Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day – the day 75 years ago when the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by Soviet Red Army troops. Since the Shoah, different nations have embraced different narratives of the tragedy.
It is almost inconceivable, but true, that two of the most acclaimed Holocaust writers were imprisoned in the same Auschwitz sub-camp, Morowitz, at the same time. Same survivors claimed they occupied the same block. “There, they suffered the same unspeakable deprivations, the deadly cold, disease, hunger, and dehumanization. In that insanely polyglot place, they both learned the lifesaving lingua franca—German—and miraculously passed through selections. And even after liberation, when tens of thousands still died, they somehow endured.”
Yet, despite all their shared horrors, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi emerged with profoundly different versions of the Holocaust’s meaning and lessons.
The change in attitude toward the Holocaust came in the 1970’s and culminated in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Reconciliation, rather than retribution, became the message that Wiesel and the museum he championed brought to Americans. “Even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion,” he wrote. “I still believe in man in spite of man.”
“Could it have been otherwise? Would Oprah have interviewed a survivor who demanded the eye-for-an-eye execution of 6 million Germans? Would hundreds of thousands of American young people of all backgrounds pass through a memorial which taught “never again” as a pledge to armed resistance rather than a plea for universal love?”
The degree of celebrity achieved by Wiesel would never be attained by Primo Levi, though he was arguably the finer writer. Like Wiesel in America, he became his society’s most revered bearer of Holocaust memory. Secular, humanistic, anti-religious, nonmilitant, and post-national, Levi spoke in a language intelligible to Europeans.
“Levi belonged to a thoroughly assimilated family that thought of itself as Italian in a way that the Wiesels could never have been Romanian or Hungarian. Arrested as a partisan, he admitted he was Jewish only after concluding, naively, that it would ease his punishment. Yet he was a brilliant chemist who viewed reality through a scientist’s lens, exacting and cold, so different from the young Wiesel’s spiritual, visceral world.”
Though in Auschwitz three months longer than Weisel. Levi was spared hard labor and as a brilliant chemist was put to work in a plant seeking to create rubber in the laboratory. He also missed the death march to Buchenwald as the Red Army approached.
“Levi’s memoirs tell a story almost identical to Weisel’s. His observations, though, are radically different, as are his conclusions. Unlike Wiesel, Levi did not need a Mauriac to tenderize his prose. Tormented by the idea of killing even as a partisan, he refused to hate the Nazis.” Rather than dream of vengeance, he focused on observing, chronicling to the minutest detail, and commenting on ordinary people subjected to the most monstrous conditions. As his biographer, Carole Angier, concluded, “He did not just learn in order to survive. On the contrary; he survived in order to learn.”
If Wiesel never lost faith in humankind, Levi continued to believe in Europe, unreservedly returning to Italy after the war. Levi postulated that hyper-nationalism in pre-war Europe made the Holocaust possible – and the E.U., created to submerge hyper-nationalism, listened. Much of Europe has resisted the idea that the Holocaust was essentially a Jewish drama.
Levi was not instantly celebrated in Europe. Begun in 1946 and published 10 years later, If This Is a Man sold only 1,600 copies. It wasn’t until the ’70s that Levi was able to quit his chemistry job and devote himself to writing. ” By the time of his death, in 1987, he was recognized as Europe’s Holocaust author par excellence, traveling to schools to talk about his Auschwitz experiences and speaking out against Holocaust deniers. His list of awards was long and, had he lived, would likely have included a Nobel Prize for literature. Instead, that honor went to Kertész, another dark, rationalistic, fiercely secular Jew who returned to his home country, Hungary, after the war, and later moved to Germany.
America and Europe incorporated Wiesel and Levi into their popular narratives. But who is their counterpart in the state that emerged in part as a reaction to the Holocaust, and was founded in significant part by its survivors? Which writer speaks of Auschwitz in a voice that Israelis are willing to hear?
Who speaks of the Holocaust with an Israeli voice?
“Israelis never have embraced a Wiesel or a Levi, or their sentient messages. Night was never a major best seller in Israel, and many of Levi’s writings were not even translated into Hebrew until after his death. And for good reason.
Israelis saw the Holocaust as the inevitable outcome of 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness and Christian hate that was ended by independence and armed strength, rather than as a historical aberration to be denied recurrence by tolerance and peace. Nor do they believe that the existential threat ended with the liberation of the camps. For Israelis, it continued with enemy forces—not merely odious ideas—massed on Israel’s borders. More than a personal or human tragedy, the final solution was perceived in Israel as a national nightmare requiring a firm sovereign response.”
The main Israeli repositories of Holocaust memory are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Ghetto Fighters House Museum near Haifa.
Israel commemorates the Holocaust not today, the internationally recognized anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but on Yom Hashoah v’Gevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Day). the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“In the competition between mourning for the victims and lionizing the resisters, the latter clearly won.”