Page 45 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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is not the discontinuity with the past but the fact that it refers back
to the tradition at all. The frame of the reference itself constitutes
a continuity.
The dilemma of the Jewish partisans is one that the “Russians”
(read Christians) do not seem to experience at all. There is, Levi
asserts, a Jewish way—however universal—to respond to Nazi bar­
barism. A thoughtful Jewish partisan speaks:
I think that killing is bad, but killing Germans is something we can’t avoid.
. . . Because killing is the only language they understand, the only argument
that convinces them. If I shoot at a German, he is forced to admit that I, aJew,
am worth more than he is; that’s his logic, you understand, not mine. They
only understand force. . . . So that’s why it’s important for there to be Jewish
partisans, and Jews in the Red Army. It’s important, but it’s also horrible; only
by killing a German can I manage to persuade the other Germans that I am a
man. And yet we have a law that says ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ (p. I l l )
The biblical injunction against murder seems to set up a dialec­
tic between the Jewish “Way” and the partisans’ way. This is fur­
ther emphasized by the story told in the novel of yeshiva boys who
were drafted into the Czar’s army:
A month goes by, and the instructors notice that all these boys have an in­
fallible aim: they all become first-rate marksmen. . . . The war comes, and the
regiment o f Talmudists goes to the fron t .. . . The officer shouts, ‘Fire!’ Noth­
ing happens, nobody fires. The officer again shouts ‘Fire!’ and again nobody
obeys; by now the enemy is only a stone’s throw away. ‘Fire,’ I said, ‘you ugly
bastards! Why don’t you shoot? the officer yells. . . . ‘Can’t you see, Captain
sir? They aren’t cardboard oudines, they’re men like us. If we shoot, we might
hurt them.’ (pp. 115—116)
Except for the fact that this story does not touch on the biblical
and rabbinic commandment to defend one’s own life, the narration
is a quintessential Jewish story in that it gives its due to the role of
the intellect, and to moral dilemmas, in a world of action. It also
reveals an essential characteristic of Primo Levi’s style, a character­
istic that might help to overcome Eberstadt’s objection to what she
considers his unconvincing Jewish style.
Primo Levi's Judaism