Levi on Denying Man's Humanity | Harper's Magazine

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Levi on Denying Man’s Humanity

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primolevi

Q: Is it possible to abolish man’s humanity?

A: Unfortunately, yes. Unfortunately, yes; and that is really the characteristic of the Nazi Lager [concentration camp]. About the others, I don’t know, because I don’t know them; perhaps in Russia the same thing happens. It’s to abolish man’s personality, inside and outside: not only of the prisoner, but also of the jailer. He too lost his personality in the lager. These are two different itineraries, but with the same result, and I would say that only a few had the good fortune of remaining aware during their imprisonment; some regained their awareness of the experience later, but during it, they had lost it; many forgot everything. They did not record their experiences in their mind. They didn’t impress on their memory track. Thus it happened to all, a profound modification in their personality. Most of all, our sensibility lost sharpness, so that the memories of our home had fallen into second place; the memory of family had fallen into second place in face of urgent needs, of hunger, of the necessity to protect oneself against cold, beatings, fatigue… all of this brought about some reactions which we could call animal-like; we were like work animals.

It is curious how this animal-like condition would repeat itself in language: in German there are two words for eating. One is essen and it refers to people, and the other is fressen, referring to animals. We say a horse frisst, for example, or a cat. In the Lager, without anyone having decided that it should be so, the verb for eating was fressen. As if the perception of the animal-like regression was clear to all.

Primo Levi, in an interview with Daniel Toaff on Sorgenti di Vita (Springs of Life) broadcast on Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) on April 25, 1983 (trans. Mirto Stone)

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