If you are considering a foray into the literature surrounding the Holocaust, I urge you to begin with Primo Levi. His Complete Works are available in three volumes, but one couldn’t do much better than to start with his last work, The Drowned and the Saved. It is magnificent and it utterly changed me in ways I can’t begin to describe. This recommendation is in my mind because yesterday I transcribed my notes from the third and final volume of Levi’s Complete Works.
The first thing I will say is that when I closed the book and put it back on the shelf I felt a certain sorrow. I can’t help but feel an affinity with Levi—not necessarily for what he experienced, but for how he experienced it. His humility, his endurance, his lightness, his persistence and the survival of his humanity in the aftermath of such great and incomprehensible chaos. Putting his works back on the shelf felt like watching a good friend wave out the window as the train draws him into the distance. I smile while the sadness closes in.
Second, I came across a passage that halted me—more so, I think, than most in Levi’s work. It is from The Drowned and the Saved and it begins with the words, “To illustrate how desperate an undertaking an escape was, but for other reasons as well, I would like to recall the feat of Mala Zimetbaum; in fact, I would like it to remain etched in our memories.” I include it here because I also, like Levi, would like it to be recalled and not forgotten—at least, not yet. Here is the rest, about which I will abstain from further comment.
“The story of Mala’s escape from the women’s Lager of Auschwitz-Birkenau has been told by several people, but the details coincide. Mala was a young Polish Jew who had been captured in Belgium. She was fluent in many languages, so at Birkenau she served as an interpreter and a messenger, which gave her a certain freedom of movement. Generous and courageous, she had helped many fellow prisoners and was loved by all. In the summer of 1944 she decided to escape with Edek, a Polish political prisoner. They wanted to do more than regain their freedom: they wanted to document to the world the massacres that were taking place every day at Birkenau. They managed to bribe an SS officer and get hold of two uniforms. They left in disguise and got as far as the Slovak border, where they were stopped by customs agents on suspicion of being deserters, and handed over to the police. They were immediately identified and sent back to Birkenau. Edek was hanged right away, but he did not want to wait until, according to the inexorable protocol of the camp, the sentence was read. He slipped his head inside the noose and stepped off the stool.
Mala had also resolved to die her own death. While she waited in the cell to be interrogated, one of her prisoner mates managed to get close and ask, “How is it going, Mala?” She replied, “For me it’s always fine.” Mala had managed to hide a razor blade on her person. At the foot of the scaffold she slit the arteries of one wrist. The SS officer acting as the executioner tried to grab the blade, and Mala, in front of all the women of the camp, slapped her bloody hand across his face. Other soldiers immediately came running in a rage: a prisoner, a Jew, a woman, had dared to defy them! They beat her nearly to death. Luckily for her, she died on the cart taking her to the crematorium.”