Ms Parvesh/Excavation of the Inner Landscape: Perspective of a Survivor in the Select Novels and Memoirs of Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo

Ms Parvesh

Research Scholar

Ph.D. Reg. No. 41300121

Lovely Professional University

Supervised by Dr J.P. Aggarwal

The present research paper will explore the traumatic life of Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo , the victims of the Holocaust who survived by the will of destiny or by chance, and who are leading a desperate life carrying with them the haunting memories of the tyranny of the Nazis who perpetrated heinous crimes on the poor and innocent men, women and children. The Holocaust theme is still very much alive in current films, songs and literature. The Holocaust was the systematic and premeditated effort to eliminate European Jewry before and during World War II (1939-1945), when millions were systematically exterminated solely because of their social, cultural, ethnic, or religious characteristics (Barel, Van , 2010). Of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe before the Holocaust, approximately two thirds were killed (Dawidowicz, 1975) Victims were rounded up and transported like animals to concentration camps. They suffered from degrading living and working conditions, starvation and disease. Those who survived were subjected to atrocious experiences and will forever endure this memory (Barel et al., 2010).

Auschwitz and Hiroshima have revealed that monstrous and painful memories of violence and barbarity haunt the survivors from generation to generation. There was dispossession, terror, concentration, degradation, humiliation, starvation and systematic annihilation. According to Elie Weisel “Holocaust trauma” transcends history” The victims were tortured in the most vicious way before they were killed, they were experimented on, they were forced to cooperate in the killing factory. Like an atom bomb that disperses its radioactive fallout in distant places, often a long time after the actual explosion, the Holocaust continues to contaminate everyone who was exposed to it in one way or another. Traces of Holocaust associations may even be found in the third generation who, in their quest for past roots, discover the prematurely broken branches of their family trees. As Judith Herman (1992) pointed out in her book Trauma and Recovery; that ”atrocities refuse to be buried” (1). They keep penetrating the conscious and unconscious minds of the survivors and their offspring until they are properly remembered, mourned and worked through within a safe, healing relationship.

The trauma of the holocaust survivors was so tremendous and illogical, that as a result they are in a state of internal dissonance. The hellish journey all the survivors who suffered the traumas of holocaust have been investigated in this research paper applying the psychoanalytical theories of the Freudians and post Freudian thinkers such as Lacan, Karen Horney, Ihab Hassan, and Sypher Wylie. The survivors of holocaust seemed to live a normal life and looked healthy from the outside, their families knew of their private and largely concealed suffering. Therefore, during the 1980s, there was a sense of urgency to provide emotional support “now or never.” The woes of aging, retirement, illness, and death of their spouses created new emotional crises that activated the old woes and traumatic experiences were shared by their friends and members of their family. Holocaust survivors clearly differ from one another in a great many ways, in their pre-war personality make-up, in their various traumatic war experiences, and in their post-war readjustment. Of all these differences, their varying vulnerability and resilience to stress are perhaps the most striking in rendering them more or less susceptible to mental ailments. Such variability makes the differentiation between clinical and non-clinical Holocaust survivors relevant. While a majority of survivors showed an unusual degree of psychic strength in overcoming the effects of their traumatic experiences and multiple losses, a clinical minority continued to suffer from periods of depression, irrational anxieties, sleep disturbances and psychosomatic symptoms, which clearly lead back to Nazi persecution.

AMCHA is a Hebrew word meaning “Your People”. It is an organization to help the holocaust survivors, it has observed ten important symptoms for psychiatric treatment of the survivors. Pirimo Levi is the main hero of all his memoirs and novels. His If this is a Man, The Periodic Table and The Drowned and the Saved depict his hellish life in the Lager. He passed through the following traumas before he ended his life. Levi committed suicide in 1987 hurling himself over the railing of the marble staircase outside his fourth-floor apartment. It was the same apartment in which he was born in 1919, where he and his wife raised their children. The year before he jumped to his death Levi published The Drowned and the Saved, in which he spoke of the pain he suffered from having been a prisoner at Auschwitz, the shame that continued to torment him, the revulsion he still felt not only towards those who participated in the brutality.


 Primo Levi was a fortunate survivor from the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Like other survivors he complained persistent anxieties. He was always fear-ridden. He was haunted by scenes of torture, mass killings and scenes of persecution. He suffered from chronic depression, psychosomatic symptoms, maladjustment and had sleep disturbances with terrifying nightmares. He could not articulate his traumatic emotions.

Lisa MaCann defines trauma thus: “The experience of trauma begins with exposure to a non- normative or highly distressing event a series of events that disrupts the self.” In 1889, Pierre Janet, postulated that “Intense emotions, cause memories of particular events to be dissociated from consciousness, and to be stored, instead, as visceral sensations (anxiety and panic), or as visual images (nightmares and flashbacks)” (1). Freud also considered the tendency to stay fixated on the trauma to be biologically based: “After severe shock the dream life continually takes the patient back to the situation of his disaster from which he awakens with renewed terror. the patient has undergone a physical fixation to the trauma”(4). Abram Kardiner started to treat traumatized survivors of the holocaust in U.S. Like Janet and Freud, he observed the nature of reenactment, and noted that “the subject acts as if the original traumatic situation were still in existence and engages in protective devices which failed on the original occasion”(82) Primo Levi describes the beginning of his hellish journey in a lyrical language thus:

…imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint. (27)

Levi defines two types of men who were divided into “ drowned , and the saved” in the Lager:

There come to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men-he saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the lucky and the fortunate) are considerably distinct…(87-88)


The inmates of the concentration camp learnt hybrid language, each word had different meaning, the words, hunger, winter, food, tiredness, fear and pain were meaningless since they could not enjoy free air. These “words are for free people, used by free men who live in comfort in homes” (123). But they had to endure endless suffocation, because of the free flow of the gas chambers. Levi recollects that he had to toil the whole day “with temperatures below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers and in one’s body nothing weakness, hunger and knowledge of the ending drawing near.(123)


Levi’s memoir, If this is a Man examines the process of dehumanization and total degradation of a human being in the Lager of the Nazis. Levi keeps memory alive to restore the world that is adrift and dissolution. He realized very early during his stay the purpose of the Lager was to kill the prisoners physically, destroy their individuality and dignity. Levi has recorded the multi-faceted methods of dehumanization and systematic butchering of the Nazi machine in simple but poignant language. Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, reports that he is a witness to Himmler’s famous declaration that the extermination of the Jews “is an unwritten, never to be written, page of glory in our history.” Levi experienced anxiety as he wanted to tell the truth to the world, it was “an immediate and violent impulse”. But Levi in the camp is haunted by a terrible fear, recounted in a recurring dream, that should he return to Turin even his family will suspect and ignore him.

It is an intense pleasure . . . to be at home . . . and to have so many things to recount: but . . . my listeners do not follow me. In fact they are completely indifferent: they speak . . . of other things among themselves, as if I was not there.”(55)

Levi struggled with homesickness and alienation in the beginning of his imprisonment. Home is defined by emptiness and void. Like many exiles he is profoundly ambivalent about his journey home, entering the old town as if in a dream. Levi’s The Reawakening is a poignant narrative of return,  recounting his journey back from Auschwitz to Italy. He is most tormented by a dread that home is a mere illusion of peace. In Turin Levi dreams of an “impending threat,” in which “everything collapses and disintegrates around me.” He imagines he is once again in the Lager, and that the peace of home is a mere deceptive pause. He is always haunted by the scenes of death and destruction of Auschwitz. The interior dream is shattered by the command to “Get up!” he heard each morning and that is part of the exterior nightmare.

Levi is psychologically distressed as he broods over the meaning of life and its existence. He realizes that life is uncertain and meaningless. He tries to adjust with new surroundings, learns the jargons of the Lager, and spends hours together while working about his wife and family and home. His wounded heart cries silently in despair as he encounters a wide spectrum of prisoners. Levi recollects that when he and other thirty prisoners arrive at Auschwitz, the Germans put the new prisoners into an enormous empty room that is poorly heated. Levi describes the physical ailments of the prisoners who were suffering from dehydration and hearing the weak gurgles of the water in the radiators “which makes them ferocious as they taste the dryness of their mouth.”(22). Levi is almost in a trance when he recollects that there was a tap and above it, was a card which warned the prisoners to drink water as it was dirty. Levi was repeatedly warned that “You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, and the only exit is by way of Chimney. The delusions of persecution disturbed his mental order and he became traumatic personality, a victim of schizophrenia.


Trauma alters the very subjectivity of its victim. As Jean Améry, a holocaust survivor originally from Austria, writes in the same chapter, “Whoever was tortured stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him” (BGA 34). Understood as an event that overwhelms the subject’s ability to process what he is undergoing, trauma robs subjectivity of its very foundation, what Améry calls his “trust in the world” (28). It is only his “trust in the world” that allows the subject to imagine himself as whole and as the master of his own being. Trauma destroys this “irrational and logically unjustifiable belief” (28). In trauma, “the other is on me, and thereby destroys me” (28). This disrupts even memory formation since normal memory is constantly assimilated into the subject’s self-identity.

 Primo Levi, prisoner number 174517, is well known as a survivor of the Auschwitz Holocaust. He was imprisoned in the Carpi Fòssoli concentration camp in Italy in 1943, the Italians deported him to Auschwitz in February 1944, where he remained in the Monowitz Lager (Auschwitz III) until its liberation in January 1945. Of the 650 prisoners who were taken to Auschwitz with Levi, only fifteen men and eight women survived. The master plan of the Germans was called “final solution” to decimate all the Jews from the world. In the camps the prisoners who didn’t know the German language were killed mercilessly and brutally. Levi realized the importance of communication skill, he would not accept the notion that it is impossible to communicate. He makes this clear in his book The Drowned and the Saved when he tells:

To say that it is impossible to communicate is false: one always can. To refuse to communicate is a falling: we are biologically and socially predisposed to communication, and in particular to its highly evolved and noble form which is language (89)

 Belpoliti recognized Primo Levi as ‘the privileged witness of one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century’ (6). Primo Levi is a great 20th-century writer but not explored like Proust, Joyce or Eliot. Primo Levi, chronicler of the twentieth century’s darkest inferno, has been called a Dante of the modern times. Like Dante, Levi maps out the full panorama of his hell, and like Dante he pays special attention to its human inhabitants Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919, and deported to Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 24. Levi wrote If This Is A Man (1946) depicting the horrors of the holocaust. The focus in the novel is on depicting the growth of consciousness: the memories, reflections, dreams, and nightmares of isolated individuals. The novel shows that there is something even worse than physical murder: the destruction of the victims’ humanity and dignity which preceded it. Levi narrates the story with justice and dispassion, transforming extreme suffering into knowledge and understanding. The holocaust trauma had an eternal impact on his sensitive soul, he became the victim of depression and endless trauma, he tried to relieve the stress through writings but the memories of holocaust always haunted him day and night, he became a divided self, between Jewishness and Italian-ness but deeply between public and private, ideal and reality, conscious and unconscious. Tensions gripped him, his surface slowly cracked, his wife and children could not talk to him about Auschwitz, he felt lonely often transported in a trance. He had become a split personality, the polite and patient sage above, the lonely, self-doubting man below. Primo Levi is best known for his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, but he was also a scientist, fiction writer, and a poet. Levi did not want to be known exclusively as a Holocaust writer. He was a talented writer who had a profound love of humanity, a sharp wit, a passion for his people, a survivor of the Holocaust genocide. His novel is about a survivor. Levi managed to live in Auschwitz in a state. In the Lager there were no criminals, because there was no moral law to violate, and no madmen, because the prisoners were devoid of free will. (89)

Levi himself describes as “exceptional spiritedness”, a state which allowed him to record in exceptional detail the sometimes human, sometimes inhuman world he was forced to inhabit.” Ann Goldstein, editor of The New Yorker commented thus on the theme and historical significance of the novel: “The memoir Survival in Auschwitz opens “our ears and minds to a richer understanding of one of the most subtle and complex writers of the twentieth century.” He editor of Publishers Weekly reported thus: This is a measured and sensitive academic exploration of a complicated and tortured soul who desperately sought freedom throughout his lifetime.” The editor of Library Journal commented thus: “The author understands Levi as a heroic witness to Auschwitz and reads his work as redemptive and spiritual” The Holocaust taught him the urgency of understanding oneself as integrally connected with others, whether one wants to be or not. The Holocaust was horrible, and virtually inexpressible, but his nightmare put him new courage to make decisions in life. Levi invites us to ask ourselves whether we have the strength to stand up against the trivial problems of “ordinary life,” Levi’s main character is Primo Levi: a more or less factual version of himself created in a long series of memoirs, stories, essays, poems, and interviews. It is observed that when we read the plot of Levi we experience a sense of guilt, readers are implicated for their being human being because he tells the Hobbesian nature of man, “nasty, murderous, rapacious, selfish mean.” It is the sensation he noticed in the eyes of his Russian liberators in The Reawakening, the shame “the just man experiences at another man’s crime.” This shame is an indictment of human beings just for being in the midst of a cruel world. Dante’s Inferno had great impact on the mind and thoughts of Levi, he experienced the nature of hell through Dante as he finds the world tainted even before the holocaust and indeed he visualized the transcendental vision of evil. In the Lager, Levi met an Italian girl, Vanda Maestro, and they had fallen in love, but their situation was unbearably tragic. She survived for eight months. Levi writes in The Truce: “Vanda had died by gas, fully conscious, in the month of October. (162)


Primo Levi is the main protagonist of the holocaust memoir, If This is Man (1959) in America. It was published as Survivors of Auschwitz. Levi was deported on 20Feb, 1943 when he was only twenty four years old. Levi observes thus:Even the children, even the old, even the ill. Our destination? Nobody knew. We should be prepared for a fortnight of travel. For every person missing at the roll-call, ten would be shot” Rubenstein records that at Auschwitz was the largest killing center, “the magnitude of death was equivalent of one death per minute, day and night, for a period of three years”. (145) Rosensaft observes that Auschwitz had become one of the largest communities in history. “More Jews arrived at Auschwitz from al1 over German-occupied Europe, more Jews lived in Auschwitz, more Jews perished in Auschwitz in a shorter period of time than anywhere else in the world” (53). Levi begins to realize that it is blind fate that determines who will live. Often the young and the stronger are sent to the gas chambers while, illogically, the old and the sick are left to live for at least one more term. Levi recognizes this deception: “This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this” (18). Privacy is not allowed in this hell, and modesty is useless. The act of disinfecting by taking a shower is a requirement for entering a world already infested with a diseased morality as well as physical filth. (19-20) The imprisoned men and women were deprived of their loved ones, their homes, their customs, their clothing, in fact everything. Among the unpleasant sounds of kicks and many foreign tongues, the prisoners soon discovered the nature of hell. Among the physical hardships, hunger proves the moa tormenting. Food becomes the fixation that will burst into dreams. The Lager signifies starvation and the prisoners are personified as living victims of hunger. Its force sometimes makes them forget their other pains. This vision of earthly hell clearly suggests the very depths of human experience. Levi sees the camp as being divided between the “drowned,” who will soon succumb, and the “‘saved,” who manage in one way or another to survive or are at least able to postpone their death. Germans succeeded in destroying the last vestige of human dignity in any inhabitant of the Lager:To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded” Levi ironically focuses on the obverse process, not explosion of light into the world, nor the separation of light from darkness, nor the first day of creation, but the last night before the trip to Auschwitz: “And the night came, and it was such a night that one knew that human eyes would not witness it and survive” ( 11). In Drowned and the Saved, Levi relates the story of a barber, a proud supporter of Stalin, who was outraged by the skeptical pessimism of his interlocutor because, as a firm believer, he could never give way to despair (119).


Charlotte Dildo is not a Jewish woman but a French woman survivor of the holocaust, her trilogy Auschwitz and After entitled The Measure of Our is based on interviews she contacted about 20 years after their liberation with survivors of the deportation-train from 24th January 1943 from Romainville to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dildo was born in 1913 near Paris, she was a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne University before the war, and married George Dubach who was a member of French Resistance. She was arrested in May, 1942 and shipped to Auschwitz-Birkeneu in 1943.Of 230 women, 49 including Dildo survived. In this study, Dildo’s famous work Auschwitz and After is discussed as a case study to grapple with the traumas of life. Dildo has always maintained a distinction between her Auschwitz self and her post Auschwitz self. Her traumatic experiences indicate how survival often means living in multiple time and places. Susan J. Brison observes that “the externalization of her memories in narrative form allows Dildo to reclaim the self-devastated by trauma”. Her conversation with Françoise, one of the former deportees, starts with the statement:

To start life over again, what an expression … If there is a thing you can’t do over again, a thing you can’t start over again, it is your life. You could erase and begin anew … Erase and cover with writing the words that were there before … It doesn’t seem possible.” (.348)

Dildo’s reflections of her painful past acts as a survival mechanism to live with the burden of terrifying experiences. Indeed Dildo has provided to the readers beautiful account of the worst. Dildo argues that the skins of painful memories are engraved on the bodies of the survivors and that rotten memory will be drunk, morning, noon and night. Delbo’s memoir concerns her experiences as a prisoner of the Nazi concentration camps, which constitute a particularly acute instance of an atrocity that shatters existing frameworks of meaning. The Holocaust is widely understood as a defining historical trauma, an event that changed our understanding of the world and of the human capacity to commit horrifying atrocities. Delbo’s work demonstrates the radical loss of self-engendered by the trauma of Auschwitz, and also speaks to the re-formation of the self through articulation of the narrative. Delbo’s sense that she lost herself in the Holocaust is very clear; Lawrence Langer notes that the theme of Auschwitz and After “was best expressed by one of Delbo’s fellow deportees when she interviewed her years after their return: ‘I died in Auschwitz, and no one knows it.’”(18) None of Us Will Return,” is perhaps the starkest statement of what becomes of the individual at the mercy of the SS in a concentration camp. Rothberg in Traumatic Realism observes that title “negates or puts into question the future tense in order to interrogate the possibility and meaning of survival and return.”( 156) Delbo writes toward the end of this first book, “What difference does it make since none of them will return, since none of us will return.”(96) Delbo and the others are no longer exactly who they were before. Indeed, she writes in Days and Memory:

I am very fortunate in not recognizing myself in the self that was in Auschwitz. To return from there was so improbable that it seems to me I was never there at all… I feel that the one who was in the camp is not me, is not the person who is here, facing you. (3)

To Delbo those who return from Auschwitz no longer embody their former selves; they have been utterly transformed by the trauma of what they have seen and experienced The third book in the trilogy, called “The Measure of Our Days,” is concerned with the “after” of Auschwitz and After. Delbo takes on the perspectives of the others with whom she was imprisoned in the concentration camp. Delbo expresses her poignant agony thus:

It seems to me I’m not alive. Since all are dead, it seems impossible I shouldn’t be also. All dead… How could those stronger and more determined than I be dead, and I remain alive? Can one come out of there alive? No. It wasn’t possible.”(257)


 Delbo depicts the impact of harrowing episodes of death and destruction on her sensitive soul, she talks about the loss of power of imagination. Her power to reason was impaired because of nihilistic thoughts. The process of disintegration of the individual became a reality after her release from the annihilation camps. Delbo elucidates the consequences of the destruction of the imaginative power in the 2nd volume of her trilogy entitled Useless Knowledge:

You may say that one can take away everything from a human being except the faculty of thinking and imagining. You have no idea. […] Imagination is the first luxury of a body receiving sufficient nourishment, enjoying a margin of free time, possessing the rudiments from which dreams are fashioned. People did not dream in Auschwitz, they were in a state of delirium. (168)

Delbo’s The Measure of Our Days refers to the strange quality of the world after the Holocaust, and the fact that the survivors’ lives became a distorted shadow of what they had been before.

Of the immediate reality of her return from the camps, Delbo writes:

With the utmost difficulty, the ultimate effort of my memory—but why speak of memory since I had none left?—an effort I cannot name, I tried to recall the gestures you must make in order to assume once again the shape of a living being in this life. Walk, speak, answer questions, state where you want to go, go there. I had forgotten all this. Had I ever known it?”(236)

Delbo loved the theatrical techniques, she was very hungry but she gave her food to get the copy of Moliere’s Les Misanthrope. She memorized the text of Moliere by heart during “ roll call” of the prisoners when they were ordered to stand for hours in the inclement weather Delbo used to memorize the dialogues, would recite the dialogues of Moliere to the prisoners who would give her a loaf of bread. She used the tool of aesthetic as a survival strategy to cope with the harshness and cruelties of the Gestapo. Delbo writes of the prisoners in Auschwitz thus:

Each one had taken along his or her memories, the whole load of remembrance, the weight of the past. On arrival, we had to unload it. We went in naked. You might say one can take everything away from a human being except this one faculty: memory. Not so. First, human beings are stripped of what makes them human, then their memory leaves them. Memory peels off like tatters, tatters off burned skin.” (235)

Delbo ties the loss of memory directly to the loss of self in a chapter at the end of None of Us Will Return” called “Springtime.” She writes that in Auschwitz, she can no longer remember the beauty of spring outside the camps


 They thought I’d lost my mind. I couldn’t hear anything, see anything. They even thought I had gone blind. It took me a long time later on to explain that, without being blind, I saw nothing. All my senses had been abolished by thirst.(142)

The agony of Delbo’s thirst had been so complete that she was near death, in both a physical and an existential sense. Delbo risked her life by breaking away to drink from a nearby brook, but she didn’t get any relief and her torment continued.. The taste of that muddy water remained deep in her memories till date. Delbo writes recorded her traumatic episode thus:

No, it is not marsh water, it is a brook… It is not swampy water, but it tastes of rotting leaves, and I feel this taste in my mouth even today as soon as I think of this water, even when I do not think of it .(72)

The physical transformation from human to nothing, which begins in the station and lasts throughout the text, illustrates the powerful dehumanizing forces against which Delbo and her fellow prisoners struggle. The prisoners were often forced to stand naked for hours together. They were the greatest victims of the Nazis’ attack on humanity. Auschwitz and After teems with accounts of the degraded bodies of the dead and the anguishing bodies of the living. She lost faith in everything and found the universe polluted and tainted as she expresses her poignant cry thus: “Everything was false, faces and books, everything showed me its falseness and I was in despair at having lost the faculty of dreaming, of harboring illusions.”(238-39) again we see Delbo’s feeling of having lost her more cerebral functions, the elements that compose the self. The loss of such faculties is one of the hallmarks of trauma, which constitutes a threat to the most important aspects of identity.



Primary source

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. Trans. Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven, Yale UP, 1995.Print.

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