Page 182 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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commentary within it and is itself a commentary on that commen­
tary. This complex structure becomes clear in the novel. The title
does not come directly from Hillel’s aphorism but is mediated by
a song which derives from it.
The story is told that at the Ghetto of Kossovo a certain Jewish
carpenter named Martin Fontasch, a composer of folk songs, is
sentenced to death by the Germans. His executioner, a Nazi with
a weakness for music, grants Fontasch permission to compose
one last song. The song circulates and finally makes its way into
the novel via Gedaleh, the leader of the book’s Jewish partisan
band. This Gedaleh, a warrior and a violinist, and therefore a
modern King David, adopts the song as the partisans’ anthem.
The song, composed of three stanzas and a refrain, is reproduced
in full in the book. It is a commentary on both Jewish history and
the current plight of the Jews.
In his telling of the story of Martin Fontasch, Primo Levi’s writ­
ing reaches a height of verisimilitude that he will attain subse­
quently only in his creation of the character of Faussone in
Monkey s Wrench.
Just as he found it necessary in the latter book to
explain that Faussone is “imaginary but ‘perfectly authentic,’” the
fruit of his fertile imagination and talented pen, so too Levi feels
obliged to explain in an “Author’s Note” at the end of
I f Not Now,
that Martin Fontasch is not a historical figure. Indeed, the
mode of his explanation throws light on the Jewish character of
the characters of the novel:
In particular, the figure of Martin Fontasch is imaginary; but it
is true that manyJewish poet-singers, famous and obscure, in cities
and in remote villages, were killed as this Martin is, and not only in
the years 1939-1945, and not only by the Nazis. So the song o f the
“Gedalists” is also invented, but its refrain, which is also the title of
the book, was prompted by some words which I found in the
Avoth (The Maxims of the Fathers),
a collection o f the sayings of
famous rabbis, edited in the second century A.D. and a part o f the
Talmud. In the first chapter, verse thirteen, it says: “He (Rabbi
Hillel) also said: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And
even if I think of myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’
rally, the interpretation of this saying that I attribute to the characters is not
an Orthodox one.
(p. 348, my emphasis)