Picks and Pans Review: Moments of Reprieve

updated 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Primo Levi

Primo Levi, a young Italian Jew arrested as an antifascist, entered Auschwitz in June 1944. After the war, Levi wrote two small masterpieces, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, about his experiences at the concentration camp and his grueling pilgrimage home to Turin. (Both have recently been reissued by Summit Books.) In this book, Levi returns to his death camp experience, the grim memories clearly undimmed after more than 40 years. He recalls a grotesque frieze of characters living out "bizarre, marginal moments of reprieve." There was Bandi, a camp innocent whom Levi taught to steal morsels of food; the orthodox Jew, Ezra, who startled his guard by asking permission to fast on Yom Kippur; the gypsy who yearned to send his fiancée a doll made of "live wood," though no trees grew in Auschwitz. Levi writes too of the despotic Chaim Rumkowski, known as the "King of the Jews." Formerly the co-owner of a velvet factory in Lodz, Rumkowski extracted privileges from his masters, riding in luxury to Auschwitz in a special coach attached to the prisoner-packed convoy. And there was the saintly Lorenzo, who night after night risked his life stealing soup from the kitchen for his friends. "In the violent and degraded environment of Auschwitz," Levi writes, "a man helping other men out of pure altruism was incomprehensible." Moments of Reprieve does not possess the passionate urgency of Levi's earlier memoirs, written when the experience still ran like a deep, open wound through his soul. This is a more measured recollection transmuted into a controlled and almost serene prose that is nonetheless powerfully moving. (Summit Books, $14.95)

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