If Not Now, When?

Author: Primo Levi
Review: Chris Gilbert
 

 

About the book

Primo Levi’s only full length novel follows resistance fighters in the western Soviet Union, travelling into central Europe in the closing stages of World War Two. Primo Levi had himself fought in an anti-fascist partisan group before being captured and the novel draws both on these experiences and on his subsequent journey across Europe after his liberation from Auschwitz.

The novel follows two main characters as they travel with groups of resistance fighters journeying through areas subjected to Nazi occupation, with the shadow of the Holocaust a constant backdrop to their struggle to resist and survive. Throughout the novel Levi explores some complex and challenging moral issues – these issues, such as the morality of killing and taking revenge on the perpetrators of the Holocaust, are largely raised as personal questions and struggles that haunt the survivors and humanity as the full extent of the Holocaust becomes apparent.

Following the end of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the war on the Eastern Front approaches and the novel places the resistance fighters in a dangerous hinterland where they seek to avoid both the approaching battle from the east and the occupying forces of the Nazi regime. The characters travel through a land where society and morality has all but broken down – these extreme circumstances bring them to question their fate, and if God has abandoned them:

‘The Lord our God’…‘had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki?’

As the partisans struggle to survive and respond to the Nazi atrocities, they are forced to consider the morality of their actions. This raises some important moral questions but also helps to build a picture of how far continental Europe had departed from peacetime and how radically different life was for those living through the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation. The novel often refers to the act of having to fight, having to consider killing the Nazi enemy, and to have to take up arms to defend themselves and the overall survival of Jews in Europe. The main character, Mendel, a watch-mender in peacetime, has to consider how the war has affected him and changed him, and how he has responded to the threat:

‘But in my village the Germans made the Jews dig a pit, then they lined them up along the edge, and they shot them all, even the children, and also a lot of Christians who had hidden Jews, and among those they shot was my wife. And after that I think that killing is bad, but killing the Germans is something we can’t avoid’…‘If I shoot at a German, he is forced to admit that I, a Jew, am worth more than he is: that’s his logic, you understand, not mine. They only understand force.’

Throughout the novel, the central moral questions are never resolved and the main characters are never presented as being at ease with the fighting and killing. Killing is always shown as difficult, the morality never simple. As the group travel across Europe they work through the morality of the war, of the killing, and there are no simple divides – good and evil, friend or foe, right or wrong are all too often judgements that are hard to make. For example, Polish antisemitism is explored but is never a clear or simple situation and the complexity of this is also preserved, with one character admitting that ‘seeing children dead like that made me begin to think that Jews are like us, and in the end the Germans would do to us what they had done to them’. The Jewish partisans are never clear who they can trust, which areas are safe or which direction takes them closer to safety.

This novel certainly raises many challenging questions and paints a convincing picture, drawn from Levi’s own experiences, of the chaos and brutality of warfare. In common with Levi, the character’s hardships are certainly not over with the end of war and are left many miles from home, seeking to cope with the loss of family & friends and the destruction of community and property.

Some questions that schools and book clubs may want to consider:

1.    What does this novel tell you about Primo Levi’s personal moral questions? Does he feel that it was justified to kill in revenge for the Holocaust?

2.    One of the characters ‘wondered if there were any Jews in Italy. If so, they must be strange Jews: how can you imagine a Jew in a gondola or at the top of Vesuvius’

a.    What do you feel Levi is trying to say about the Jews of Europe?

b.    How were Italian Jews persecuted by changes to the laws of Italy?

3.    How do Mendel’s travels compare to Levi’s own journey through Europe, before and following his imprisonment in Auschwitz?

Suggesting further reading:

If This Is a Man, Primo Levi – covering his capture, and transportation to the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Covering his forced labour and the brutalities of life in a concentration camp, this stands as one of the most powerful works from a witness and survivor of the Holocaust.

The Truce, Primo Levi – following his liberation from Auschwitz, this book covers his long and difficult journey back to Italy, through the confusion and destruction in the immediate aftermath of the World War Two. In describing a physical journey back to his homeland from Poland (through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany), Levi also explains a more personal journey back to society and the struggles he has as a survivor of the Nazi atrocities. A film adaptation of this account was released in 1997.

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, Nechama Tec – following the partisan group led by three Jewish brothers, this account covers their resistance against the Nazi forces & their collaborators. Recruiting Jewish refugees into the group, they survive and fight in the Polish forests. The groups experience is often very similar to that of the group in If Not Now, When both in terms of the adversity of surviving on the fringes of society and their conflict with both Nazi and Soviet forces. A film adaptation of this account was released in 2008.

About the author

Born into a Jewish family in Turin, Primo Levi is commonly acknowledged as one of the most significant Italian writers of the 20th century, perhaps most well-known for his accounts of his year as a prisoner in Auschwitz and the journey he took as a refugee following his liberation from the camp.

Key Themes 

  • The impact of the war on civilian populations
  • The resistance movement – Partisan groups resisting Nazi occupation / persecution
  • In hiding – seeking to avoid the ghetto and/or transportation

You can use HMDT resources to find out more about these themes here: