Primo Levi and Edith Bruck, no longer being and yet becoming

French toast

by Edith Bruck

Translated from Italian by René de Ceccatty

Editions du Sous-Sol, 170 p., €16.50

Auschwitz, quiet town

by Primo Levi

Translated from Italian and prefaced by René de Ceccatty

Albin Michel, 200 pages, €19

“New words are needed, including to tell Auschwitz, a new language, a language that hurts less than mine, maternal”, entrusts the Hungarian writer Edith Bruck to the heart of the story of her life, French toast, written in 2020 in the new words of Italian – like all his work since 1959 – as he approaches his 90th birthday. A title in a poignant echo of her mother’s panic at the time of her family’s arrest, while she was kneading their daily bread, the abandoned dough piece becoming forever the synecdoche of their trampled past, of all that they were and would no longer be.

→ CRITICAL. “The Human Species and Other Writings from the Camps”, Holocaust Literature

Concentrated and lively like a citrus essence, her story sheds light on the innocence of a young Jewish girl that a fatal shadow will come to cover. Using few words, and often dialogues to modestly tell a raw truth, Edith Bruck recounts the rise of anti-Semitism in her village and the shift towards the unimaginable. “The shadow that floated inside and outside them became darker and darker and more penetrating. The summer sun did not seem to warm souls. Even the flowers in the pretty gardens were thirsty and no one sang like before, in the evening, in the courtyards, the beautiful popular songs (…) Summer fled in a flash, as if it had not occurred. »

The riddle of evil and the evidence of good

Then comes the separation from his family and the monstrosity of the camps. She and her sister Judit – in Birkenau, Auschwitz, Dachau, Kaufering, Bergen-Belsen – cling to their mother’s faith, to her “Tales of the Promised Land”, and to the certainty that “the Red Sea will reopen” in front of them. The reconstruction will be different for each: founding of a family in Palestine for the eldest, artistic reconquest in Europe for Edith, in an inextinguishable appetite. The disappointing Budapest will remain forever behind them: “The city dreamed of a thousand times had the red of the flag as its only color, and everywhere we came across traces of the battle. The blue Danube had quickly digested the blood of the dead and had taken on the yellow color: that of the star on the chest of those shot. The precocious grayness of autumn was a coat that enveloped everything, without a face, except Russian, being able to smile. »

Twelve years her junior, Edith Bruck was the friend of Primo Levi, whose unpublished short stories have just been published in French. We find there the tireless attempt of the writer to approach the enigma of evil without pushing back the evidence of good. In one of his many references to Dante, as Fabio Levi and Domenico Scarpa indicate in the postscript, Primo Levi marches in a poem an army of ants doomed to their destruction, pointing out the ineffability of his own experience, in a preterition: “I don’t want to write it/I don’t want to write anything about this procession/I don’t want to write anything about any brown procession. »

→ MAINTENANCE. Magda Hollander-Lafon: “A single look can save a being”

In these twelve texts, he returns, again, to the Lager “, summoning the feelings, the memory of people, like so many memorials both derisory and vital. “I must have overcome the hardest crisis, that of insertion into the order of the Lager, and a strange callus must have formed on me since then I managed not only to survive, but also to think , to record the world around me, and even to carry out a rather delicate work, in an environment infected by the daily presence of death and that at the same time the approach of the liberating Russians, who had already arrived eighty kilometers away of us, made him frantic. Despair and hope alternated at a rate that would have shattered any normal person in an hour. »


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