As I browsed my shelves for a book for today’s post I had absolutely no idea what I was looking for. I just kind of stared blankely at it until something popped out. That something was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and one of the books I really think everyone should take the time to absorb, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi (yes it’s a Holocaust book, yes it will be sad, but it is an amazing memoir told by someone who really has something to say and it’s actually beautiful).
I read this book for an honors History project in my freshman year of high school and I absolutely loved it. I bought a copy and wrote all over it because that’s what I do with books I read for school (some may call it blasphemy, but I truly believe there is a lot of value in notetaking, and I keep every book I write in for future perusing (came in handy today)) (there are too many parenthetical comments in this post), and though I loved pretty much all of the book (it destroyed me for a bit, but in the good, strengthening kind of way and Primo Levi is an amazing writer) there was one line, one word, really, that stuck in my brain. Part of my honors assignment was to create art based on the book I read, and I ended up using the quote I’m using today in my art (I was going to use the piece I did for the graphic in today’s post but then realized that I’d been staring at my books for so long that it was dark out and I do not have the technology to take blog-quality pictures with non-natural lighting – maybe I’ll put an edit at the bottom with the piece once I’ve had time to photograph it in the light but no promises).
I think I’ve sufficiently built up the suspense to show you my graphic (I just bought a fancy new computer with all kinds of graphic capabilities but I have not yet figured out how to use them effectively so we’re still at my usual standard of graphic, but look forward to some things made with actual photoshop (!) and maybe even electronically drawn because I can theoretically do that though I must say drawing with a stylus is very different that with pencil/charcoal/pen on paper).
This quote can be found in chapter 4 of Survival in Auschwitz, which is titled Ka-Be, and it is said in the context of Primo Levi describing the conditions and prisoners in the Auschwitz (for lack of a better word that isn’t in German) medical ward. It’s devastatingly sad, but I’ve gotten something from that sentence that is unique. I’ve long had a love of words in other languages that don’t translate to a single English word, and “heimweh” definitely fits that category, but there’s something else in this word that just . . . Fits. I don’t quite know how to explain it, and everyone will take their own meaning from any quote they see, but I’ve always considered this quote hopeful. (Many people are doing a double take, but stay with me for a moment.) After much thought I’ve decided that the reason that this one word and the concept behind it are so comforting is that it reminds me that humans are capable of so much, even in the worst and darkest of times. The Holocaust was arguably the worst event in documented history, and certainly fits my definition of hell. Having established that these men, living dismal conditions and housed in a place specifically designed to break down their will and fight and their humanity itself, are actually in hell (or purgatory or whatever you want to call it), I find it so astonishing that they are able to feel and express and discuss such a complex feeling. In dismal conditions people can still convey feelings I’ve never been able to explain in my language (another point is that I have experienced heimweh extensively and could never figure out how to explain it as a child so maybe I’m just reassured that others share my emotions, but I really don’t think that’s the whole size of it). I think the existence of this word speaks volumes about the human will, no, determination, to survive, and that’s something that I got from the entire of Survival in Auschwitz. This word, and by extension this phrase, gives me such faith in humanity, and in a world where I can log into my Facebook page and see reports of two murders and one instance of torture by people my own (teen)age without scrolling down that’s something one can really use. So while I know this post is making some of you angry and some of you sad, I would encourage you to hold on to it and think. Survival in Auschwitz was so painful to read, and I hurt for days after finishing it, but it’s one of those rare occurrences that I can use to define my life so far as “before” and “after.” I hope that with this post I have given just one person a feeling similar to mine, because this book and quote were truly important in shaping who I am.
That got a little soapboxy, but as you’ve probably gathered I have very strong opinions on this topic. Thanks for hanging in there, and I really do encourage you to read Survival in Auschwitz. By the way, the text in the graphic is superimposed on a picture of the Auschwitz concentration camp that I got here.
Have a happy Sunday and I hope I haven’t depressed you too thoroughly,