This is how naive I am: I never understood why Primo Levi killed himself. I'd long admired and devoured the works of the Italian chemist who wrote of his experiences surviving the Holocaust. When he committed suicide in 1987, at the age of 67, I couldn't fathom it. Hadn't he survived the worst? Hadn't he transformed his suffering into art? Hadn't the worst memories softened over time, the worst scars healed?
That's the American way of grief: stuff happens, you get over it.
Maybe for some people, in some situations, that's true. But the Holocaust is different, too, when it comes to memory. Its shadows darken and lengthen; its pain grows more, not less intense.
This may be the result of the process of recovering memory, something writers like Levi must feel compelled to do. When historian Iris Chang also took her life in 2004, at the age of 36, she left a note blaming her immersion in the horrid details of the Japanese occupation of China, which she chronicled in "The Rape of Nanking."
But it's not just a professional hazard. A study published in Israel in August found that elderly Holocaust survivors are "at an increased risk for a reactivation of the symptoms of trauma, depression and suicide." The study of patients at a psychiatric hospital in Tel Aviv found nearly 25 percent of the Holocaust survivors studied attempted suicide compared to 8.2 percent among those with no World War II experience.
Or, as Elie Wiesel said at the news of Primo Levi's death: "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later."
Just a month before Auschwitz Liberation Day, which takes place on Jan. 27, Oprah Winfrey selected "Night," Wiesel's own memoir of his internment in Auschwitz, as one of her Book Club books, guaranteeing that slim, searing volume a new audience of millions of people whose exposure to the Shoah might, until now, not extend beyond those clips of nominated documentaries they show during the Academy Awards. Boy, will that ever change.
I walked into Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade last Sunday afternoon and was confronted by a stack of "Night" a yard tall. And that's the beginning: Oprah will accompany her Book Club selection with a televised visit to Auschwitz, guided by Wiesel, discussions on air with survivors and experts, plus additional readings and segments on the Holocaust.
Good for her, really. People are ascribing all sorts of nasty motives to Oprah for picking "Night," such as the need to choose a real, factual memoir when her last pick turned out to be, at best, faction. Any way you can get the Holocaust and its lessons down the gullet of an anti-historical nation, good. Her challenge, I suppose, will be how she can she give her audience a taste and still leave them, as shows like hers must, with an ultimately uplifting, life-affirming and commercial-selling message. In an age and a format where every sorrow must have its silver lining, every tragedy its release, the Shoah is stubborn: there's nothing therapeutic about confronting the Holocaust.
Last week I had dinner with Hannah Lessing, the woman in charge of the Austrian government's reparation funds to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Lessing is vibrant, young, quick-witted (that means she laughed at my jokes) and articulate.
Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, who with his wife, Susan, hosted Lessing, began his toast to her by repeating an old, tongue-in-cheek aphorism: "It used to be said that Austrians are Germans who don't apologize." But thanks to a series of proactive measures by the Austrian government -- beginning with a much-belated statement of apology to Shoah victims in 1991 and continuing on to this week's much-belated decision to return priceless paintings to their rightful Jewish owners (see story on page 14) -- that perception has changed.
And for that Weiss also credited Lessing, the Viennese-born granddaughter of survivors. For more than 10 years she has traveled the globe, meeting with Austrian Holocaust survivors, collecting and processing their claims, hearing their stories.
Lessing said that success takes its toll. She and her staff of more than 100, "almost all non-Jews," undergo regular therapy. Generations removed from the horrors of those years, they often find themselves unable to shake the darkness to which they've been exposed.
In "The Truce," Primo Levi wrote of a recurring dream, in which he wakes up to find that his normal life is but a dream, and the reality is he is still in Auschwitz.
"I am in the Lager once more," he writes, "and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, Wstaw?ch."
I've found the more I read about the Holocaust, the more survivors I speak with, the less I get it. This is what the Holocaust is for the rest of us: a journey into sadness, with no end, no meaning, no exit. Welcome, Oprah's Book Club members. Hope you enjoy the show.
To link to more information on Hannah Lessing and the Austrian claims process, see this article at www.jewishjournal.com.