Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi

In life, there is an ebb and flow to tension. Most of our days are filled with work, school, family, play, good times, bad times, tragedy and fortune. For the life of a concentration camp inmate, there is no such crest and trough of emotion. Upon entrance, a man (I say man, because most women were immediately gassed), is shocked beyond all comprehension at the horror of his situation. And from that moment on, there is no break of routine. Death becomes common place.

In his memoir, Levi captured the few precious moments, some what we’d call common, some we’d term miracle, and aptly titled the collection “Moments of Reprieve”. A Boistrous Jew named Rappoport steals soup during air-raid sirens, then asks Levi to remember his will. A “green triangle” Kapo stays silent when Levi breaks the fatal no writing rule. The inmates see a woman, which spawns a wily tale of Adam and Eve.

You, like me, are like the new batch of Hungarians that enter Auschwitz. Our space was made available from frequent “selections”, and the beds we sleep were once occupied by inmates now dead. We don’t know the workings of the camp. We, like Bandi, Levi’s new work partner, discover slowly, that stealing is good, laziness is life-saving. At first, our stubborness keeps us from bending. But hunger, death, torture, fear, and work, are persuasive orators. It is then we glimpse the fortuitous moments that renew us.

“By the weak gleam of the light bulb, I read the magnificent letter, hastily translating it into German. Bandi listened attentively. Certainly he could not understand much because German was neither my language nor his, and also because the message was scant and reticent. But he understood what was essential for him to understand: that that piece of paper in my hands, which had reached me in such a precarious way and which I would destroy before nightfall, represented a breach, a small gap in the black universe that closed tightly around us, and through that breach hope could pass. At least I believe that Bandi, even though he was a Zugang, understood or sensed all this, because when I was through reading he came close to me, rummaged at length in his pocket, and finally, with loving care, pulled out a radish. He gave it to me, blushing deeply, and said with shy pride: “I’ve learned. This is for you. It’s the first thing I’ve stolen.”

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