In our calendar, there are many significant days in which we commemorate something, especially events that claimed several victims. Some are celebrated internationally; some nationally, depending on a country’s own history. A few days ago, it was the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Why it is important to remember such events and what is the meaning of the word “memory”?
In his last book “The Drowned and the Saved” (1986), Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi left us a deep thought about it.
He distinguished two levels of memory: the former is the individual capacity of remembering an event, whereas the latter has a collective significance, and it is referred to a group’s cultural heritage –it can be a nation, a small community, an ethnic or religious minority, etc.
Our memory as individuals is perhaps deceptive. As Levi points out, under some condition, human beings undergo the degradation of long- or short-term memory. For instance, traumas can affect our memory’s functioning. Many studies on memory disorders have been conducted on subjects who have suffered trauma, including war veterans, people who have suffered violence and former deportees to concentration camps. The concentration camp, like the war, has left indelible marks on the body (for example the tattoos) and on the psyche of the survivors. Among these, many complained of memory lapses, difficulties in reconstructing even recent events; someone had completely lost their memory¸ others complained of other types of disorders, such as difficulties in creativity and imagination. However, Levi’s aim is not to investigate on the scientific causes of traumas, but to understand thoughts and feelings of those people who, like him, have lived such an experience. He thinks that they tend to remove the memory in order not to renew the pain. In fact, remembering would mean to be tormented by a sense of humiliation, pity towards those who did not survive, anger towards the executioners, but more generally, those who suffer an offense feel ashamed of the unachievable levels of human cruelty. Ex-deportees feel a sense of inadequacy, the impossibility of settling again in the world, due to the loss of hope in the goodness of mankind (Levi quotes the philosopher Jean Améry, ex deported who committed suicide in 1978: “Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap on the face, then demolished by torture, can never be regained”).
What about the oppressors? According to Levi, the offender feels shame as well, because he cannot continue to live with such a burden on his conscience. Therefore, he must try to alleviate his sense of guilt by building a comfortable reality to be able to live peacefully. He lies to himself, and then he ends up believing in his own lies. For example, several ex Nazi officers and collaborators denied their guilt, saying that they did not know the outcome of their actions, and that it was someone else of higher rank’s fault. If most of them were more opportunists, animated by the desire for a social ascent, or cowards (they were not able to disobey) than sadists, however, some of them did not feel any shame concerning what they had done. They became negationist, claiming that the photos of the loads of corpses were montages, and that the statistics of the millions of deaths were fabricated by Jews.
Luckily, says Levi, several deportees survived and brought their witnesses, luckily someone even managed to take some pictures of the places and the crimes. Luckily, the memory of Holocaust survived and became part of our cultural heritage.
Although it is hard and painful, Levi doesn't want to forget, and he doesn't want the world to forget. For him to remember is a duty, and this is why he decided to write. It is writing that made him a “saved”, since having survived the concentration camp is not enough. In fact, many survivors are “drowned”: those who do not remember, those who have been overwhelmed by pain, by depression, etc. Primo Levi tries to understand the world and human nature in all its contradictions, and feels the duty to communicate to as many people as possible. Communicating, understanding and remembering are strictly connected actions, as the memory and the comprehension of a historical fact like Auschwitz are necessary to never repeat something like this again.
W. A. Wagenaar, J. Groeneweg, The memory of concentration camp survivors, Applied Cognitive Psycology vol. 4, march-april 1990, pp. 77-87.
P. Levi, I sommersi e i salvati, Einaudi, Torino 2007.