Primo Levi: Only Victims Can Truly Forgive
My mother died three and a half years ago. In the last few decades of her life, she and I had a wonderful relationship of mutual support, love, and intellectual companionship. We had both grown wiser with age. But when I was a child, she did things that will always trouble me. Things I can’t forgive. I can love her and be grateful to her for everything positive she gave to me, to my wife, and to my children, while still be unforgiving for the more distant past. Because people and relationships are complex and to whitewash the bad while only keeping the good is dishonest.1
A child having mixed memories of a parent is an ordinary circumstance. So, what about forgiveness in the most extraordinary and monstrous of circumstances?
Primo Levi was an Italian survivor of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He wrote a series of brilliant books about his experiences. Primo was also a chemist, and in one of his last books he uses The Periodic Table as both title and organizing principle to discuss his life before and after his time in the Camp. The 1975 book is divided into a series of chapters in the style of short stories, each with the title of a relevant Element.
In the chapter Vanadium, Primo writes about how a dispute in the 1960s between Primo’s paint firm and a German supplier of resin leads to a chance encounter with a German chemist named Muller who supervised Primo in the Camp. Primo has long wished for such an encounter with a German who actually knew him in the Camp. The possibility has haunted his dreams.
Through an exchange of letters, the two chemists confirm identity and recognition. Primo then sends Muller his book, “Survival in Auschwitz” 2 along with some questions. Muller’s reply is disappointing.
As Primo writes:
“…if my story were invented, I would have been able to introduce only two types of letters, one humble, warm, Christian, from a redeemed German; one vile, arrogant, icy, from a stubborn Nazi.”
Instead, Muller’s letter is mostly an attempt to distort his relationship with Primo in the Camp, “…to construct for himself a comfortable past.” Muller recognizes the scope and severity of the atrocities committed, but claims to have not known about them. Primo gives Muller some credit for wanting to meet in person to try to “overcome the terrible past.” This compares favorably with other Germans Primo had encountered who were looking for “excuses” rather than a “conversation.”
However, Muller invents a series of collegial and intellectual conversations he and Primo allegedly had about chemistry and life. Muller describes the two of them as having “relations of almost friendship between equals.” Of course these conversations are a complete and absurd fiction. This absurdity is consistent with Primo’s memory of the first thing that Muller said to him when he saw Primo as a slave chemist in the rubber works, a question that lives in the borderlands between the humorous and the horrific.
“Why do you look so troubled?”
Primo prepares his own letter of response. Primo’s verdict is that it is not his place to forgive Muller. In terms of vileness, Muller was a “one-eyed man,” i.e., not half-bad. And if the world were peopled only with one-eyed men, that would be fine. But it isn’t. There are thoroughly bad men, and the not half-bad men “smooth the way for them.”
Before Primo can send his letter, Muller calls and they arrange to meet. Primo puts his letter aside. Soon thereafter, Primo is told by Muller’s wife that Muller has died. The meeting never takes place.
As Primo’s fame grew as an author about the Holocaust, he was besieged by requests that he forgive his enemies as an act of Christian mercy.
“Indiscriminate forgiveness, as some have asked me for, is not acceptable to me.” 3
Thoughts on Forgiveness Sparked by Reading Primo
Forgiveness and “letting go: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Alexander Pope’s pithy couplet sums up the alleged noblesse oblige of the forgiver. And it is standard advice from all quarters that if we forgive, we do ourselves a favor, because it helps us let go of our anger. It is possible, however, to let go of anger without forgiving. The passage of time, greater perspective as we get older, and distance from the one who made us angry all work to erase the anger.
Sometimes “letting go” is simply impossible. This may have been the case for Primo who killed himself in 1987 at the age of 67.
Who Has the Right to Forgive/Seeking Forgiveness
Jewish Law holds that only the victim can forgive their offender or persecutor. Overwhelmingly, the victims of the Holocaust died, so forgiveness was effectively impossible.
And third party forgiveness has no credence. If I witness the abuse of another person, it is not my place to forgive the abuser.
We are encouraged to “make amends” to those we have harmed, usually in the form of words of apology. But unless the harm can be undone, which it usually cannot, the making of amends is much more valuable to the abuser than to the victim.
We are told to hate the sin and love the sinner. But if we cannot forgive the sin done to us, then we cannot completely forgive the sinner. Can we love someone to whom we have not granted absolute forgiveness? It depends on the facts and circumstances.
And if that’s ambiguous and unclear, so is life.
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A week or so after my mother died, I wrote to myself about her, remembering both the good and the bad. At the time, I didn’t understand why I did this, but now it’s clear that this was a device to help me deal with my grief.
“Survival in Auschwitz”“ is the American title. Primo refers to the book’s European title, “If This Is A Man.”
From a deposition Primo sent to Israel for the trial of Adolf Eichmann.