God whispers a secret about telling secrets – Geoff New

Rev Dr Geoff New is Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership and is based in Dunedin.

I was ambivalent about accepting the invitation to write this blog. I found myself with something to say but unsure if I could say it; unsure if I had the vocabulary. I’ll try.

When I was young, too young, I became aware of the Holocaust. I was too young to appreciate the enormity of it and that expressed itself in a morbid fascination with it. Yet over the years that morbid fascination matured into raw realisation. When my daughter Rebekah was in her early teens, I discovered she had no concept or knowledge of the Holocaust. I felt I had failed her as a parent. I rectified that and today she has become my teacher. She has studied the Holocaust at university, been awarded an overseas scholarship to study it further, read widely, connected me professionally with a close friend and colleague of Elie Wiesel’s, and visited some of the camps. She intends to go on a march soon in memory of the Holocaust. And it was Rebekah who introduced me to the writings of Primo Levi.

Levi was a chemist and an Italian Jew. The first book I read of his is entitled The Periodic Table.[1] That book is his story (punctuated by a few fictitious short stories) as told by using different elements from the Periodic Table. I thought it an elegant way to view one’s life: through the raw materials of one’s vocation. I read it as a preacher: what might I learn in the telling of stories? What are my raw materials as a preacher?

And then my daughter gave me Levi’s magnum opus: If This is a Man and The Truce. I read this twin volume and after years of engaging with the Holocaust I was silenced. Up until now Elie Wiesel’s Night has had the greatest effect on me; Levi has deepened that.

If This is a Man is Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz (from February 1944) and The Truce his account of the months immediately after liberation (January 1945). If This is a Man takes you into the night and The Truce holds you in that time just before dawn. If This is a Man narrates evil feasting on the dignity of humanity and Levi’s refusal to be poisoned by that evil. The Truce narrates the impossibly long journey home which threatens to fulfil the Hebrew text – “hope deferred makes the soul sick”; but somehow Levi’s soul chooses hope. To retain the integrity of his writing, I need to be note that Levi did not write from a theological perspective although he does make some startling and disturbing theological observations. One of the strongest nods to the Judeo-Christian heritage is when he responds to one of the frequent questions he fielded: “In these books there are no expressions of hate for the Germans, no desire for revenge. Have you forgiven them?” Part of his answer reads:[2]

I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy because an enemy who sees the error his ways cease to be an enemy.

Yet as a Christian reading Levi’s work I experienced that which I encountered in another Jewish writer’s work: the stated desire by the author that in reading the book Christians would become better Christians and Jews would become better Jews.[3]

Levi did not state that desire, but he may as well have.  His writing has confronted me in terms of how to speak, the volume of that speech and the tone of that speech. It wasn’t so much what he wrote, as much as how he wrote. It’s as if he whispers the story; there is a reverence about it. He was often asked what he might have been if he hadn’t been sent to the camps. He says that is an impossible question to answer; yet he does offer one answer – if he hadn’t been in Auschwitz he never would have become a writer. I feel silenced by his work. I feel conflicted even posting this because it can become noise. I cannot recall being so impacted by a book in a long time.

With the Hebrew prophets’ ministry in mind, Abraham Heschel wrote:[4]

There is nothing we forget as eagerly, as quickly, as the wickedness of man [sic]. The earth holds such a terrifying secret. Ruins are removed, the dead are buried, and the crimes are forgotten. Bland complacency, splendid mansions, fortresses of cruel oblivion top the graves. The dead have no voice, but God will disclose the secret of the earth.

It’s as if God discloses a secret through Levi’s writings; a secret about revealing secrets. There is the presence of the horrendous memory of suffering and yet an absence of malice as a survivor. His account is both altogether immersed in the travail and yet clear-minded to be able to lead the reader in and through the story. Sometimes the reader is lulled into complacency only to be confronted with a challenge of parabolic force. For instance, after a long and detailed explanation of the ethics and black-market economics in the camps, Levi turns and faces the reader and asks:[5]

We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the [camps] of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of barbed wire.

Or consider the beautiful and gentle reason that Levi gives for surviving Auschwitz: an Italian civilian called Lorenzo who provided him with bread and the odd clothing item. But Levi writes it wasn’t so much because of the material aid that Lorenzo saved him but by his presence. Lorenzo reminded and modelled to Levi that “there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole.”[6] He continues, “But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”[7]

This book has affected me as a disciple of Jesus; as a preacher. As mentioned earlier, I am struck by the tone and volume of Levi’s voice. His voice is not shrill or aggressive. I know I have said Levi is not writing from a theological perspective much less from a position of faith. Yet – in view of the suffering and the injustices meted out on him – I can’t but help think of the voice of Christ; the Suffering Servant. Levi’s tone of voice sounds like that of Christ’s. I am not trying to baptise these writings or force faith on them; I am just saying that my faith was unexpectedly confronted, challenged and cultivated. I feel compelled to honour Levi’s gift in that. And I feel compelled to state I have seen a glimpse of Christ in it all:

Isaiah 42

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

[1] Voted the best science book ever written by the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 2006.

[2] Primo Levi, If This Is A Man/The Truce (Little Brown Book Group: London, 2003), 423.

[3] Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial Interfaith Exchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993), xi-xiii.

[4] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harpers, 1969/1971), 219. Heschel lost his mother and three of his sisters in the Holocaust. Heschel was writing at a time when countries were obstructing attempts to bring Nazi war-criminals to justice.

[5] Levi, Man, 96

[6] Levi, Man, 135.

[7] Levi, Man, 136.

4 thoughts on “God whispers a secret about telling secrets – Geoff New

  1. Thanks Geoff for your post and observation of the suffering servant in the authors experience. The suffering servant – Levi in Auschwitz – who did not cry out or lift his voice was in fact saved by the angry guns and courageous actions of allied armies whose cries of pain rose from their lips on the battlefield and echoed around the world into the hearts and homes of loved ones from whence they came. The just world outside the wire was only possible through the valiant and sacrificial effort of the military. So to my thinking applying the theology of the suffering servant who does not cry out and yet goes onto establish justice on the earth is miss placed. Levi’s story is inspirational but it was the allied armies who established justice and secured peace.

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    • Hi Tony
      I have thought for a while about your comment to Geoff, and I wonder if we need more pause around what Geoff is offering. I know there is a case for what you are saying, though not one that every Christian agrees with. What I am wondering is whether we need to dwell, with more length, in the suffering articulated by Levi in Auschwitz in order to listen deeply. It may be that there is a reply in time, just like the one you articulated, but the haste to brush past with this other take on it can appear to diminish the space we are being invited to attend to. Too quickly, I believe, the church rushes from Friday to Sunday and has a rather impoverished theology of the treasures of Saturday.
      Martin

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      • Hi Martin. I agree there is merit is pausing to reflect on Levi and his experience – as I said he is inspirational. But please also pause and feel the pain, loneliness, and sacrifice of the soldier, sailor and airman as they lived in the cauldron of battle confronting and destroying Nazi evil. Their actions restored justice and secured peace. Let your heart and mind sit with them awhile. We will remember them.

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