Page 180 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
enough to possess two traditions, to which one does one turn in
order to derive one’s values?
Levi artfully sets the scene. He has just described how he had
been treated as a human rag by one of his concentration camp
tormentors, who took the liberty of cleaning his hands on Primo’s
person. Robbed of his dignity, Levi is at the bottom of the pit of
despair. The scene changes brusquely, and, with no other transi­
tion, the intellectual in Levi, the former student in Italy, begins to
recall his schoolboy learning of Dante’s
Divine Comedy.
He offers
to teach a colleague about Vergil and Beatrice, about the grada­
tions of Dante’s Hell. By a process of free association, he comes
upon the peculiarly apposite canto in the “Inferno” in which
Ulysses urges his men not to abuse their genius by perverting it to
wiles and stratagems. Particularly appropriate is the following
tercet:
Consider your heritage.
You were not made to live like beasts
But to seek both virtue and knowledge.
Dante.
The Inferno.
Canto XXVI, verses 119-121.
(My translation).
Of course, Levi’s audience, mostly of Eastern European Jewish
origin, does not share Levi’s cultural background, however
fascinating the lesson. Could it be that Levi is urging his congre­
gation of fellow-sufferers to consider their own heritage? The sit­
uation is not so simple. For there is the Steinlauf episode and the
Kuhn
quid pro quo.
Steinlauf is a German Jew who teaches Levi that one may over­
come the “program” which the Germans have designed for the
reduction of men to beasts. He suggests a counter-program: One
must go out of one’s way to wash every day. It is understood that,
given the filthy conditions of the camp, the one who has washed
and the one who has refrained from washing will be equally dirty
shortly after the act. Despite the seeming futility, Steinlauf sug­
gests that the one who has washed has thereby dramatized his
power over the oppressor. For reasons we can only speculate on,
Levi refuses to accept Steinlaufs lesson fully. It is perhaps
because Steinlauf is too rigidly the German Jew, too systematic in
his approach to disobeying oppressive laws? That may very well
be, as we shall have occasion to see subsequently. Nevertheless, if
Levi will not accept the Germanic side of a Jew who has himself