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Justice in Auschwitz: A reading of Primo Levi

By Meira Ben-Gad

(This piece was originally published in Kol HaKehilah, the Kol Nefesh Masorti magazine, in September 2015)

Anyone who has translated from Hebrew to English knows that there are often a multitude of possible English meanings for a given Hebrew word. Biblical Hebrew is particularly parsimonious, leaving the meaning of many passages open to a range of interpretations marked by varying degrees of overlap. But every once in a while the opposite occurs, and what we think of as a good, solid, functional English word turns out to have multiple possible meanings in Hebrew. One such word is justice.

When Rabbi Joel Levy announced the theme for this year’s Yamim Noraim [“Justice”], I assumed that what he had in mind was ‘tzedek’, as in tzedek tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20). What follows is something of an oversimplification, but tzedek in the Bible generally seems to mean justice in the sense of righteousness, doing good in the world: justice as a moral imperative, but in a lofty kind of way, divorced from any troubling specifics. But then Simon Gordon, who first suggested the theme, happened to mention that he had in mind something else entirely, namely ‘mishpat’. Mishpat can also be translated as justice, but it seems generally to mean a grounded justice – justice as it relates to the law and its application in concrete cases. These two concepts, mishpat and tzedek, usually dwell in concord, but they can sometimes take us in strange directions – a fact of which observers of contemporary history and politics are well aware. For instance, most of us probably agree that socialism, for all its faults, aims to establish tzedek in the world. Unfortunately, establishing this presumed tzedek requires all sorts of contortions in the world of mishpat. Attempts to achieve justice in the absolute sense, it seems, sometimes require a series of concrete actions that are neither fair nor just. Truly a conundrum.    

The Bible enjoins us to seek both kinds of justice, but in full recognition of the difference – and the potential for divergence – between them. Go back to Deuteronomy 16:20 (tzedek tzedek tirdof), but now look at the two verses preceding it. In my translation: ‘You shall appoint magistrates [shofetim] and enforcers of the law [shotrim] … and they shall govern [v’shaftu] the people with a law based on justice [mishpat-tzedek]. You shall not distort the application of justice [lo tatu mishpat]… you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and make the words of those who are in the right [tzadikim] seem false. Justice, justice shall you pursue [tzedek tzedek tirdof], that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.’ There is some overlap between the two semantic fields; a tzadik in this text is not a righteous person, but a person who is in the right in some particular case – a very different thing! Nonetheless, I think the broad distinction holds.

More particularly, the phrase mishpat-tzedek (hyphenated in the original), which I have translated as ‘a law based on justice’, holds latent the possibility of a law that is not based on justice – or at least not on Godly or ideal justice, Justice with a capital J. With this in mind, I’d like to consider a couple of passages from the works of Primo Levi.

Levi, unlucky enough to be born a Jew in Europe in 1919, nonetheless had the good fortune to have been born in Turin, Italy – a country that, notwithstanding its formal alliance with Nazi Germany and its own Fascism, did not actually ship its Jews off to the slaughterhouse until the Germans occupied northern and central Italy in the autumn of 1943. Levi managed to earn a good degree in chemistry in 1941 and was even able to find work as a chemist afterwards, despite Italy’s racial laws. When the Germans marched into Italy Levi helped form a partisan group, but he was quickly captured and was sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. This timing (less than a year before the liberation), combined with the fact that Levi was recognized as a chemist and assigned to indoor work in the IG Farben chemical plant during the winter of 1944-1945, enabled him to survive the war. He was one of only twenty Italian Jews out of the 650 in his transport who lived to return home.

Levi’s writings on the Holocaust are among the most searing in print. Yet what grips the reader is not the experiences he recounts, but the “profoundly civilized” (Philip Roth)  way in which he probes the workings of the human mind that were laid bare by Auschwitz. Levi’s response to Auschwitz was, above all, a desire to know, to understand – the same motivation that propelled him and his friend Enrico, aged 16, to sneak into a chemistry lab installed by Enrico’s brother, an episode recounted in the chapter called ‘Hydrogen’ in his collection of essays-cum-memoir, The Periodic Table. What he wanted was to ‘dredge the bowels of the mystery’ – to uncover ‘the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world’. Before Auschwitz, he sought to do this through chemistry. After Auschwitz, he sought it through writing.

The passage below is from Levi’s first book, If This is a Man (also published under the name Survival in Auschwitz). Buna  refers to the Buna/Monowitz subcamp of Auschwitz, which housed the IG Farben plant.

In conclusion: theft in Buna, punished by the civil direction, is authorized and encouraged by the SS; theft in camp, severely repressed by the SS, is considered by the civilians as a normal exchange operation; theft among Häftlinge [prisoners] is generally punished, but the punishment strikes the thief and the victim with equal gravity. We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’; let everybody judge…how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.

—Primo Levi, If This is a Man, Chapter 8: ‘This Side of Good and Evil’ 

This passage closes a chapter in which Levi describes the bizarre, almost parodic simulacrum of a working market economy that emerged within the camps, where the chance to exchange some stolen item (say, a broom or some nails) for tobacco, or tobacco for bread, or bread for a spoon (needed to eat the watery soup that was the prisoners’ main sustenance) could mean an extra day of life. Levi describes the mechanics of this process with ironic detachment – but what interests him most is how the conditions of the camps gave rise to new moral categories among the people involved, whether members of the SS, the civilians who propped up the camp apparatus, or the prisoners themselves. And the question he invites us to contemplate is a real one. Levi himself remained a moral being in Auschwitz, but he benefited from his assignment to the chemical laboratory in the Buna plant: he was given extra rations by a civilian worker, and while he traded materials stolen from the plant for food, his thefts never harmed any other prisoner. For many, in contrast, survival was a zero-sum game. Food consumed by one prisoner was food that could not be consumed by another; and if your neighbour was sure to die anyway, why not take his bowl or spoon or shirt and trade it for something that might keep you alive another day? In such an environment, stripped of even the glimmer of a notion of tzedek, men must create their own mishpat. Is it fair to demand that this mishpat aspire to some ideal concept of justice? And how should those who lived by it be judged?

The second passage I’d like to share comes from The Periodic Table, from the chapter ‘Vanadium’, and relates to a period in the 1960s when Levi held a senior position in an Italian paint factory. His work brought him in frequent contact with German counterparts at companies with which the Italian firm did business, and Levi recognized one of these Germans as a civilian inspector of the Buna plant (the inspector is given the pseudonym Doktor Lothar Müller in the book). Levi initiates a correspondence with the German, but on receiving a letter back, he is uncertain about how to respond:

What to do? The Müller character…had come out of his chrysalis, he was sharply defined, in perfect focus. Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically grey human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind. He did me an undeserved honour in attributing to me the virtue of loving my enemies… I did not love him, and I didn’t want to see him, and yet I felt a certain measure of respect for him: it is not easy to be one-eyed. He was not cowardly, or deaf, or a cynic, he had not conformed, he was trying to settle his accounts with the past and they didn’t tally: he tried to make them tally, perhaps by cheating a little bit. Could one ask much more from [such a man]?

—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, ‘Vanadium’

This Doktor Müller comes seeking forgiveness. Levi is not prepared to give him that. But he seems not to be interested in justice either. At least, he appears not to feel the need to subject Müller to any sort of mishpat. Rather, he seems to be working his way towards some notion of tzedek that enjoins us to sometimes forego mishpat. To put it clearly: Müller certainly is guilty, but what he is guilty of appears to be little more than being human.

I hope these musings are thought-provoking and, more important, that they encourage everyone who has not yet encountered Primo Levi to head to their nearest bookshop now.

Meira Ben-Gad is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue

Posted on 14 April 2020