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Primo Levi: English Translations

Primo Michele Levi [1919–1987] was an Italian Jewish chemist, scientist, Holocaust survivor, writer, journalist and poet. He was the author of two novels and several collections of short stories, essays, and poems. He is best known for If This Is a Man, his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. It has been described as one of the best books by one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. His unique work The Periodic Table was shortlisted as one of the greatest scientific books ever written, by the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Levi's autobiographical book about his liberation from Auschwitz, The Truce, became a movie with the same name in 1997.



Shema
by Primo Levi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You who live secure
in your comfortable homes,
who return each evening to find
warm food and welcoming faces ...

Consider: is this a "man"
who slogs through the mud,
who knows no peace,
who fights for crusts of bread,
who dies at another man's whim,
at his "yes" or his "no."

Consider: is this is a "woman"
bald and bereft of a name
because she lacks the strength to remember,
her eyes as void and her womb as frigid
as a winter frog's.

Consider that such horrors have indeed been!

I commend these words to you.
Engrave them in your hearts
when you lounge in your beds
and again when you rise,
when you venture outside.
Repeat them to your children,
or may your houses crumble
and disease render you helpless
so that even your offspring avert their eyes.



Buna
by Primo Levi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Mangled feet, cursed earth,
the long interminable line in the gray morning
as Buna smokes corpses through industrious chimneys ...

Another gray day like every other day awaits us.

The terrible whistle shrilly announces dawn:
"Rise, wretched multitudes, with your lifeless faces,
welcome the monotonous hell of the mud ...
another day’s suffering has begun!"

Weary companion, I know you well.

I see your dead eyes, my disconsolate friend.
In your breast you bear the burden of cold, deprivation, emptiness.
Life long ago broke what remained of the courage within you.

Colorless one, you once were a real man;
a considerable woman once accompanied you.

But now, my invisible companion, you lack even a name.
So forsaken, you are unable to weep.
So poor in spirit, you can no longer grieve.
So tired, your flesh can no longer shiver with fear ...

My once-strong man, now spent,
were we to meet again
in some other world, beneath some sunnier sun,
with what unfamiliar faces would we recognize each other?

Note: Buna was the largest Auschwitz sub-camp, with around 40,000 foreigners “workers” who had been enslaved by the Nazis. Primo Levi called the Jews of Buna the “slaves of slaves” because the other slaves outranked them. Despite Buna’s immense size and four years of activity, according to Levi it never produced a kilo of its intended product: synthetic rubber. Levi described Buna as “desperately and essentially opaque and gray.” He said not a blade of grass grew within the compound because its soil had been impregnated with the “poisonous juices of coal and petroleum” so that nothing was alive but machines and slaves, with the former “more alive” than the latter. Levi also related hearing a Buna Kapo say that the only way Jews could leave Auschwitz was “through the Chimney” of the crematorium. It is possible that the companion being addressed in “Buna” is Primo Levi himself, recognizing what he had been reduced to.

The following are links to other Holocaust poetry translations by Michael R. Burch:

Miklós Radnóti
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Bertolt Brecht

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