In the dark constellation of Holocaust witness, Primo Levi's voice has always been thought singular. His memoir If This Is a Man, published only two years after the end of his year of slavery at the Monowitz concentration camp (also known as Auschwitz III), is shocking for its dispassionate tone. Readers and critics have attributed the unemotional, deeply honest account of life in the Lager to the workings of a scientific mind: the probing, classifying eye of the young chemist pondering the inverted universe in which he had discovered himself. "A theoretician of moral biochemistry," is what Philip Roth dubbed him. "The creature caught in the laboratory of the mad scientist is himself the epitome of the rational scientist."

So dominant is this perception of Levi that it almost comes as no surprise to learn now that his very first published writing, rediscovered after more than half a century, was a scientific paper buried in the back pages of an Italian medical journal. "Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz–Upper Silesia)"—published now as Auschwitz Report—was cowritten by Levi sometime after his liberation in the winter of 1945, as he nursed his broken, pleurisy-ridden body back to health at the Soviet-run Katowice transit camp. The other author was Leonardo
De Benedetti, a doctor from Turin, twenty years Levi's senior, and 1 of the 24 (out of 650) surviving Italian Jews transported with Levi to Auschwitz. At the request of the Soviets, then collecting information on Nazi crimes, the two collaborated on an account of life in the camps. What the physician and the chemist produced was a vision of their year of hell filtered through the language of science, or, as the introduction to this new English translation puts it, reduced to "physiology and pathology."

Our technical knowledge of the Nazi enterprise is so extensive by now that there is very little that can seem new—especially not this fifty-page document. Its concern is the microscopic: how many grams of bread the prisoners were allotted a day (an average of five hundred), what was in the soup (cabbage and turnips), how often they were given new underwear (every thirty to fifty days). A large chunk, probably written by De Benedetti, is taken up with a detailed description of the various diseases the inmates were subject to, from the dystrophic to the infective.

It's no mystery that this report's significance and the reason for its republication lie only in the glance it might offer us of Levi's emerging style, a chance to see a first draft of what would be his masterpiece. But, in fact, the opposite happens. Placed next to If This Is a Man, the scientific perspective of the report seems highly limited and not at all at the source of his later book's beauty. Reading it makes us grateful not for Levi's precision—though this surely adds to his memoir's greatness—but rather for all the elements that are absent in the report but present in the book: both the poetry of his language and his profound insight into the human condition. If Levi's voice stands out as unique in Holocaust literature, it's not the scientist within him that makes it such. Rather, as we discover in this little report, it's the man.

 
     
     
 
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AUSCHWITZ REPORT BY PRIMO LEVI WITH LEONARDO DE BENEDETTI, TRANSLATED BY JUDITH WOOLF, EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY ROBERT S. C. GORDON. NEW YORK: VERSO. 98 PAGES. $18. BUY NOW