Remembering Primo Levi

Video by Riley Hubby, NYU Florence student

 

Auschwitz in Florence

By Matilda Mahne, NYU Florence student

(This piece is reprinted from the La Pietra Dialogues website).

I reached out to a non-existent tissue in my bag. I would understand Primo Levi’s words and depictions of Auschwitz better if I could only see through the tears that forced their way to my eyes. While my vision was momentarily impaired, the experience of the night was far from curtailed.

“Everything was as silent as an aquarium, or as in certain dream sequences”

The stage in the middle of the amphitheatre was unadorned. There was a small background screen that had a wooden wall projected to it, and in front of it there was a stool, a bench, and a man. English subtitles were projected on both sides of the screen.

“Hell must be like this”

Those words were uttered in Italian and briefly projected on the wall during the performance in the beautiful outdoors of Florence. Around the amphitheater were cypress trees and renaissance gardens, which invited any person to breathe in the air of sheer beauty and freedom. The events on stage, however, took that breath away as one saw a man confined and condemned to his decay. Was this dissonance planned? The contrast between the surrounding environment and the performance was staggering and only emphasized the unthinkable horrors that some have experienced. The beauty of the scenery and the sounds beyond the stage ceased to exist as Primo Levi, disguised as Jacob Olesen, invited the audience to listen to his story.

“One must want to survive”

The stage was filled with a flurry of emotions that twisted around the spectators like vines. Confusion, despair, hope, disgust, admiration, loss, silence, and broken freedom – these were conveyed through a variety of languages, showing how diverse the people involved in this chapter in world history were.

“The dance of dead men”

I was reminded I was outdoors as I heard a faint sound somewhere in the city of Florence when Levi was taken for a check-up in the hospital and was told he would soon end up in a crematorium. It was the sound of an ambulance siren. My awareness of the adjacent reality of Florence was heightened by this sound that seemed too perfect to be a coincidence. Another collision of worlds occurred during the end of the performance when Levi and others in sickbeds were abandoned as the rest of the camp was emancipated, and one of their comrades passed away. The sound of crickets around the amphitheatre reflected their throbbing loneliness and grief, stripped of every ounce of dignity.

“That look came as if across the glass window of an aquarium”

The word “aquarium” describes the whole experience that night. I was watching and listening to the story of a physical, emotional, and a mental prison comfortably from the outside where I was free to stay or leave. The man whose words were declared in the open were the words of a trapped man telling the story of a trapped people. The concentration camps were, as researcher on Zionism at the European University Institute Jan Rybak explained during a brief introduction on the author and anti-Semitism before the stage reading, “not a consequence of what the Jews did, but who they were.” In the end of this performance, which was based on Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, there was a moment where the whole audience seemed afraid to move. How could I stand up and leave freely, as if I had not just been immersed in a true story of one of the cruellest of confinements? The performance gave a vital glimpse into the conditions that people had to attempt to live through within a concentration camp. Levi and Olesen gave individuals from Italy, France, and Poland an opportunity to be remembered, a distinct voice amid the millions.

“Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

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