I’m working on a writing project which requires me to become more educated with the events and history of the Second World War.The life of my mother and father, teenagers during the war, and one of my best friends, a child of the 1938 Kinder-transport to England and Ireland, have been a backdrop to my own life. As I discover more about their lives I have become deeply interested in the cultural, historic and political drivers of those times. I am also interested in the every day lives of people and how lives were shaped against the backdrop of such cataclysmic, global horror.
My husband Dave recommended Primo Levi’s book Survival in Auschwitz. It’s fair to say that many books push me towards a nice dull slumber when I read before sleep, this one, however, did not and I lay awake thinking into the dark of the night while reading it.
The story is about Primo Levi, a twenty-five year old Italian chemist who was captured by Italian Fascists and deported from Turin to Auschwitz. Anyone who has taken a history class or knows anything about the Second World War, of course, knows that 6 million Jews were killed in camps during the war. It’s when you read the autobiography of someone to whom this has happened that the brutality of this war drives home deeper and further into the darker corners of your heart.
From being moved to the work camp in Northern Italy to the arrival of the cargo trains where Levi and thousands of others were transported like cattle to Auschwitz, the reader is taken step by step on Primo’s journey of dehumanization.
Upon arrival they were stripped of their clothing, their heads shaved, rags handed to them, and families forever separated. The back breaking senseless work they were forced to do, the bone chilling cold and starvation rations ended millions of people’s lives and divided the camps between those who were willing to survive at any cost.
Primo talks about the promise that many people of his city (Turin) made upon their arrival at the camp to continue to try and meet to uphold morale. This ended after only weeks as few survived the backbreaking conditions or the ‘selections’ to extermination camps.
Primo survives the war and as he points out, the mystery to his survival included a great deal of luck and the kindness of a stranger who helped to augment his rations.
This is a dark, very well written story. When I look around at these uncertain times – thousands of displaced refugees, the desire to build walls, hatred and suspicion of anyone different, deeply institutionalized racism, I think to myself, wow, let’s all read history. Let’s soak it up. Let’s never, ever forget where this leads us.