The Thaw Discussion
(Posted to this site on 09/23/2001 )
THE THAW | PRIMO LEVI
The discussion of this chapter of Primo Levi’s book is different from the discussions of the other works in the unit. This is because the chapter is only one part of a larger work, and because of the genre of writing to which it belongs. “The Thaw” is not fiction; it is autobiography, a document chronicling an episode in the life of the writer, a survivor of Auschwitz, in the months after liberation.
The Reawakening demonstrates that liberation from the camps was just the beginning of a long voyage of return that did not always lead to the desired destination. Due to an absurd turn of events, the book’s heroes, Italian war refugees, are brought to a closed camp in Soviet Russia instead of the shores of Odessa, from which they might have sailed home. The return of those who survived the journey is delayed for many months. The story ends with the arrival of the writer in his home in Turin, in October 1945, ten months after liberation. The book depicts a ruined Europe in the aftermath of war, stricken by poverty, hunger and anarchy, and thronged by refugees. At the same time it depicts the joy of victory and a sense of renewed life.
“The Thaw” bears a title that is both realistic and symbolic. On one level, it relates to the thawing snow in Auschwitz at the end of January 1945 when the camp was liberated. On another level, it symbolizes the process of being delivered from the war. However, the symbolic dimension is not idealized. The thaw was bound up with death and suffering, no less than the freeze that preceded it:
In the meantime, the thaw we had been fearing for so many days had started. and as the snow slowly disappeared, the camp began to change into a squalid bog. The bodies and the filth made the misty, muggy air impossible to breathe. Nor had death ceased to take its toll: the sick died in their cold bunks by the dozen, and here and there along the muddy roads…[page 14].
Still, the choice of this title and not “Liberation,” which seems to be warranted by the subject matter of the chapter, points to a symbolic thawing: a process of transition from war, and the horror that was Europe, to peace, and from the long winter to spring.
The chapter is constructed with care, beginning with a description of the meeting with Russian soldiers, the liberators. The opening is an exposition of the survivor’s encounter with life after the war. It focuses on the meeting of the narrator and his friend with the first Russian patrol to reach the camp. The delivery is realistic and concrete, the narrator moving back and forth from a powerful, almost mythical, description of the liberators, to a careful detailing of the completely unheroic characteristics of the situation. On the one hand: “To us they seemed wonderfully concrete and real, perched on their enormous horses, between the gray of the snow and the gray of the sky, immobile beneath the gusts of damp wind which threatened a thaw.”[Page 10] On the other hand: “It seemed to us, and so it was, that the nothing full of death in which we had wandered like spent stars for ten days had found its own solid centre, a nucleus of condensation: four men, armed, but not against us: four messengers of peace, with rough and bovish faces beneath their heavy fur hats.”[Page10]
The description of the encounter combines the narrator’s two perspectives: the first, from inside the situation itself, and the second, after considerable time has passed. The first perspective reflects immediate sensibilities, and the second, an interpretation of these feelings. The two perspectives together illustrate the encounter of the survivors and their liberators as having implications far beyond a particular time and place. Levi describes this encounter—between those who survived the hellish country of death, and representatives of the land of the living—as epitomizing the fundamental experience of the survivor, as one who remains forever identified with the death camps:
They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restrain, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage…So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency*, so that we would have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever… Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offense, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. [Page 10]
Levi’s shame and his feeling of collaboration when he faces the soldiers are familiar to him as part of his experience in the death camps, as one who is constantly exposed to humiliation, cruelty and injustice. The experience of shame, present throughout the entire chapter, and in the look Levi reads on the faces of the soldiers at liberation, turns out, from the second, later perspective, to be the fundamental difference between the oppressed and the oppressors. Levi grasps this experience of shame as an emotional wound appearing in response to the reality of the death camps, a wound that produces an endless circle of cruelty and hatred. The wound borne in the soul of the survivor and which determines his or her condition and character after the war, is based on the undermining of human values, and more than this, on the loss of strength to fight for these values. An important point in Levi’s depiction is the soul’s attrition, as though its strength were lost when faced with evil, for in the reality of the death camps one collaborated with evil. The betrayal of the self, and the blurring of the borders between oppressor and oppressed, are sources of shame, and because they are internalized they cannot be remedied. The offense becomes an eternal mark of Cain.
At the heart of the chapter is a description of the first night of liberation, which the narrator spent with Thylle, a German political prisoner, a Communist. Thylle is perceived as an enemy by the rest of the prisoners, including the narrator, both because he is German and because as a political prisoner he enjoyed more privileges than they, and abused the power he had over them.
The first night of freedom finds the narrator in a state of mental and physical collapse. Suddenly, as the horror of camp life retreats, he is flooded with a pain that until then had no place to lodge: “The pain of exile, of my distant home, of loneliness, of friends lost, of youth lost and of the host of corpses all around.” [Page 12] This pain, which prevents him from sleeping, allows him to encounter Thylle, who is apparently in the same condition. In an ironic and thoroughly human way, characteristic of Primo Levi, the two prisoners, strangers, enemies even, the Jew and the German, make confessions to each other on the night which is so significant to both of them. The fact that the barrier of silence and loneliness is breached between Levi and Thylle, of all people, is not depicted as a simple fact. Even so, it represents the exceptional human encounters and transgressions that Primo Levi often describes. Encounters of this kind summon the period following the war, and Primo Levi, attentive to human behavior, does not miss them.
The chapter ends with the total physical breakdown of the narrator, and his evacuation, along with the other sick prisoners, to a large camp, to receive medical treatment. Despite his illness, his glance follows and examines the camp he is leaving, with the sharp awareness that he is passing a threshold whose symbol is the gate:
While the slow steps of Yankel’s horses drew me towards remote liberty, for the last time there filed before my eyes the huts where I had suffered and matured, the roll-call square where the gallows and the gigantic Christmas tree still towered side by side, and the gate to slavery, on which one could still read the three, now hollow, words of derision: “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Gives Freedom.”[Page 14]
There is a reason that the chater ends with the shame bound up with the gate of deception. It is a shame borne beyond the gate.
Discussion and Study Questions
1. Why is this chapter called “The Thaw”? What does the title symbolize?
2. What is the focus of the shame described by Primo Levi?
3. After reading this story, what further significance does the term “liberation” take on?