Prisoner 174517 was thirsty. Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before he could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground. “Warum?” the prisoner burst out instinctively — “Why?” “Hier ist kein warum,” the guard answered with brutal finality — “Here there is no why.” ¶ That for Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist and writer, was the essence of the death camps — places not only of unchallengable, arbitrary authority but of absolute evil that defied all explanation. In the face of such wickedness, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and economics were pathetic in their inadequacy. One could only shoulder the weight of such an experience and bear witness to the world. “Never again” was too confident an assertion. You never know was the needed refrain.
Yet despite the horror, Levi gave the impression that he had survived the poison of Auschwitz and had come to terms with his nightmarish experience. One of only three returning survivors of the six hundred fifty Italian Jews transported to Poland in 1944, he eventually married, had children, wrote books, won literary prizes, and lived a full life. His core mission, however, was always to serve as a witness to the truth, a guardian of the memory.
Writing about his deportation to Poland, he stated: “Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again.” While other direct or indirect victims of the Nazis committed suicide, including Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, and Bruno Bettelheim, Levi many times argued against that act.
Thus many people were shocked and saddened when on April 11, 1987, more than forty years after his release from Auschwitz, Primo Levi plunged to his death down the stairwell of his home in Torino, Italy. Feeling the burden of witnessing, the guilt of surviving, the horror of revisionist denials of the camps, the weariness of repeating the same things, and even the anxiety of seeing his own memories fade, he joined the long sad list of the victims of the Nazi hell who took their own lives.
Levi’s mounting depression in the last weeks of his life was known to his family and friends. Significantly, in his last interview he begged the questioning journalist not to consider him a prophet: “Prophets are the plague of today, and perhaps of all time, because it is impossible to tell a true prophet from a false one.” In the same vein he had said earlier, “All prophets are false. I don’t believe in prophets, even though I come from a heritage of prophets.”
Prophets the “plague of all time”? Levi’s dismissal is understandable, for he was an atheist who had been to hell on earth and back. But it is sad, for the strong line of Hebrew prophets is not only a defining feature of his people’s heritage but one of the richest Jewish gifts to the history of the world. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and many others — each was a hero of the moral word whose “Thus says the Lord” shattered the status quo of his day. They each opened up perspectives on God’s truth, justice, and peace that restored the world, moved it forward through a transcendent point of leverage, or simply drew a line in the sand to mark off evil.
The prophetic calling, however, was closed to Levi because in his universe he acknowledged no caller. Unlike Søren Kierkegaard with his questing “knight of faith,” Levi recognized no higher majesty to dub him knight.