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Study and Theory/
Holocaust Remembrance Day

Primo Levi

To be at the bottom

Now we have understood that the human language is too inadequate to express the burning affront, the loss of humanity. Reality was revealed to us as an experience in a fraction of a second, almost as a prophetic play: we have reached the bottom, to the worst place, where you can go no lower. There is no choice left for us: they took the clothes, the shoes, and even our hair they did not leave us. If we speak they will not listen, and if they listen they will not understand. They will soon also take our names. If we want to safeguard them in any event, we will need to gird our strength in order that something of us will survive. Something of what we once were.

I know that it is not easy to understand my words, and that is a good thing. Please try, therefore, each one of you to contemplate how much value the small daily routines have and how much significance they have. For many possessions that the poor man with the outstretched hand has at the corner of the street: a handkerchief, an old letter, a picture of a dear one, many such things are part of him almost alike one of the organs of his body. We cannot compare in our imagination life without them. If they get lost immediately others will take their place. And they are ours because within them are our memories: because they have the power to give us thought.

Now compare in your souls a man from whom they have taken his home, his customs, his clothes, distanced from his loved ones, everything, everything that he had. Such a man will be no more than an empty shell, he is left with nothing, he is miserable and helpless. He has no self respect. He can no longer differentiate between good and evil. Because of this it is easy because one who has lost everything, his personality has also easily been taken from him. He becomes the most inferior of creatures whereby it is easy to decide to kill him without premeditation. To create such a thing he is not treated as a human being. In the best case scenario he will be sentenced to life or death due to a consideration of value. Perhaps now it is possible to understand the double meaning of the word “extermination camp”, and perhaps it is now understandable what we want to express in the sentence: to be at the bottom.

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