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If This Is a Man; The Truce by Primo Levi

If This Is a Man; The Truce (1947)

by Primo Levi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,856256,232 (4.46)150
With the moral stamina and intellectual pose of a twentieth-century Titan, this slightly built, duitful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contempible. What has survived in Levi's writing isn't just his memory of the unbearable, but also, in THE PERIODIC TABLE and THE WRENCH, his delight in what made the world exquisite to him. He was himself a "magically endearing man, the most delicately forceful enchanter I've ever known" - PHILIP ROTH… (more)
Recently added bydunne.howrie, Henkh, RajLT, Morse222, DimitriosTsotos, private library, casagrecchi, MLHart, EmBot
Legacy LibrariesGillian Rose
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    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (hazzabamboo)
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    Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (WendyRobyn)
    WendyRobyn: Both personal accounts by Holocaust survivors. I feel the tone is similar. Frankl's book goes on to explore psychological implications of his experiences.
  3. 00
    The Complete Works of Primo Levi by Primo Levi (jigarpatel)
    jigarpatel: Ann Goldstein's translation of "The Truce" in The Complete Works is arguably more readable. Of course, in addition, you will have access to all of Levi's writings in this volume.
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» See also 150 mentions

English (22)  Italian (3)  All languages (25)
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I have read what is probably the most famous memoir from a survivor. If This is a Man is, however, rather different from other such memoirs I have read, as its theme is not so much the detail of his lived experiences, or particular atrocities (though these are of course covered), but what Auschwitz and the Holocaust represented - in the author's words, "the demolition of man": "Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself."; and "if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen." Notwithstanding these bleak quotes, I did not find this memoir bleak, as throughout his year at Auschwitz, Levi survives by never losing an ultimate belief in human dignity and hope, though, paradoxically, "our wisdom lay in ‘not trying to understand’, not imagining the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would all be over; not asking others or ourselves any questions." The book ends with the Nazi abandonment of Auschwitz and the notorious death march (which Levi avoided only by virtue of being ill with scarlet fever at the time) culminating, after a ten day period of further struggling with the forces of cold, hunger and disease, with the Red Army liberating the camp on 27 January 1945.

My edition was paired with its sequel the somewhat longer The Truce, which details the author's lengthy enforced peregrinations across eastern and central Europe to eventually get home well into the autumn of 1945. This is less immediately memorable as a read, but does contain descriptions of the many colourful characters of different nationalities with whom he makes his itinerant life. Finally, the book ends with the author providing lengthy answers to some of the most common questions he was asked in the post-war period by audiences to whom he spoke about his books and his experiences, to ensure the events of the Holocaust remained alive in the minds of succeeding generations as: "Strong though the words of If This is a Man are, they are still weak before the will to deny or forget." ( )
  john257hopper | Feb 1, 2020 |
If This Is a Man

If This Is a Man is a memoir by an Italian Jew betrayed, arrested and imprisoned for a year in an Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. It is on par with Solzhenitsyn in its rawness, but lacks the invectiveness found in the Russian's works. We find accounts of the camp hierarchy, comprising criminals, politicals and Jews; the juxtaposition of cultures and languages; the "relief" of suffering just the right kind of malady; a market economy whose currency is bread rations; trade in goods obtained by means ingenious or nefarious; the dehumanising treatment of a group plagued by cold, hunger and sickness; and the horrors of an arbitrary "selection". Precious acts of kindness are highlighted as vestiges of humanity. A chemist by trade, one of Levi's few respites was working in a synthetic rubber factory, an initiative which, characteristic of output from slave labour, never reached fruition.

Stuart Woolf's translation is likely true to the original as it was made under Levi's close supervision, but it is clunky and requires patience. There is little philosophy, the prose is factual and measured. Without fail, read "The Author's Answers to His Readers' Questions", where Levi describes his motivations and post-Auschwitz life, as well as a short history of anti-Semitism. Most interesting is Levi's explanation of why hatred of the Jews has been so constant throughout history (animalistic mistrust of difference untempered by positive societal influences), and why If This Is a Man barely mentions or criticizes the German oppressors (intentional absence of contact with officialdom; lack of transparency to the German population on what happened inside camps).

Recommended by Jared Diamond in a podcast, the sole reason I found this gem.

The Truce

The Truce charts Levi's circuitous journey with around 1,400 other prisoners from Auschwitz to Turin. The novel begins where If This Is a Man ends, with the sick left to die and healthy taken on a death march away from the Russians. When they are finally found by the Russians, they are given basic assistance and eventually led on a route through Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany and Austria, before finally reaching the Italian border at Brenner. Apart from the death toll in Auschwitz, the frail condition of the survivors together with the gruelling nature of the return trip meant that, of the 650 Italian Jews who were taken with Levi to Auschwitz only 3 returned home.

The account focuses on the scale and helplessness of displaced peoples across Eastern Europe after the German collapse. There is precious little organisation: provisions are unreliable and the travellers are often left to their own resources for fuel and water. Language barriers abound: local Russians cannot abide the non-Russian speaking ex-prisoners. There are also some lighter moments of theatre and film when encamped. An unstable environment breeds unlikely friendships, such as Levi's one with the Greek who has the knack of making a market in anything from shirts to people.

Characters from all sides are brought to life. Many, especially in the earlier chapters, are psychologically scarred, as they are unable to believe or appreciate the war is over. Several incidents in the later chapters are memorable. A disillusioned group abandons the train to hitchhike their way to an intermediary camp. Half a dozen plates are exchanged for a chicken in a desperate search for nutritious food. An enterprising Italian sells a bronze ring as gold to a local peasant just before the train departs a station.

I found Ann Goldstein's translation, found in The Complete Works of Primo Levi (2015), more readable than Stuart Woolf's translation of If This Is a Man. However, while worthwhile reading, The Truce for me does not have the same emotional draw as If This Is a Man. ( )
  jigarpatel | May 27, 2019 |
(If This Is a Man, United States title: Survival in Auschwitz). [#57 Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Monde%27s_100_Books_of_the_Century ]
If This is a Man is the first of Primo Levi’s three Holocaust memoirs, written almost as soon as he returned home after the war, describes his time in Auschwitz. The Truce, written over a decade later, describes the odyssey between leaving Auschwitz and returning to Turin. Three decades after that, and shortly before he died, Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, a polemic in which he took on the myths that had gathered around the Holocaust in his lifetime. ( )
  MasseyLibrary | Apr 5, 2019 |
Surprisingly there is a lot of humour in The Truce, which helps the book to end on a more hopeful note after the horror of If This is a Man. Everyone should read this. ( )
  LuxVestra | Aug 28, 2018 |
My first real understanding of the scale of the horror of Wolrd War II, and the depth of the horror of the camps.
  joannajuki | Aug 1, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Primo Leviprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bailey, PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bench, CarolineCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chagall, MarcCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Woolf, StuartTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,

Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
First words
I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943. (If This Is a Man)
In the first days of January 1945, hard pressed by the Red Army, the Germans hastily evacuated the Silesian mining region. (The Truce)
The danger, as time goes by, is that we will tire of hearing about the Holocaust, grow not only weary but disbelieving, and that out of fatigue and ignorance more than cynicism, we will belittle and by stages finally deny - actively or by default - the horror of the extermination camps and the witness, by then so many fading memories, of those who experienced them. (Introduction)
It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals. (Preface)
Someone a long time ago wrote that books too, like human beings, have their destiny: unpredictable, different from what is desired and expected. (Postscript)
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Disambiguation notice
Includes two works: If This Is a Man (US: Survival in Auschwitz) and The Truce (US: The Reawakening).
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Testimonianza sconvolgente sull'inferno dei Lager, libro della dignità e dell'abiezione dell'uomo di fronte allo sterminio di massa, "Se questo è un uomo" è un capolavoro letterario di una misura, di una compostezza già classiche. Levi, ne "La tregua", ha voluto raccontare anche il lungo viaggio di ritorno attraverso l'Europa dai campi di sterminio: una narrazione che contempera il senso di una libertà ritrovata con i segni lasciati dagli orrori sofferti.
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