brothers, Carlo Levi, Vittorio Foa, and Giulio Einaudi. Something of the strength and durability of this antifascist organization will be suggested when I say that two decades later, and after the imprisonment, exile, and murder of its main protagonists, when the young Primo Levi took up arms, it was Giustizia è Libertà with which he hoped to become affiliated.

My authority for stating that, during his interrogation by the Italian fascists, Primo Levi thought it safer to identify himself as a Jew than as a partisan comes from his own Survival in Auschwitz. In the opening chapter he writes: “During the interrogation that followed [my arrest], I preferred to admit my status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race.’ I felt that otherwise I would be unable to justify my presence in places too secluded even for an evacuee; while I believed (wrongly as was subsequently seen) that the admission of my political activity would have meant torture and certain death.”

It is indeed true that Mr. Levi’s loathing of Nazism is transparent on every page of Survival in Auschwitz—and, as I suggested in my article, the transmission of such white-hot hatred through so mild and unassuming a literary manner is extremely effective—but again Mr. Levi hedges. My objection was not to any failure to condemn Nazism but to the way in which, by resorting to a kind of philosophical universalism, this book glosses over the fact that the slaughter was indeed a slaughter of Jews. For all Mr. Levi’s devout attention to detail and his eye for those unconscious gestures by which a man reveals his soul, for all his scientist’s curiosity about the minutiae of national and social and professional distinctions, he never intimates that what these diverse strangers—Hungarians, Frenchmen, Poles, Greeks—herded together in rude barracks had in common was their Jewishness, nor does he mention that many continued at great cost to practice their faith within the camps—a sight which to an inexperienced young Italian must have been arresting, to say the least.

I “accused” Primo Levi not of hostility to religion but rather of having a tin ear for it. Although in Moments of Reprieve, his new collection of stories, Mr. Levi sets out to portray the religious life of devout Jews in the camps, and in If Not Now, When? to suggest something of the flavor of the Jewish tradition in which his Eastern European and Russian-born protagonists would have been steeped, in both works he proves unable to transcend, either through learning or through intuitive understanding, his own self-consciousness and skepticism. Thus Judaism here and elsewhere in his work emerges as something naive and archaic, a collection of colorful saws. The failure, as I tried to make clear in my article, is not a moral but an imaginative one.

As for Mr. Levi’s Lithuanian watchmaker (who occupied all of two sentences in my article), let me note once again the permanent injunction upon Jews that small children, the aged, the sick, and those in danger of death must break the Yom Kippur fast, and the particular dispensation made within the camps, and known to all believers, permitting inmates to eat on fast days in order to preserve life. Mr. Levi’s Ezra may well have deemed himself sufficiently hale to withstand such a privation, but my point had to do with his improbable ignorance of the religious context in which he was making this decision, and with Mr. Levi’s own confusion over whether lighting or making use of fire is forbidden by Jewish law or merely, as he states, “considered inadvisable” by “some commentators.”

With regard to the issue of assimilation, nowhere in my article did I suggest that there is any connection between assimilation and persecution of the Jews, nor can I imagine by what misreading—or mistranslation—Mr. Levi could have imputed to me so grotesque a notion. Anti-Semitism comes from anti-Semitism, and little or nothing Jews do or do not do can affect this evil when it is bent on its worst. Indeed, one of the more tragic illusions animating Jewish life in hostile lands has been the very belief that either by an excess of patriotism or philanthropy, or by making himself invisible, or, conversely, by sticking to his distinctive dress and language—in short, by some modification of behavior—a Jew can avert this rage against his people.

Nor did I ever call into question Mr. Levi’s right to be an assimilated Jew. On the contrary, we must thank, not God, but democracy and a tolerant people that in his country Jews have been so free either to remain apart or to adopt the national identity. To speak more personally, I could never wish that Primo Levi knew more Talmud and less Homer, Catullus, or Descartes, for I can think of few contemporary writers who have put a humanist education to more subtle use. Still, it would be foolish to deny that just as pious Jews who keep themselves apart from the general culture pay a price for their ignorance of secular life and learning, so too does assimilation exact its costs.

My invocation of Ausonius was a slight and hypothetical one. In Survival in Auschwitz one sees the spectacle of a profoundly civilized man, the consummate product of a high and rich civilization, subjected to the very negation of civilization. To conceive of a comparable collision of humanism and inhumanity, I speculated that had Ausonius, the poet and memoirist of late Latin antiquity (a man, also, like Mr. Levi, noted for a long record of “civic involvement”) lived another fifteen years to witness the sack of Rome and to see the Northern barbarians lay waste the culture he had known, he too might have been jolted from his ravishing minor key into the strange power of speech which possesses the Primo Levi of Survival in Auschwitz. Yet if the analogy offends Mr. Levi, by all means let him pluck it out.

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Alan Viterbi asserts that I was wrong to find fault with If Not Now, When?, Primo Levi’s novel about Eastern European Jewish partisans, and that I fail to do justice to Italian Jews (a puzzling charge given Mr. Viterbi’s simultaneous complaint that I devoted too much space to their accomplishments). His twin grievances lead him to the conclusion that I deem no “assimilated Italian Jew” capable of “capturing the richness or vibrancy of Jewish life in the ghettos of the Pale of Settlement,” a conclusion consonant with my suspicion that Mr. Viterbi has not read the works of his illustrious kinsman, since the novel he defends takes place not in the ghetto but in Central European forests and Italian drawing rooms, among mainly Marxist Zionists.

Mr. Viterbi imagines that I criticized that novel for its “literary license” or for Levi’s portraying men and women “on a human scale.” On the contrary. Were If Not Now, When? a successful work of the imagination, no one would be so pedantic as to condemn it for its flouting of historical realities (for a discussion of the latter, see Henryk Grynberg, “Primo Levi in Poland,” the New Leader, July 1-15, 1985), any more than one would criticize Bellini’s Norma for offering an inaccurate depiction of Druid life in Roman Britain. But the novel is an artistic failure—stiffly schematic in its plot, clumsy and mechanical in its formulations, and peopled by unreal types. On top of this, it suffers as well from inauthenticity, a serious flaw since the novel, accompanied by a lengthy bibliography, is presented by its author as a work of scholarship.

Mr. Viterbi considers my critique of Primo Levi’s works both “cursory” and “premeditated.” In view of the essay’s length, if for no other reason, the former charge would seem inappropriate; as a critic, I take the latter as a compliment.

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