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The Thaw

(Posted to this site on 09/23/2001 )

THE THAW | PRIMO LEVI

Primo Levi was born in Torino, Italy, in 1919 to a Jewish family. In 1941 he completed his chemistry studies at the local university. When the Germans invaded Italy in 1943, he joined a group of partisans. He was captured by Italian fascists, and when he was found to be Jewish, he was deported to the Monowitz-Auschwitz camp, where he remained until January 1945. It was thanks to his work as a chemist that he avoided an almost certain death. When he returned home, he wrote a concentration camp diary of sorts, which was published in 1947 under the name “If This is a Man”, which became a classic of Holocaust literature. He continued writing and publishing until his death by suicide in 1987, in Torino. Primo Levi is one of the most important writers of the age.

In the first days of January 1945, hard pressed by the Red Army, the Germans hastily evacuated the Silesian mining region. But whereas elsewhere, in analogous conditions, they had not hesitated to destroy the Lagers and their inhabitants by fire or arms, they acted differently in the district of Auschwitz: superior orders had been received (given personally, it would seem, by Hitler) to recover at all costs every man fit for work. Thus all healthy prisoners were evacuated, in frightful conditions, in the direction of Buchenwald and Mauthausen, while the sick were abandoned to their fate. One can legitimately deduce from the evidence that originally the Germans did not intend to leave even one man alive in the concentration camps; but a fierce night air raid and the rapidity of the Russian advance induced them to change their minds and flee, leaving their task unfinished.

In the sick bay of the Lager at Buna-Monowitz eight hundred of us remained. Of these about five hundred died from illness, cold and hunger before the Russians arrived, and another two hundred succumbed in the following days, despite the Russians’ aid.

The first Russian patrol came in sight of the camp about midday on 27th January 1945. Charles and I were the first to see them: we were carrying Simony’s body to the common grave, the first of our roommates to die. We tipped the stretcher on to the defiled snow, as the pit was now full, and no other grave was at hand: Charles took off his beret as a salute to both the living and the dead.

They were four young soldiers on horseback, who advanced along the road that marked the limits of the camp, cautiously holding their sten-guns. When they reached the barbed wire, they stopped to look, exchanging a few timid words, and throwing strangely embarrassed glances at the sprawling bodies, at the battered huts, and at us few still alive.

To us they seemed wonderfully concrete and real, perched on their enormous horses, between the grey of the snow and the grey of the sky, immobile beneath the gusts of damp wind which threatened a thaw.

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 boyish faces beneath their heavy fur hats.

They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we know so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defense.

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 should 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 for ever, and in the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred, and in the stories that we should tell of it. 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 offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. it is an inexhaustible fount of evil; it breaks the body and the spirit of the submerged, it stifles them and renders them abject; it returns as ignominy upon the oppressors, it perpetuates itself as hatred among the survivors, and swarms around in a thousand ways, against the very will of all, as a thirst for revenge, as a moral capitulation, as denial, as weariness, as renunciation.

These things, at that time blurred, and felt by most as no more than an unexpected attack of mortal fatigue, accompanied the joy of liberation for us. This is why few among us ran to greet our saviours, few fell in prayer. Charles and I remained standing beside pit overflowing with discoloured limbs, while others knocked down the barbed wire; we returned with the empty stretcher to break the news to our companions.

For the rest of the day nothing happened; this did not surprise us, and we had been accustomed to it. In our room the dead Sómogyi’s bunk was immediately occupied by old Thylle, to the visible disgust of my two French companions.

Thylle, so far as I then knew, was a ‘red triangle’, a German political prisoner, one of the old inhabitants of the Lager; as such, he had belonged by right to aristocracy of the camp, he had not worked manually (at least in the last years), he had received food and clothes from home. For these reasons the German political were rarely inmates of the sick bay, where however they enjoyed various privileges the first of them that of escaping from the selections. As Thylle was the only political prisoner at the moment of liberation, the S.S. in flight had appointed him head Block 20, where, besides our room of highly infectious patients, there were also T.B. and dysentery wards.

Being a German, he had taken this precarious appointment very seriously. In ten days between the departure of the S.S. and the arrival of the Russians, ~ everyone was fighting his last battle against hunger, cold and disease, Thylle carried out diligent inspections of his new fief, checking the state of the floors and bowls and the number of blankets (one for each inmate, alive or dead). On one o visits to our room he had even praised Arthur for the order and cleanliness he k Arthur, who did not understand German, and even less the Saxon dialect of Thylle, had replied ‘vieux dégoutant’ and ‘putain de boch’; nevertheless, Thylle, from day on, in open abuse of his authority, had acquired the habit of coming into room every evening to use the comfortable latrine-bucket installed there, the only regularly cleaned in the whole camp, and the only one near a stove.

Thus, up to that day old Thylle had been a foreigner to me, and therefore an enemy—a powerful person, moreover, and therefore a dangerous enemy. For people like myself, that is to say for the majority of the Lager, there were no other distinctions: during the whole interminable year spent in the Lager, I had never had either the curiosity or the occasion to investigate the complex structure of the hierarchy of the camp. The gloomy edifice of vicious powers lay wholly above us, and our looks were turned to the ground. Yet this Thylle, an old combatant hardened by a hundred struggles both for and within his party, and petrified by ten years of ferocious and ambiguous life within the Lager, was the companion and confidant of my first night of liberation.

For the whole day we had been too busy to remark upon the event, which we still felt marked the crucial point of our entire existence; and perhaps, unconsciously, we had sought something to do precisely to avoid spare time, because face to face with liberty we felt ourselves lost, emptied, atrophied, unfit for our part.

But night came, and our sick companions fell asleep. Charles and Arthur also dropped into the sleep of innocence, because they had been in the Lager for one month only, and had not yet absorbed its poison. I alone, although exhausted, could not fall asleep because of my very tiredness and illness. All my limbs ached, my blood throbbed violently in my head, and I felt myself overwhelmed by fever. But it was not this alone; in the very hour in which every threat seemed to vanish, in which a hope of a return to life ceased to be crazy, I was overcome-as if a dyke had crumbled-by a new and greater pain, previously buried and relegated to the margins of my consciousness by other more immediate pains: the pain of exile, of my distant home, of loneliness, of friends lost, of youth lost, and of the host of corpses all around.

In my year at Buna I had seen four-fifths of my companions disappear, but I had never faced the concrete presence, the blockade, of death, its sordid breath a step away, outside the window, in the bunk next to me, in my own veins. Thus I lay in a sickly state of semi-consciousness, full of gloomy thoughts.

But very soon I realized that someone else was awake. The heavy breathing of the sleepers was drowned at intervals by a hoarse and irregular panting, interrupted by coughs and groans and stifled sighs. Thylle was weeping, with the difficult and shameless tears of an old man, as intolerable as senile nudity. Perhaps he saw me move in the dark; and the solitude, which up to that day we had both sought for different reasons, must have weighed upon him as much as upon me, because in the middle of e night he asked me ‘are you awake?’ and, not waiting for a reply, toiled up to my ink, and, without asking permission, sat beside me.

It was not easy to understand each other; not only because of linguistic difficulties, it also because the thoughts that weighed upon us in that night were immense, marvelous and terrible, but above all confused. I told him that I was suffering from nostalgia; and he exclaimed, after he had stopped crying, ‘ten years, ten years’; and after ten years of silence, in a low stridulous voice, grotesque and solemn at the same time, he began to sing the Internationale, leaving me perturbed, diffident and moved.

The morning brought us the first signs of liberty. Some twenty Polish men and )men, clearly summoned by the Russians, arrived and with little enthusiasm began fumble around, attempting to bring some order and cleanliness into the huts and to clear away the bodies. About midday a frightened child appeared, dragging a cow by a halter; he made us understand that it was for us, that the Russians had sent it, then abandoned the beast and fled like a bolt. I don’t know how, but within a few minutes the poor animal was slaughtered, gutted and quartered, and its remains distributed to all the corners of the camp where survivors nestled.

During the following days, we saw more Polish girls wander around the camp, pale with disgust and pity: they cleaned the patients and tended to their sores as best they could. They also lit an enormous fire in the middle of the camp, which they fed with inks from broken-down huts, and on which they cooked soup in whatever pots me to hand. Finally, on the third day, we saw a cart enter the camp led joyfully by Yankel, a Häftling*: he was a young Russian Jew, perhaps the only Russian among the survivors, and as such he naturally found himself acting as interpreter and liaison officer with the Soviet H.Q. Between resounding cracks of his whip, he announced it he had the task of carrying all the survivors, in small groups of thirty or forty a y, beginning with the most seriously ill, to the central Lager of Auschwitz, now transformed into a gigantic lazaret.

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, as if suddenly struck down, died the greediest of the survivors, those who had followed blindly the imperious command of our age-old hunger and had stuffed themselves with the rations of meat the Russians, still engaged in fighting, sent irregularly to the camp: sometimes little, sometimes nothing, sometimes in crazy abundance.

But I was aware of what was going on around me in only a disconnected and hazy manner. It seemed as if the weariness and the illness, like ferocious and cowardly beasts, had waited in ambush for the moment when I dismantled my defences, in order to attack me from behind. I lay in a feverish torpor, semi-conscious, tended fraternally by Charles, and tormented by thirst and acute pains in my joints. There were no doctors or drugs. I also had a sore throat, and half my face had swollen; my skin had become red and rough and hurt me like a burn; perhaps I was suffering from more than one illness at the same time. When it was my turn to climb on to Yankel’s cart, I was no longer able to stand on my feet.

I was hoisted on to the cart by Charles and Arthur, together with a load of dying men, from whom I did not feel very different. It was drizzling, and the sky was low and gloomy. 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’.


*concentration-camp internee