Page 181 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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been nourished by two traditions, will he at least accept the Jewish
One of the more terrifying scenes of
Survival in Auschwitz
Levi’s descriptioon of a “selection” that took place during his
incarceration. Among those to survive the selection was a
devoutly religious Jew named Kuhn. After the anxiety-ridden
ordeal, having learned of his “good fortune,” Kuhn removes
himself from the company of those who are otherwise busy with
themselves and sways back and forth in prayer. Levi is outraged
that a religious Jew should be thankful at having survived, for in
those conditions anyone who survives does so at the expense of
another. One would have expected Levi to take his anger out on
God for permitting such abomination. Instead, he lashes out to
Kuhn for praying to God. “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s
prayer” (p. 118).
The Kuhn episode illustrates only one aspect of Levi’s ambiva­
lence in regard to religious sensibilities. At the very conclusion of
Survival in Auschwitz,
after the departure of the Germans, those
who survived turned their thoughts to God. The memoirist
speaks: “Today I think that if for no other reason than that an
Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence.
But without doubt in that hour the memory of biblical salvations
in times of extreme adversity passed like a wind through all our
minds” (p. 143). On the one hand, Levi is antagonistic to tradi­
tional Jewish religious expression. On the other, he expresses a
religious sensibility himself, without specific reference to God, to
be sure, but nevertheless to the Jewish textual tradition. Levi will
continue confronting his religious ambivalence in his novel,
I f Not
Now, When?
On the surface, the novel takes its title from a saying in the
ics of the Fathers
in which Hillel lays down, in a triad of questions, a
complex principle of Jewish ethical behavior. “If I am not for
myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if
not now, when?” The saying fairly begs to be interpreted. It
almost asks by its very form in the interrogative that a story — a
midrash — be written to illustrate its wisdom.
Primo Levi’s novel is not exactly a midrash on Hillel’s dictum,
but a midrash on a midrash. That is to say, the novel contains a