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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