Page 41 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Of course, Levi’s audience, mostly of Eastern European Jewish
origin, does not share Levi’s cultural background, however fasci­
nating the lesson. Could it be that Levi is urging his congregation
of fellow-sufferers to consider their own heritage? The situation is
not so simple. For there is the Steinlauf episode and the Kuhn
pro quo.
Steinlauf is a German Jew who teaches Levi that one may over­
come the “program”which the Germans have designed for the re­
duction of men to beasts. He suggests a counter-program: One
must go out of one’s way to wash every day. Is it 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
shordy after the act. Despite the seeming futility, Steinlauf sug­
gests that the one who has washed has thereby dramatized his pow­
er over the oppressor. For reasons we can only speculate on, Levi
refuses to accept Steinlaufs lesson fully. Is it perhaps because
Steinlauf is too rigidly the German Jew, too systematic in his ap­
proach to disobeying oppressive laws? That may very well be, as we
shall have occasion to see subsequendy. Nevertheless, if Levi will
not accept the Germanic side of a Jew who has himself been nour­
ished by two traditions, will he at least accept the Jewish side?
One of the more terrifying scenes of
Survival in Auschwitz
Levi’s description of a “selection” that took place during his incar­
ceration. Among those to survive the selection was a devoutly reli­
gious 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 any­
one 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 at Kuhn for praying to
God. “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer” (p. 118).
Primo Levi's Judaism