History is weighed at Gossett Lecture

Invited speaker Alvin H. Rosenfeld examined Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s post-war writings and his search for closure.

By Jon Catlin

At the annual Gossett Lecture in Swift Hall on February 20, invited speaker Alvin H. Rosenfeld examined Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s post-war writings and his search for closure.

Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, traced themes of forgiveness in the work of Levi, an Italian chemist and writer who survived many months in Auschwitz and depicted his time in the camp through memoirs and poems.

“Unlike many Jewish victims, Levi stated that he didn’t hate the Germans, but also that he was in no position to absolve them of their crimes,” Rosenfeld said. “[He tried] to come to clarity about the Germans and understand the Holocaust—both what happened and why it happened. In Levi’s own words, ‘Germany cannot and must not whitewash its past.’”

According to Rosenfeld, figuring out an explanation for the Holocaust became Levi’s lifelong mission. After getting unsatisfying answers, Levi began learning German, a language other Jewish survivors despised, and made more than 15 visits to the country in his lifetime.

“For Levi, a lifelong rationalist, not to think was not to be. He simply couldn’t turn off his questioning of the Holocaust and what really motivated the Germans to commit such atrocities,” Rosenfeld said.

Levi spent nearly forty years of his life writing to the German people in search of an answer. Levi’s work was not widely read until after his sudden death by falling in 1987. The coroner ruled Levi’s death a suicide, but others have contested that claim, calling it an accident.

“He wanted confrontation and clarity, but in the end he only got evasiveness and silence. In Levi’s words, ‘the Germans were imprisoned in their ruin and old tangle of pride and guilt,’” Rosenfeld said. “True to his training as a chemist, Levi conducted his search for answers rather scientifically, but after 40 years of work, it is doubtful that Levi ever found what he was searching for.”

The Jean and Harold Gossett Lecture was established in 1997 in memory of Holocaust victims Martha and Paul Feivel Korngold to highlight issues in modern Jewish culture, specifically focusing on the Holocaust. The event was sponsored by the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies.