One last comment on my summer reading, A friend, knowing how much I liked Primo Levi’s book, The Periodic Table, gave me a gorgeous edition of his complete works. It is so good, I feel compelled to quote from it at length, and I’ve only finished the first book, If This is Man. In the afterword, he says he wrote this book as soon as he could after his experience, that it was “burning inside me” and needed expression. About the concentration camp, the Lager, he says:
“…the Lager was also and preeminently a gigantic biological and social experiment. Let thousands of individuals differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs be enclosed within barbed wire, and there be subjected to a regular, controlled life, which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs. No one could have set up a more rigorous experiment to determine what is inherent and what is acquired in the behavior of the human animal faced with the struggle for life…The only conclusion is that, in the face of driving need, many habits and social instincts are reduced to silence.”
“…if a position of privilege, a degree of comfort and a reasonable probability of survival are offered to a few individuals in a state of slavery in exchange for the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, someone will certainly accept. He will be removed from the common law and will become untouchable, hence the more power that he is granted, the more hateful and hated he will be.”
Once the camp is “liberated” by the Red Army, Levi is one of 11 inmates in a room in the infirmary. No one seems to be in charge. There is no heat, no light, no water or food. He and the two other most robust of the inmates rouse themselves to secure a stove, fuel, potatoes, water, and set them up in the room: “Once the broken window had been repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and then Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty three, with typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to the three of us who had been working. And so it was agreed.
“Only a day before, such an event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said ‘Eat your own bread, and, if you can, that of your neighbor,’ and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead. This was the first human gesture that occurred among us.”
In the afterword of the book, he gives this warning, so applicable to our times:
“The Nazi Lagers were the apex, the crown of European fascism, its most monstrous manifestation, and, in forms both open and disguised, it has survived the defeat of the Second World War. Anywhere in the world, if one begins by denying the fundamental freedoms of Man, and equality between men, one is heading towards a concentration-camp system, and this is a trajectory that is difficult to stop.”
and further, thinking about our current leader:
“…Hitler and Mussolini, when they spoke in public, were believed, applauded, admired, and adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders’; they possessed a secret power of seduction that came not from the credibility or the rightness of the things they said but from the inspiring way in which they said them, from their eloquence, their dramatic art–perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently practiced and mastered. The ideals they proclaimed weren’t always the same, and in general were abnormal, or foolish, or cruel; and yet they were praised, and followed by millions of the faithful to their death… those faithful, including the diligent men who carried out inhuman orders were not (with few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men.”
My note, after hearing a report from a friend who just toured Alabama and Mississippi where they still love Trump, “love the man, love everything he does,” is if you are not already doing something to support Democratic candidates in the midterms, commit to doing something now, whether it’s a donation to a campaign, an evening of writing postcards, or best of all, canvassing to register voters and get out the vote. All that is needed for our country to continue down this dark trajectory is for those of us who deplore this direction to do nothing.