Page 42 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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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 salvation in times of ex­
treme adversity passed like a wind through all our minds” (p. 143).
On the one hand, Levi is antagonistic to traditional Jewish reli­
gious expression. On the other, he expresses a religious sensibility
himself, without specific reference to God, to be sure, but never­
theless to the Jewish textual tradition. Levi will continue confront­
ing his religious ambivalence in his novel,
I f Not Now, When?
On the surface, the novel takes its title from a saying in the
Ethics
o f the Fathers
in which Hillel lays down, in a triad of questions, a
complex principle of Jewish ethical behavior. “If I am not for my­
self, 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
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, warrior and violinist, and therefore a modern King
David, adopts the song as the partisans’ anthem. The song, com­
posed 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.