Bearing Witness: Primo Levi's Legacy in Japan and Korea

Carol Gluck of Columbia University speaking in New York on October 28, 2010. (Asia Society New York)
Carol Gluck of Columbia University speaking in New York on October 28, 2010. (Asia Society New York)

NEW YORK, October 29, 2010 - What does it mean to be a survivor? How must we bear witness to atrocity? What is justice? These were some of the questions discussed by a panel of experts during the 4th Annual Symposium on Primo Levi, co-hosted by Centro Primo Levi and Asia Society this week.

Primo Levi, an Italian writer and chemist, survived internment at Auschwitz and went on to produce several works of fiction and non-fiction, recalling his experiences in the concentration camp. He was deeply concerned with what he saw as a surge of holocaust denial after the war ended, and he grappled with his role as survivor and witness until his death in 1987.  His work has been widely translated around the world and has taken on a significance extending beyond a mere discussion of the Holocaust. This year's panel highlighted Levi's influence in Japan and Korea in coping with the legacy of Japanese colonialism in Korea and East Asia, and the effects of the Atomic Bomb.

A guiding theme for the panels was the insufficiency of language for describing events too terrible for description—a paradox invoked by both Levi and survivors of Hiroshima.

Levi wrote In Survival in Auschwitz, that after the horrors of the camp, "our language lacked words to express this offense." Seemingly without adequate words to convey the horrors of his experiences, Levi "often hedge[d] about how he could be a witness," according to Robert Gordon (Cambridge University), and he questioned if a complete testimony was ever possible. As Marc Nichanian (Sabanci University) explained his predicament, "as soon as you speak, you betray the unspeakability of the event."

Nevertheless, "a survivor is a witness," said Manuela Consonni (Hebrew University), "even if he does not want to witness." The perpetrators sought total annihilation of the witnesses, to thus destroy what Nichanian described as the "factuality of the fact" of the event. Even with inadequate words, the survivor's very existence testifies to the crime.

In Japan, survivors of the atomic bombs found themselves similarly conflicted about how to bear witness. Using an expression that echoed Levi, the Hiroshima survivor Kajima Katsumi, as quoted by John Treat (Yale University), said that after the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, "thereafter, there were no words."

Carol Gluck (Columbia University) said that until the 1990s, war memory centered on the narratives of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who did not use the word "survivor," and rather called themselves hibauksha, or "those who received the bomb." Until the first of the "comfort women" (as the women abducted by Japanese military and forced into prostitution have been called) came forward in 1991, Gluck stated that the Japanese had readily denied their own responsibility for crimes during the war.

Indeed, this viewpoint still holds sway among some of Japan's far right wing, as was observed by Uri Cohen (Columbia University) at a Japanese war museum, which framed Japan's invasion of Manchuria and colonization of Korea as the decolonization of Asia from Euro-American imperialism.

Next: Mahmood Mamdani, Gil Anidjar, and more

Only after the women's testimony did the crimes against the comfort women, the massacre at Nanjing, and the human experimentation done by Unit 731, become accepted as historical fact.

The new perspective on the war necessitated a reorientation of a historical narrative that had previously been "victim-centric," according to Gluck. At that time Levi's work caught the attention of Japanese intellectuals, including the artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose solo show Nobody's Fool is currently on display at the Asia Society Museum in New York. These Japanese intellectuals frequently made pilgrimages to Auschwitz during the 1990s, and appropriated some of Levi's philosophies on the Holocaust for their attempt to understand Japan's victimhood and criminality during the war.

But Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University) argued that in considering the work of Levi, one must realize that victims and perpetrators can overlap, as in Japan. He called attention to apartheid in South Africa, which he argued victimized society at large, not merely individuals.

What troubled Mamdani is that since the Cold War, the search for justice for victims has become a process of "naming and shaming," with human rights activists calling for more violence with the implicit assumption that "their violence is bad, ours is good."

Indeed Levi was also troubled with the false dichotomy between good and evil, even in the concentration camps. Gil Anidjar (Columbia University) quoted Levi's pronouncement that "the worst survived" the Holocaust, and explained that only those whose morality could be suspended under the extreme circumstances of camp life could live through it.

In Korea, Treat said that this sentiment, expressed in Levi's chapter, "The Grey Zone" in The Drowned and the Saved, has resonated for contemporary Korean historians interested in the history of Japanese colonization (1910-1945). During that time, many Koreans cooperated with the Japanese, and were later unequivocally condemned as collaborators. Treat says that new work, informed by Levi, has added nuance to the story of Korean collaborators. This new perspective permits a more just interpretation of the past.

Ultimately, Gluck concluded that Levi's "work crossed borders and circled the globe because of a commonality of experiences of inhuman extremes of the twentieth century."

It is Levi's insights into how survivors can speak of these extremes, how they can bear witness, and how justice can be attained, that will continue to define his legacy both in the West and in East Asia.

Reported by Mollie Kirk