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Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi
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Moments of Reprieve (1978)

by Primo Levi

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Primo Levi has written extensively about the Holocaust and his experiences in Auschwitz; If this is a man, The True, If not now, when?, The Wrench, The Drowned & The Saved.. But this is the first book I've come across of his in all my reading life. I first read briefly about Primo Levi not long ago in Bob Carr's "My Reading Life", but was prompted to seek Levi out after a conversation with Shellie(Layers of Thought) on GR. Shellie being the first person I had spoken to who had read and recommended Levi to me. Moments of Reprieve was the only book of Levi's my college library held - so I borrowed it. The local library did not stock any.

Compared to other Holocaust books and memoirs I've read Moments of Reprieve does not shock me overly, perhaps because of previous exposure to similar material (although I hope that is not the case because that can breed apathy) - but I think perhaps because Levi's focus is primarily on individuals that he knew or knew of, in Auschwitz. Individuals who despite their collective circumstances at finding themselves in a concentration camp were still able to behave like decent human beings - with compassion and virtue.

The moments that Levi writes about here are not so terribly tragic (and he says that in the introduction)- those more sinister events he wrote about in earlier books. These moments are vignettes, small scenes, like dreams, although precisely clear and lucid. Fully fleshed out and filled with details, but still minor incidents captured like short films -moments in Levi's memories that stand out above the greater picture of horror that was Auschwitz; & that which was the Holocaust - that unspeakable evil that must be spoken about and remembered. Small snapshots of selflessness - these are what Primo documents; images that haunted him after the trauma. He writes about the people he met there who for one reason or another made a difference in the camps by their actions & kindness, so that life was bearable.

To bear witness, is a Jewish form of Remembrance of the Holocaust & for the memory of those lost in it. Moments Of Reprieve I believe was Primo's way of bearing witness for those individuals that he perhaps did not mention in earlier books.

It is said that Levi committed suicide in 1987 and had survivor's guilt and the latter may well be true. Trauma of any kind can haunt the human mind forever. Trauma of the camps, the unexplained horror, the loss of friends, family, home, society & even country: basically everything previously known was lost, the idea of it is of such magnitude as to be mind shattering. Even the loss of a loved one under most normal circumstances can be impossible for many people to recover from, so I personally cannot imagine how many of the survivor's mentally adjusted after the camps, even though I did grow up next door to a neighbour who was a survivor; Irma, it did take her many years to seemingly fully re-enter society again. One thing I know I will never forget the sight of the tattooed number on her arm. It's one thing to see photographs. It's another to be faced with reality.

Survivors, like Irma, and like Primo would have memories surface - the horror stricken and also the small mercies that are documented within this book. Memories are difficult things to control. You can turn them off. Shut them down. Freud called it repression. You disassociate. Many do this to survive. Primo faced them and wrote about his experiences. The trouble is with keeping the tap open you run the risk of being overwhelmed. Drowning you in the dark thoughts of memory, repeatedly.

While I'm no expert and postulate with little real evidence, it seems possible that Primo found it impossible to hold back the memories. This slim volume is a testament to Levi's belief in the rightness of virtue and that humans do have the capacity for goodness and purity even in the direst of circumstances, despite Levi himself saying that this was the exception not the rule in the camps.

The fates of many of the people in this book remains unknown. Sadly he didn't know everyone's real name, so he could not trace them to assuage his fears for them. Writing these stories would have seemed the decent thing to do, in fact the only remaining thing to do where there are no remains to be found - to bless, pray or cry over. These people had no funerals, and there were no rituals of closure for those remaining. Valerio, Leon Rappoport, Eddy, Tischler, Lilith, Bandi, Lomnitz, Joulty, Hirsch, Janek, Elias, Wolf, Grigo, Vladek, Otton, Ezra, Frau Mayer, Alberto, Mertens, Fraulein Dreschsel, Avrom, Joel Konig, Cesare, Lorenzo, and Chaim Rumkowski whose face appears on a coin from Litzmannstadt ghetto. I mention their names because I could not do justice to their individual stories. For that read Primo's book.

I will mention Rumkowski, the last story in the book. Rumkowski's story is a warning to us all - he was not a "bad" man, not a Nazi, but a Jew. He was subject to the pitfalls of power & seduced by it. He was not a "MONSTER" but intoxicated by Nazi promises, and sent many to their death by co-operation in running the ghetto in Litzmannstadt.

Primo writes; Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money, as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the Lords of Death, and not far away the train is waiting.

That's a frighteningly sobering thought and one that should make one assess what side of the fence you are on at any given point in your life. While no one want to be on that death train, no one should morally want to be one of the lords who is in charge of the selection. Unlike Rumkowski we should be ever alert to how our actions effect other people.








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Library borrow. (the edition I have has a different cover image).

I have 24 hrs reprieve to finish this before really getting stuck into writing my end of term assignment. Lucky it's not a big book. ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Primo Levi returns to some of his old characters, describing his experience of each of them in the same intriguing style employed in "If This Is A Man" et al. The tone of the book seems more hopeful and less despairing than his other Auschwitz memoirs. An essential read for anyone who has read Levi's more famous works. ( )
  pokarekareana | Oct 24, 2010 |
This book elaborates on some characters that were mentioned in other books and first mentions others that didn't fit into some of his longer works like If This is a Man and The Truce. I would recommend this, The Periodic Table, and The Drowned and the Saved after reading those two books. ( )
  mallinje | Aug 23, 2010 |
My first completed read of the year, Moments of Reprieve, aptly described in its missive as a discovery of 'bizarre, marginal, moments of reprieve' charts the stories of a myriad variety of people, mostly Jews who Primo Levi had come across during his stay at Auschwitz. Among many others, a juggler, an almost mute worker, a mirror chemist, a helpful SS officer, are all bound in a conflict, both that ravaged their internal beings as well as the external world they inhabited in times where sense failed. Primo Levi, like what he is well known for in his holocaust works, tells the tales of harrowing times in quiet, unaffected prose, and thus sharing an intimate experience with the reader than just a book. ( )
  Linus_Linus | Jul 6, 2008 |
A collection of stories centering on life and death in Auschwitz during World War II. The 15 stories each focus on a different character, a protagonist who, behind barbed wire, somehow survives, even if the virtue that allows him to survive is not always one approved of by common morality.
  antimuzak | Nov 13, 2005 |
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'Moments of reprieve' contains only the autobiographical stories from 'Lilít e altri racconti'.
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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