By Morris Dean
In 2007, Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) dedicated The Portable Atheist to Primo Levi (1919-1987). Levi spent a year as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where, Hitchens comments, he "had the moral fortitude to refuse consolation even while enduring the 'selection' process."
Two short selections from Levi's writings:
Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that the next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer. [From If This Is a Man (1959)]
I too entered the Lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my nonbelief. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice...I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death...naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the "commission" that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it. [From The Drowned and the Saved (1986)]Hitchens quoted these two selections on his dedication page, and in quoting them he was presenting the first two of The Portable Atheist's "essential readings for the nonbeliever." Like Levi, Hitchens didn't pray either during the months between June 2010 and December 2011 when esophageal cancer was herding him to an early death.
We're not in the Lager ourselves, and so far as I know we don't have esophageal cancer. The "commission" isn't checking our index cards and eyeing our fitness to go on living. But Nature, let's say, is. We may have or get something other than esophageal cancer. One way or another, one day we won't be fit enough to go on. Will we, too, have the courage to refuse to pray not to be "selected"?
Copyright © 2013 by Morris Dean