Hear O Ye Who Live Secure
Accompanying the preface of Survival in Auschwitz, Levi’s poem “Shema” calls everybody that lives a secure life to hear the poet well. The Hebrew word, ‘Shema,’ means ‘Listen (Guiliani 73).’ Those that listen to the poet but do not remember his words or convey them to their children are cursed by the poet. According to Patruno, the poet uses the Shema, a prayer known to and read by all Jews because he is insecure about his Jewish identity. The Bible had referred to the Jews as the favorites of God. The fact that Levi was severely punished by the Germans for being Jewish is an “assault to his dignity (Patruno 45).” Levi is uncomfortable “about his spiritual identity,” according to Patruno (45). Incarceration may have led him to believe that there is something wrong with being Jewish. At the same time, however, it is clear to the reader that Levi would like to assert his Jewish identity with the belief that there is nothing wrong with being Jewish. After all, in the hearts and minds of those that have faith in the Bible there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the warnings of God seriously.
In fact, Levi’s poem, “Shema,” which is “untitled as epigraph” in Suvival in Auschwitz, is an echo of the most important prayer known to Jews (Boone). This original prayer may be found in the Bible’s Deuteronomy 6:5:9. It begins with the following words: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Boone).” All Christians are aware that this is among the most important lines, if not the most significant line in the Old Testament. Regardless of who wrote the Bible’s Deuteronomy, the fact remains that only God or a prophet of God has the right to speak such words in the context of the Bible. Boone writes that Levi did not see himself as a prophet when he wrote “Shema,” although the poet could not have denied his vocation. Perhaps the poet was only regurgitating the Shema prayer of the Bible in his own way when he wrote the epigraph of his book. He would not have written Suvival in Auschwitz if he had only wished to read the scriptures. Writers and poets feel the need to write. It may be that Levi and his fellow Jews were reading the Shema of the Bible so often in Auschwitz that it was but natural for the poet to paraphrase it in his own way to start off his book, Suvival in Auschwitz. Perhaps Levi had wanted his writings to be among the most important lessons for generations to come. Undoubtedly, Levi’s story about Auschwitz remains with us today. Although many Jews have described Auschwitz, Levi’s writings continue to be considered as essential to our understanding of the atrocities that the Jews experienced at the hands of Christian Nazis.
Unlike Deuteronomy 6:5:9, Levi’s poem, “Shema” is addressed to all those that are living securely, regardless of whether they are Israelites, Christians, Muslims, Americans, Africans or others. Boone mentions that even Moses’ poem in Deuteronomy 32, another poem that Levi’s “Shema” seems to echo, is not meant for everybody except the Israelites. Moses’ poem is for the Israelites to keep “the harsh memory of the desert soujourn” in the forefronts of their minds (Boone). But, Levi would like all those that live in security to remember the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Unlike Moses, Levi does not want people to remember how God helped the Jews. Rather, he wants his readers to remember that those that lived in security did not bother to help him and his fellow Jews at their time of need. Even God did not come to their aid as soon as they were taken to Auschwitz. Even so, with an echo of holy words of the Bible, Levi’s “Shema” reminds the reader that the Jews did not give up on God during their time of severity.
Levi asks the readers of his poem, “Shema,” to read it at least twice each day. If they do not obey this command, the poet’s curses are on the readers. He would like all readers that live in security to take responsibility for what happened to the Jews in Auschwitz. If it happens to the Jews or another race ever again, the readers of Levi’s “Shema” are expected to stand for the human rights of oppressed people. According to Boone:
Speaking to the Germans Levi also implicates the reader in the crime, or at least in the
criminality of turning a deaf ear, and in the responsibility for ongoing witness. Toward the end
of his life, he saw reflection on the Holocaust traveling along convenient and non-threatening
avenues, in the direction of fully digested fact. With heroic patience he set out to show us what
was happening, to be a “nagging presence,” to hold up a mirror and with some sympathy and
understanding help us to see the unfolding process of distortion and self-serving deception. He
wanted to establish the unalterable nature of the Lager experience, the enormity of the offense,
and its connection to our humanity.
The prisoners themselves felt shame, felt implicated, not because they had actively
participated in the crimes, but because they saw the nature of the crime, and because such
absolute and irreversible injury had been inflicted by other human beings. They were
implicated by virtue of their knowledge, and through a common humanity. “For this reason, it
is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened (Boone).”
Levi may have believed that the memory he is asking his readers to keep in the forefronts of their minds may not help oppressed people in future in their time of need. After all, oppression may be described as a sun that never seems to set. It happens around the world almost all of the time. According to Levi’s “Shema,” knowing about oppression is to be enlightened. By keeping oppression in the forefronts of our minds, we are expected to remember the kinds of crimes that humanity is capable of committing. Levi’s “Shema” makes mention of the fact that it is possible for human beings to dehumanize other human beings. The poet asks his readers living in security to consider whether oppressed people in Auschwitz are real men and women. Once again, the reader must hark back to the Bible to understand what a real man or woman is. It is not enough to consider a philosopher’s definition of human nature. The fact that Levi’s “Shema” echoes the Deuteronomy’s Shema makes it clear that Levi would have his readers understand human beings through the eyes of God. Thus, Levi’s poem, “Shema” asks whether the oppressed people, too, are made in the image of God. If they are made in the image of God, they must be respected. If we cannot help them, the least we can do is to respect them. What is more, if we cannot help them, according to the tone set by Levi’s poem, “Shema,” the worst we can do is to refuse to curse the oppressors.
Levi believes that it is oppression itself to refuse to take responsibility for the suffering of other human beings. The best we can do, if we cannot help them directly, is to pray for them. Deuteronomy’s Shema is a prayer, after all. What is more, Levi, in his poem, “Shema,” would like his readers to be clear about the differences between human beings and dehumanized human beings, the oppressed and those that simply believe that they have no way to help the oppressed. In the Old Testament there are countless stories of oppression and God’s help for the oppressed. The Lord of Israel and His prophets also curse the oppressors in such stories. Levi obviously believes that the scriptures are true. It is for this reason that he reminds his readers of faith and religion through his poem, “Shema.” Regardless of whether his curses at the end of the poem are taken seriously or not by his readers, Levi believes in the power of prayers and curses. Furthermore, he believes that mankind is responsible for calling on God for help in the face of oppression. Although God is aware of everything that goes on, Levi would like all his readers living in security to behave as they truly are, that is, images of God on earth. If Hitler had the power to humiliate and kill millions of Jews, another human being may rise to save the oppressed at their time of need. In this way, Levi’s provocative curses toward the end of his poem, “Shema,” are meant to arouse hope in humanity.
Boone, Susan L. “Unvarnished Truth: The Chemistry of Shame in Primo Levi.” Judaism (Winter
1999). 26 Nov 2008.
Guiliani, Massimo. A Centaur in Auschwitz. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003.
Levi, Primo. Suvival in Auschwitz. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.
Patruno, Nicholas. Understanding Primo Levi. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina