Extenuating Circumstances

Adam Phillips

  • Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning by Paul Steinberg, translated by Linda Coverdale
    Allen Lane, 176 pp, £9.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9540 8

In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz If this is a man – written, he says, not ‘to formulate new accusations … rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ – there is an account that is a kind of accusation of a man Levi calls Henri. There are several character sketches of his fellow inmates, but the two pages on Henri are unusually troubled. Levi tends to know what he thinks of the people he remembers, but something about Henri makes him hesitate: ‘I know that Henri is living today,’ he concludes. ‘I would give much to know his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again.’ For some reason Levi didn’t want to know the next bit of the story: what happened to Henri, or perhaps to people like Henri.

If this is a man has the sober lucidity for which it has been perhaps too much celebrated because it has such a clear animating intention. Put crudely, Levi treats Auschwitz as a quasi-scientific experiment, as an enquiry into human nature in which what people are like in concentration camps can tell us something about what people are like in general and about the roots of morality. As though modern forms of torment might be in some way especially enlightening. For Levi, being in Auschwitz was above all a learning experience. Though written as ‘an interior liberation’, his memoir documents this gruelling episode of contemporary history in order to invite moral reflection.

Morality, like biology, is a key word for Levi, who often makes Auschwitz sound like the laboratory of a mad Darwinian god; and adaptation – another of Levi’s key words – is what is being tested for. The concentration camp shows in microcosm how evolution works; how the human organism, thrown against its will into the harshest of environments, keeps itself going; and morality, in this situation, looks like something our biology has come up with to help us get on in the world as we find it. So what was at stake for Levi in writing his book was as much the notion of morality as the survival of individuals. What most interests him, at least in retrospect, is what happened to people’s morality – their regard for others and themselves – in Auschwitz.

It was this that made Henri such a problem, because Henri’s morality, at least in Levi’s account, was entirely subservient to his need or wish to survive. His life mattered to him more than his (or Levi’s) scruples. And this meant that when it came to the crunch, as it frequently did in the camps, his own life mattered more to him than other people’s lives. If morality is what we share in order to be able to share anything else, Henri is ‘hard and distant, enclosed in armour, the enemy of all’. But Henri is also ‘eminently civilised and sane’: that is to say, he represents everything that Levi most cherishes and values in life. On the other hand, ‘survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world,’ Levi writes, ‘was conceded to very few superior individuals’ – and Henri was not one of them. Whether or not ‘superior individuals’ are those who under no circumstances sacrifice their personal morality – or, indeed, whether morality at its best is something that should be indifferent to circumstance – is the kind of moot point that Levi is not keen to consider. But now we have Henri’s own version of events – Paul Steinberg was his real name – in a book written forty years after the event. A book in other words long digested, written with a great deal of hindsight, and indeed foresight; a book all too mindful of the Holocaust industry and so of the genre in which it is written. And a book all too mindful of Primo Levi – who is referred to, one way or another, a dozen times or more – who had, as it were, none of the latecomer’s advantages and disadvantages.

If the question now is why read another Holocaust memoir given that we all know the basic story, and so can only be further horrified but not surprised, the reassuring answer would be that we read these books for some kind of instruction, though it’s not clear what exactly the instruction would be. Certainly, any other kind of pleasure would be inadmissible (these couldn’t really be anybody’s favourite books). But since knowing about the past, rather like not knowing about it, often encourages people to repeat it; and the telling of atrocities doesn’t seem to diminish their occurrence (the accounts always preach to the converted and incite the rest); we may be better placed now than ever before to wonder whether there’s any useful instruction to be had from such books. Whether, that is to say, they haven’t become the fiction of choice for contemporary armchair philosophers, telling us very little about morality and the human condition, and rather more about portentousness and our complicated love of bad news. There has been plenty of great poetry after Auschwitz.

Because imagining the Holocaust, and all the other comparable devastations of contemporary history, is unbearable – imagining what it was like to live it hour by hour – we are naturally intrigued by, or even suspicious of those who were able to bear it. Or, in Steinberg’s case, to make a success of it. What makes Steinberg’s account of ‘the after-affects of my years in boarding school, as I like to call them’ at once so disturbing and so compelling is that he writes of his time in Auschwitz as though he were the hero of a picaresque novel. ‘Sometimes,’ he writes, with the strange jokiness that characterises the book, ‘I think I could have had great expectations for my camp career if only the experiment had lasted longer.’ What Steinberg likes to call things, as opposed to what others would like him to call them, is in part what his book is about. And the urgency of recollection is matched by Steinberg’s urgent refusal to conform. In the camp, as in his writing, he stays clear of the available pieties. ‘I must not let the writings of other witnesses affect me,’ he writes: not because he doesn’t want to be moved, but because he doesn’t want to be recruited. ‘I am now certain of what I want to avoid: the museum of horrors, the litany of atrocities. Everything has been said, sometimes too cruelly.’ It is Steinberg’s honourable wish to avoid the gloating present in every dirge. How one writes about cruelty without being cruel would seem to be the right question. Memory must always be complicit with what it remembers. The museum and the litany celebrate our losses even as they mourn them.

Steinberg is intrigued by the trickiness of his experience in Auschwitz: not the lesson but the luck. ‘How can I justify those unbelievable strokes of luck,’ he asks, knowing just how rhetorical the question is, ‘that made me into this fireproof and unsinkable being?’ ‘For a lucky few of us,’ he writes, there was ‘gradual adaptation, the upward climb, and transformation into a different variety of human being, no longer Homo Sapiens but “extermination-camp man”’. Speak You Also is a very literary work – the title comes from Celan, the ‘happy few’ from Stendhal, and great expectations tells its own story, in a way – but it is interestingly haphazard in its ambition and its allusiveness (Levi is always sure, as a writer, about what goes where). That you had to be a new kind of new kind of person to survive in the camps, and that a Darwin-Lamarck story seems to have come to both their minds as an explanation, is not strange, given the circumstances (and the times). But Steinberg’s question is not: is it immoral to survive, if what one does in order to survive is immoral? What he asks is: is it immoral to be lucky? And one answer would be: it is immoral to be lucky when what you are calling ‘luck’ is something you yourself have organised. What Steinberg (and the rest of us) like to call ‘luck’ is sometimes disowned intention, masquerading as coincidence. And sometimes it is luck. Steinberg (like the rest of us) isn’t sure quite what he should be taking responsibility for; and he isn’t quite sure what Primo Levi holds him responsible for. It may be moral luck to find yourself in situations where your moral principles work, but in that case moral luck wouldn’t mean much more than never being in a new situation. Or it may be moral luck to come up with the morals you need in any given situation, but in that case what you like to call your morality is in fact your opportunism. Henri, Levi tells us, was good at ‘seducing’ people: ‘there is no heart so hardened,’ he writes, ‘that Henri cannot breach it if he sets himself to it seriously.’ ‘Psychologically speaking,’ Steinberg writes of himself in Auschwitz, ‘I practised all the professions of the circus: lion-tamer, tightrope-walker, even magician.’ Each member of the camp hierarchy, ‘each one of these monsters’, he decided, ‘had a flaw, a weakness, which it was up to me to find’. What Levi objects to about Henri is that he uses all the things – ‘warmth’, ‘communication’, ‘affection’ – that Levi most values; that ‘he is extremely intelligent, speaks French, German, English and Russian, has an excellent scientific and classical culture,’ yet he (Levi) always feels that he isn’t a man to Henri, but ‘an instrument in his hands’. It’s interesting that this makes Levi wonder about Henri, and not about all those virtues and talents that he prizes. As though there must be something suspect about the man that he can use all these precious cultural acquisitions, as if they were all just part of a survival system. Henri, in other words, seems to have acquired a toolkit, rather than some essential human goodness. On the one hand, humanism; on the other, the circus. Together, the two books constitute a moral and sentimental education for our times. Moses against the pragmatists.

Steinberg is more interested in the charmed life than the moral life: more interested in what he gets away with than in what he aspires to. What actually happens fascinates him because his sense of what should happen is so precarious, so uncertain. He was 17 when he arrived in the camp (Levi was 24), and wonders, both interestingly and archly, as is often his way, whether it was the combination of his youth and his unhappy childhood that had prepared him so well for life in the camp. ‘It seems certain,’ he remarks, ‘that a happy stable childhood, protected and full of affection, would have been the worst thing that I could have had.’ What, after all, does a good childhood prepare one for? Steinberg’s childhood of ‘continual displacements and readjustments’ meant, he believed, that he ‘would “attend” Auschwitz with invisible resources that vastly increased my chances of survival’. No childhood can prepare one for life because life is not the kind of thing that can be prepared for. And Steinberg’s callously ironic references to Auschwitz as a school both refer to what his family life had prepared him for, and suggests that it was indeed an education of sorts, though a rather different one from the kind Levi had in mind.

In Henri’s telling, what you learned, if you were lucky, was just how to survive in a concentration camp. ‘You had to try to adapt yourself – and be able to make the adjustment. Which right from the outset was impossible for highly structured personalities, men in their forties with social standing, a sense of dignity.’ There is none of the ‘I am writing this because it must never happen again’ righteous sentimentality about Steinberg. If anything, his book is a how-to book for future camp inmates. What is perhaps unique, and uniquely horrifying, about it is that its virtue, its humane project, even its bizarre generosity is to try and equip us for life in a concentration camp. ‘I heartily recommend to future candidates,’ as he likes to call them, ‘for deportation that they enter the medical and paramedical professions, which lead to cushy camp jobs and various perks.’ This might not seem a very good reason to become a doctor, but it was clearly a lucky choice of profession for those doctors who found themselves in Auschwitz. Steinberg’s tone is so unsettling not because he relishes these grim truths, but because he didn’t want to be fooled by the way his world was.

The one thing about himself he wouldn’t sacrifice was his talent for improvisation. As he looks back on his fellow survivors to work out what, if anything, they had in common, he finds ‘the results of this qualitative analysis ambiguous’, as if he were parodying, wittingly or unwittingly, what Levi called ‘a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’. ‘The sole common denominator of the survivors’, Steinberg concludes, is ‘an inordinate appetite for life – and the flexibility of a contortionist’. An appetite for life and flexibility are, of course, among our most highly valued secular virtues; but qualifying them in the way Steinberg qualifies them makes them look as though they were themselves forms of torture. Clearly nothing in Auschwitz made him feel that life wasn’t worth living. Or that it was somehow shameful to want to find a way of living in such conditions even if this could only be achieved by not making a necessity of virtue. ‘I don’t believe in the steadfast hero,’ he writes, ‘who endures every trial with his head held high, the tough guy who never gives in. Not in Auschwitz. If such a man exists, I never met him, and it must be hard for him to sleep with that halo.’ It was not their ideals or their principles that got people through, Steinberg thinks, but that ‘inordinate’ appetite for life which he implies was synonymous with an extreme flexibility. To be a traditional hero in Auschwitz would, he believes, have been unbearable. Most of the traditional virtues that Levi, in his grave book, wants to preserve were not an option for the 17-year-old Steinberg. He just wanted to survive; and in writing about how he did it he doesn’t, by the same token, turn his ‘stubborn good luck’, his ‘frantic desire to survive’, into another form of inner superiority. He felt himself to be fortunate, but not elected.

One of the things that makes Speak You Also so powerful is that Steinberg doesn’t know what to make of himself: neither the younger self that he is trying to recollect nor the much older self who is struggling to write the book. He may not have liked Levi speaking for him and about him, but once he begins to reply, to answer back (and there is in almost equal measure an answering of charges and an artful defiance in his book), he knows that he is taking a risk. ‘The one thing I am sure of,’ he writes near the beginning, ‘is that writing this will knock me off balance, deprive me of a fragile equilibrium achieved with the utmost care. This imbalance will in turn affect my writing, pushing it either towards greater bluntness or into affectation.’ Knowing the pitfalls may be as much self-knowledge as is available in such situations (and bluntness and affectation are shrewd words with which to consider and to criticise much of the so-called witness literature). But the question of what it is for a Holocaust memoir to be well-written – and therefore of what is legitimate or appropriate criticism of such literature – is at the heart of Steinberg’s remarkable book; and of a piece with the character of his younger self that he re-creates so strikingly. Because there is something stylish about the young Steinberg, as there is about all picaresque heroes, and as there shouldn’t be about Holocaust survivors.

Steinberg doesn’t want to look good, but he does want to look exceptional: exceptional more by luck than judgment. He wants to make it quite clear that he was singled out – and the book is studded with his unusually lucky escapes from (and through) illness, starvation, work; and, most miraculous of all, his escape from death just before the liberation of the camps – but that he was nothing special. ‘Men in better condition than I went up in smoke’: but he ‘made it through, I still don’t know how … Pull – or rather, luck, which has a one track mind.’ Equivocations such as this come up again and again, but it would be glib to assume that he prefers to speak of ‘luck’ rather than ‘charisma’ or ‘cunning’ just to avoid guilt. One might feel even guiltier, even more insidiously responsible, as the one chosen by chance (if luck has a one track mind, which track is it?). The fact that he got by is more appealing to the older Steinberg than how he did it.

That one can feel chosen in the full knowledge that there is nothing or no one in a position to do the choosing, that the wish to be chosen is only an (absurd) cure for the stark contingency of one’s life: this is the message of Steinberg’s book. He survived for no particular or obvious reason; he is exemplary because we can learn nothing from his story. So it is not, as he intimates, exactly a question of pull or luck, because the pull that you have may be as mysterious to you as your luck (the ironist never knows where his knowingness comes from). There must be a sense, Steinberg seems to be saying, in which it is morally better to take responsibility for your actions, but the fact that you can never know either the source or the full consequences of what you do makes the demand for responsibility itself punitive. He may sometimes sound wilfully naive – ‘If I had known how things would turn out, I would have taken that option’ – but he also shows that naivety is the attempt to stage (and thereby seem to master) something that too painfully already exists. If he has a grievance against Levi – and he is thoroughly temperate and generous in his explicit dealings with him in the book – it is that Levi wouldn’t let him off the hook. ‘He must have been right,’ Steinberg writes, ‘I probably was that creature obsessed with staying alive … he was a neutral observer, that’s how he saw me, and I was surely like that … [with] a gift for inspiring sympathy and pity … Maybe I could have persuaded him to change his verdict by showing him that there were extenuating circumstances.’

There is regret here of a kind, but it is also morally incisive to describe Auschwitz as ‘extenuating circumstances’, as though there was something about the camp that Levi couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see. For Steinberg morality was camouflage: for Levi it was armour. ‘The strangest thing about this acquaintance … that seems to have left such precise traces in his memory is that I do not remember him at all,’ Steinberg writes of the relationship between him and Levi. He then gives the point a moment’s thought. ‘Perhaps because I hadn’t felt he could be useful to me? Which would confirm his judgment.’ Something about Levi’s judgment was part of Steinberg’s impressive wish to write his own book. ‘Perhaps’ is not always a disingenuous word.