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Echoes of Auschwitz in Manus memoir

  • 27 March 2019


In July 2016 I contributed a piece on Primo Levi to Eureka Street. I briefly referred to Levi's Auschwitz incarceration, his brilliance as a scientist — his The Periodic Table was short-listed by the London Royal Institution as a candidate for the best scientific book ever written — and his untimely death. Whether tragic accident or suicide will never be known.

No one could have been further from the world of the Romantic poets than holocaust survivor Levi yet, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, he was haunted by traumatic memories and somehow, in some form or another, doomed to retell them.

Levi recounts details of a recurring dream in which he is back in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The realities of the camp are so overwhelming, so pressing that they still, years later, dominate his mind, his imagination, his memory, even his sleep. He is plagued by fleeting and fragmentary images of extraordinary endurance, good and bad luck, suffering, loss, slivers of hope brutally extinguished, desperate goals:

'Today, in this place, our only purpose is to reach the Spring. At the moment we care about nothing else'; ' ... scores of prisoners driven desperate by hunger prowl around, with lips half-open and eyes gleaming, lured by a deceptive instinct to where the merchandise shown makes the gnawing of their stomachs more acute ...

'I bite deeply into my lips; we know well that to gain a small, extraneous pain serves as a stimulant to mobilise our last reserves of energy. The Kapos also know it: some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load, almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses'; ' ... we unload the [railway] sleeper on the ground and I remain stiff, with empty eyes, open mouth and hanging arms, sunk in the ephemeral and negative ecstasy of the cessation of pain'.

As Jeff Sparrow points out in a splendid piece in the Sydney Review of Books (21 September 2018), 'One hesitates to invoke Auschwitz in a discussion of Australia's asylum seeker detention regime, a system that, for all its horrors, does not implement genocide.' It is, however, tremendously difficult not to be haunted by the well-known images and, in concluding my reflection on Primo Levi in July 2016, I wrote, with no sense or implication whatsoever of prescience, merely blind hope:

'Some day, one of