The Jewish poet responded: "In magnitude, in challenge to the imagination, in degree of horror, in terrifying questions it raises, that's an appropriate analogy. But we must never forget the defect of the analogy. Souls are assigned in the Inferno according to a system of justice; souls were assigned in the camps according to a system of injustice."
A recent article played upon some of these notions, and showed that Dante and his work also had lots to offer people caught in the depths of horror. This was one of many insights provided by the lead piece in the Jan./ Feb issue of The American Poetry Review and titled "Poetry in Hell: Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz." The author, Peter Balakian, is one of our most underrated poets (he has plenty of company; for example, Steve Berg, who co-edits APR) and is ripe for "rediscovery." Perhaps his fine essay will spur critics to look more closely at his own poetry.
In the piece, Balakian examines an incident near the end of Levi's great work of Holocaust testimony, Survival in Auschwitz. Levi had struck up a friendship with a Pikolo (the messenger clerk) of their Kommando named Jean. An Alsatian, Jean was interested in all things Italian and shared Levi's love of books. He wished to learn more of the language and found ways to engage his friend in work duties so the two could be together.
On this day, Levi was helping Jean deliver the daily ration of soup, which meant carrying a pot that weighed more than 100 pounds by means of two poles. Though grueling work, it was something of a luxury, this lifting and carrying, amidst the terrors of Auschwitz.
As they struggled with their task, Levi realized, quite suddenly, that he could recall from memory all of Canto 26 from Dante's Inferno. He recited it for Jean.
"Levi notices how attentive Jean is," wrote Balakian, "and so he begins, as he puts it, slowly and 'accurately.' To engage poetry while trying to stay alive at Auschwitz — Primo Levi never puts it that way, and of course he doesn't need to as the moment will speak for itself. But still poetry rises to the surface in this strange and horrible situation, and this young chemist — an Italian Jew deported from Turin — allows us to see how a man can be helped in his effort to stay alive by immersing himself, for just a short time, in a passage from Dante."
Balakian's splendid piece should not be missed by lovers of poetry or Primo Levi — or those curious about the odd nature of what can sustain people in the worst of times.