|Ulysses (Odysseus) and Diomedes, punished in the Eight Circle for their perfidious Trojan Horse ploy.|
By Myron Magnet, in City Journal
"It is almost sacrilege to try to say what happened in the Nazi concentration camps, and the most respectful approach is to let the survivors recount how the Germans carried out their “resolution . . . to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards,” as Primo Levi puts it in Survival in Auschwitz. “Nothing belongs to us any more. They have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, . . . so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” Deprived of everything, one “becomes a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. . . . It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term ‘extermination camp.’ ”
Ten months after his arrival, when 21 of the 96 Italians transported to the camp together remained alive, despite the cold, the starvation, the intentionally murderous labor, the humiliation, the dirt, and the gas—and two months before the Germans fled before the approaching Russians—Levi tries to teach Italian to a Frenchman, one of the few quasi-friends whom the extremity of life at the bottom, as he calls it, allowed him to make. The task is impossible in the moments he can snatch for it, of course. But he tries to translate Dante, and he suddenly feels it is essential for his friend to understand this tercet:
Think of your breed; for brutish ignoranceYour mettle was not made; you were made men,To follow after knowledge and excellence.
“As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God,” Levi marvels. You were made men. But by the time the Russians draw near, that trumpet blast has faded. “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to make one: . . . but you Germans have succeeded . . . . Because we also are broken, conquered.”
You were made men. That’s Ulysses, as Dante makes him speak, crystallizing the very heart of Western civilization, from classical antiquity to the Christian Middle Ages and beyond—the ideal that the Nazis, antihuman Übermenschen subjugating subhuman slaves whose only escape was “by way of the Chimney,” succeeded in trampling for a blood-drenched interval in civilized Europe’s center, not in some remote, myth-shrouded era but in the lifetime of this elderly writer. To understand the knowledge and excellence whose pursuit, Dante says, defines humanity requires understanding its opposite, its starting point: the fact “that man, the human species—we, in short—had the potential to construct an infinite enormity of pain,” to use Levi’s words once more."