In preparation for a recent trip to Poland, I read Primo Levi’s novel about partisans fighting against the Nazi regime in Poland. Levi’s last novel, If Not Now, When?, is about the Holocaust, as was much of the work of this extraordinary writer who survived Auschwitz. But what surprised me was how the book feels so contemporary with relevance to how we think about our Jewish lives today. At a time when democracy is in retreat and anti-Semitism of the left and right are on the rise, the novel presents a clear argument for a need for our particular Jewish identity to be infused with universal values.
The title itself is carefully chosen, named for the famous quote from the Talmud sage Hillel and often cited when Jews engage in social justice debates and activism: “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
Originally published in Italian in 1982, and issued in English in 1985, it’s based on Levi’s own experience as a partisan fighter in 1943, before the Italian Fascists handed him over to the Germans and he spent a year at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Levi took his own life at age 67 in 1987 in his hometown of Turin, Italy, where he had returned after the war.
Irving Howe, in his introduction to the book, laments that he wants “to start holding imaginary conversations, as if Primo Levi and I were friends who have known each other for years,” and I second that lament. There is a primacy that comes across in the narrative here, making some of the most iconic and horrific historic incidents somehow immediate and alive for the reader. But, it is the display of Levi’s intense brilliance and knowledge of everything from the Talmud to the minutiae of debates about varieties of socialism that brings his voice alive.
The novel takes on an almost biblical proportion in its telling of the journey of a group of East European partisans, some based on people Levi met in Auschwitz, others from his imagination.
Their world is encrusted in Yiddish, the language, the culture, and the breath of daily life. Early on, one character, Leonid, asks another partisan he finds, Mendel: “how did you catch on that I’m a Jew?” the answer: “A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent.” Mendel immediately diverts to a Talmudic tractate about welcoming him into his home, musing that as the Talmud teaches, he should have created four doors for four walls, to show the intense welcome.
The partisan band includes some socialist Bundists who are anti-Zionists, but mostly they are socialist-Zionists of Russian, Czech, Uzbek, Polish, Italian, and German background.
As they trek from village to village, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the Israelites wandering in the desert after their exile from Egypt. In fact, on the eighth day of their first week of wandering, the starving gang comes across a gaggle of frogs in a pond in the woods. Leonid, immediately begins to eat “with the feign greed of a hungry nineteen-year old,” while his fellow partisan Mendel is “amazed to discover in himself a trace of the ancestral repulsion for forbidden meats.”
Just like Moses wandering in the desert, these wandering souls have Israel (or then, pre-state Palestine) as their promised land, if they make it through the European woods.
There is no narrator telling the tale, but interspersed in the story is an omniscient voice asking the age old Jewish query: “you have chosen us among the nations”: why us, exactly?” Yet, Levi’s novel also points us away from victimhood.
We spend hundreds of pages in the woods with these men and women who are living in conditions virtually unimaginable , even while Levi manages to pepper the story with light –expressed through characters whose intellect and sheer will keep them alive. There is Line, for example, a feminist partisan who is ”tangled ivy, nocturnal. Line is fierce, as she promotes herself: “a partisan, not a refugee,” and wants to train to fight. Her political trajectory is familiar for the time: her parents were Russia revolutionaries, her mother a devotee of the British feminist who fought for women’s right to vote, Emmeline Pankhurst. Line ‘saw no contradiction between Soviet communism and the agrarian collectivism preached by the Zionists until Stalin began instituting his plan to send anyone wanting to identify and live as a Jew to Siberia. She joined the Soviet partisans when she was in the Ukrainian ghetto at Chernigov. There, her multiple identities merged: “in the ghetto she had suffered hunger, cold, exhaustion, but she felt her many souls blend together. The woman, the Jew, the Zionist, and the Communist had been fused into a single Line, who had a single enemy.”
They have a clear plan: “there’s only one way: shoot the Germans, as long as there are any left, and then go to the land of Israel and plant trees.”
The book’s poetry belies the tragedy that befell Poland. Whether his characters could see the reality of a communist bloc unfolding before their eyes, we don’t know, but of course their creator, Levi, lived to see the evolution of a cynical and authoritarian communism that sprouted from the Russian victory in Poland and elsewhere. Here, Levi immediately foretells what the next several four decades will bring: “The front had stopped and summer was ending. The Polish earth, exhausted by five years of war and pitiless occupation, seemed to have returned to primordial Chaos [sic]. Warsaw had been destroyed: no longer just the ghetto, this time, but the entire city, and with it, the see of a free and harmonious Poland.”
And, a young Partisan commander predicts: “The Russians will drive the Nazis out of our country… but then, they won’t go away. You mustn’t confuse wishes with reality; Stalin’s Russia is the czar’s Russia: it wants a Russian Poland, not a Polish Poland.”
In contemplating how they should live out their own politics, Levi asks: “Does a just revenge exist?” He is reflecting back to a biblical story about Simon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, who kill the Schechemites (Schechem is the biblical name for modern-day Nablus) for raping their sister Dina. Primo Levi, as omniscient narrator, wishes for more for the human spirit, but gives an understanding—and understandable retort: [A just revenge] “doesn’t exist, but you’re a man, and vengeance cries out in your blood, and then you run and destroy and kill. Like them, like the Germans.”
Yet, instead of plunging his characters (or back then, his real-life comrades) into a bloodbath of vengeance, he moves past this moment of comprehension toward a hope of something different. The Jewish partisans take on a new journey, also biblical at its core.
“The traps were over, the war was over, the way, the blood and ice; the satan of Berlin was dead, the world was empty and vacant, to be re-created, repopulated, like after the Flood. As they climbed, in their jolly climb towards the pass: the climb, the aliya, this was the word for the road when you are coming out of exile, out of the depths, and you climb towards the light.”
As they make their way to Italy, with the war winding down, and calculating that they will be able to maneuver their way into Palestine under the nose of the British from the Italian ports, they lapse into a fascinating debate about their own status. Are they refugees, or in the lingo of the time, DPs, displaced persons? Line, the feminist partisan responds: “We’re not DPs…we had a homeland and it’s not our fault if we don’t have one anymore; and we’ll build ourselves another one…We’re not DPs, we’re partisans, and not in name only. We’ve built our future with our own hands.” It was precisely this self-awareness and independence that threatened the Soviets who took over a European bloc. Instead of deploying these brave partisans to build a new and hopeful society, they saw them as threats, and immediately imprisoned them along with other non-Jews who wouldn’t tow the new Soviet line. But, similarly, these partisans—those few who did remain in Poland and elsewhere in the bloc—were the inspiration for what became the Solidarity Movement and other democratic movements that toppled communism in the 1980s.
The Partisans of Levi’s novel end up at a training farm near Milan, the type that was set up all over Europe and even in the US (there was one in Hightstown, NJ through 1974) to prepare olim for kibbutz life in Israel. At least 40,000 Jews from Eastern Europe comprised the fifth Aliya who settled in Israel after World War II, most of them with politics similar to Levi’s portrayals.
The novel ends with two real incidents that both actually occurred and yet are also so obviously symbolic that in any lesser writer’s hands, they would seem trite. As one of the couples from the group gives birth, Line observes: “We were also born…born expelled. Russia conceived us, nourished us, made us grow in her darkness, as in a womb, then she had labor pains, contractions, and threw us out; and now here we are, naked and new, like babies just born…”
On the same day the baby is born, and as the last line of the novel, Levi notes that the newspaper has a single headline, “whose meaning he couldn’t understand. That newspaper bore the date of Tuesday 7 August 1945 and carried the news of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima.”
After all of the intensity of this novel, the horrors of the Holocaust brought to life, it’s almost difficult to imagine any additional horror, until Levi strikes this final note. When I read it, I nearly felt my heart stop.
This book could have ended differently—and if Primo Levi were Leon Uris, it would have. But the point of this novel is not to report or illustrate that the Jews were targeted, finding refuge and victory in the new land of Israel or that only Jews are targeted; his point, so meaningful for today, is much more complicated. The possibilities of what humans do and can do, one to the other, is a core part of our Jewish story. It is in our particular experience that we must extend outward without victimization and revenge to create a better world.
Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel and Palestine for a variety of publications.