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Why Primo Levi’s warning about the young forgetting the holocaust resonates now

30 March 2018

2:00 PM

30 March 2018

2:00 PM

One of the most thought-provoking pieces in The Spectator this week is from Alastair Thomas on why his generation don’t get so upset about anti-Semitism. He explains the phenomenon and offers an explanation: the years have passed, the memories of the holocaust have dimmed. It’s no longer the experience of someone’s grandparents’ generation, but further back. Since then, there are more recent memories: of the Israeli Defence Force and Gaza. The conflation between Jews, Israel and Zionism has restored the idea of the Jews as being suspiciously powerful – the oppressors rather than the oppressed. This certainly stands to reason. Memories of the holocaust were kept alive for my generation by films like Schindler’s List. But there are few left to tell the story first hand.

Reading Alastair’s essay made me think of a book I read years ago: The Drowned and the Saved, by Primo Levi, who was arrested for being a member of the Italian anti-fascist front and sent to Auschwitz. Towards the end of his life he was beginning to worry about precisely what Alastair writes about: that memories would fade and the horror of the holocaust – the greatest evil ever inflicted on man by man – might fade as well. When I first read it, I thought he was wrong: that the holocaust was taught in schools world over and films like Schindler’s List would keep the nightmare vivid for new generations. But perhaps he was right after all. That film is now a quarter-century old. A new generation will have new reference points. And one of them will be, as Levi predicted in his book, Israel – and a complicated history that will give a pretext to see the Jews as aggressor.


Levi’s writing is incredibly vivid, yet hard to track down in the digital era: The Drowned and the Saved, even If Not Now, When? are not on Kindle, not Googleable. So we have posted an extract from the book on Coffee House (here) to give a taste.

For those who haven’t come across his writing before, you can find it all here, many for under £1. It’s dangerous, he says, to think that the evil of the holocaust sprang from the blackness of Nazi hearts and died with Hitler. It had all-too-human beginnings, and one of them was the general idea that the Jews are suspect, which can come back anytime, anywhere.

At church services world over this afternoon, Christians will be saying the Good Friday prayer for the Jews. There’s plenty to think about after a week where Jewish leaders were driven to protest in parliament. But this is about more than Corbyn, or the recent attacks in France: there’s a general sense that anti-Semitism is back – partly because it doesn’t appal a young generation and the scenario that Primo Levi described is now coming to pass.


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