Sunday, June 1, 2008

Primo Levi:Giving Life Context and Meaning

"If I am not for myself,who will be for me?If I am for myself alone,what am I?If not now,when?" (Saying of the Fathers)- a passage by Rabbi Hillel, the line " If not now,when?" become the title for a Primo Levi's book.

To have a home.A dream I have nurtured since a little girl.I look back like watching a film,how we had to move and the struggle my parents endured.My father was a chemical and textile engineer. He himself had wished to study Medicine.As both his brothers,one becoming a lawyer and the other one an architect,my father was given the reins of the family manufacturing business, Starzycka Manufaktura.He studied in Lodz ,Berlin and Verviers in Belgium.Just before the war broke out,his wife Halina went for a vacation to the French Riviera,and then Paris where she remained for good.His parents had relocated to Berlin before the war and I was never able to find out what happened to my grandmother.Most likely she was murdered by the Nazi.My father resisted leaving Poland and guarding the families assets,end up being arrested by the invading Russians.
After being released from Siberia,he returned to Poland,but could not retrieve his properties as the Communists had taken over,although his school friend was the economist Oskar Lange.
(Born 1904 near Lodz, Poland, the son of a textile merchant. Studied law and economics at Poznan and Cracow, where he graduated in 1928. His socialist tendencies led him into the "neutral" camp of statistics, which he taught for several years at Cracow.
In 1934, a Rockefeller fellowship brought him to England and the United States. In 1936, Lange began teaching at the University of Michigan then, in 1938, he became a professor at the University of Chicago. Towards the end of World War II, in a highly controversial move, Lange broke with the Polish government-in-exile in London and transferred his support to the Lublin Committee sponsored by the Soviet Union. (Lange actually served as the go-between for Roosevelt and Stalin in 1944 during discussions of the post-war Polish borders and character of its government). In 1945-6, he left Chicago and was appointed the Polish Ambassador to the United States. In 1946, Lange served as the Polish delegate to the United Nations Security Council. He returned to Poland in 1947, where he continued working for the Polish government, while continuing his academic pursuits at the University of Warsaw and the Central School of Planning aStatistics.
In 1946,my father was published in Przeglad Wlokienniczy ,writing about innovative and progress in the textile field,a passion he had forever.In 1947 he left for Paris to look for his wife Halina and began to write for Teintex , a French publication which also explored new ideas in the textile world. ( Teintex- Revue Generale des Matieres Colorantes)I have until today with me his technical bible,a book I carry with me from one continent to another in my moves.Things did not work put between Halina and Stefan. She had found a new man,a French dentist and a poodle and that is when one day he met my mother,who was working for Unesco in Paris,helping to relocate Jews from Poland to Australia.
My mother on the other hand,after coming out from Auschwitz,was not able to enter her home in Krakow.
Her sister in law,who was the sister of Kalman Lauer,was harboring Raul Wallenberg and swindled my mother's rights to the building in Krakow,as I was able to reconstruct after finding documents in the Polish archives.They gave her a watch and money for a ticket to Paris,where my mother attended a cosmetician course and met Helena Rubinstein.
My mother was supposed to meet someone in Australia but she fell for Stefan, and they left Paris for Tasmania.
There I was conceived,to my mother's surprise,as doctors at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden,where my mother was brought for a check up after Auschwitz, was informed that she would be infertile,as she was exposed to led,when she worked as a slave for the Germans,producing bullets in one of the factories.

"Close to the finely woven surface of If This is a Man there hover all the terrible questions that the Holocaust has forced upon us,questions about the nature of man and the absence of God,or, if you prefer,the failure of man and the search for God.But Levi is sufficiently shrewd a writer to avoid head -on collision with his theme- even when writing about the Holocaust,a writer needs a little shrewdness. Perhaps later: perhaps future generations will be able to "make sense" of it all: but not now.
For "we become aware" as Levi writes, "that our language lacks words to express this offense,the demolition of a man." ( and woman)
I would cite here a passage from T.S. Eliot:"Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort,or both.It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sins of language."

...Primo Levi,a writer who creates for us a miniature universe of moral striving and reflectiveness,filtered through ordeals of memory,reinforced by resources of imagination.I kept hearing the voice of a man struggling to retrieve the sense of what it means in the twentieth century to be, or become,a mensh-" by Irving Howe

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