Staring Down Horror: On Anna Akhmatova, Primo Levi, and Recovering Hope From Suffering

Michael Ignatieff Examines What It Means to Find Solace in the Face of Destruction

It is Leningrad 1938. A long line of women, wrapped up against the cold, is queuing at the gates of Kresty prison, on the Arsenalnaya bank of the Neva River. The women wait every day and the gates often remain shut against them. Some have been coming to stand in the queue for as long as 18 months. They do not even know if their men are still confined there or have simply disappeared. The line keeps growing. It is in the middle of the Yezhov terror: every night brings new arrests. Usually the women do not speak, knowing they cannot trust anyone. They just stand in a frozen torpor, waiting. But on this day, two women do exchange words. One whispers to the other—“Can you describe this?” The other whispers back, “I can.” Then “something like a smile” crosses the first woman’s face.

The woman who asked the question did not know the identity of the woman who answered, yet by pure chance she found the witness who would save the reality of that moment from oblivion. The poet Anna Akhmatova was in the queue at Kresty to see her son, Lev Gumilev, then under arrest. She was 49 years old, an impoverished widow, debarred from publishing, living in one room in a communal flat carved out of the decayed splendor of the Sheremetiev Palace.

Akhmatova placed her memory of the scene—at the beginning of Requiem, the poetic cycle she wrote over the course of 20 years to commemorate the victims—millions of them—swept off the face of the earth or into the gulag by Stalin’s regime:

I have woven you this wide shroud out of humble words
I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing.

Requiem was the monument she erected on behalf of every woman who kept vigil outside the prison walls of Russia in the 1930s and on behalf of those confined inside, awaiting interrogation, torture, banishment, or a bullet in the back of the head. She declared that if there ever was a monument raised in her memory, it should be placed there, at the gates of Kresty prison, where she had stood and waited with all the others.

We do not know whether the other woman in the queue survived the siege of Leningrad or whether she ever saw the man she was waiting to help. We know nothing of her fate, only her smile, but thanks to the poem, circulated in manuscript since the 1940s and finally published in the 1960s, we know that she hungered for her experience to be rescued from forgetting. Thanks to her smile and to the genius of the woman who saw it, a poem was written that puts everyone who reads it under an obligation never to forget:

Now I will never manage to untangle
Who is an animal and who a human being
Nor how long I’ll wait till the death sentence
Is carried out.

One of Requiem’s earliest readers in the West was Isaiah Berlin. He had read the work Akhmatova had written as a young woman in Tsarskoe Selo before and after the First World War, before she was banned. When he was in Leningrad in the autumn of 1945, on a visit as a British official, and discovered that she was still alive, he went to see her in the bare room in the Sheremetiev Palace. He was the first visitor from the West that she had seen in 20 years. She read to him in a matter-of-fact voice from a manuscript copy of Requiem:

The quiet Don is flowing quietly
And the yellow moon enters my house.
He enters wearing his hat askew and
Meets a shadow, the yellow moon.
This woman is not well,
This woman is all alone.
Husband in the grave, son jailed,
Please offer a prayer for me.

She read to Berlin, in the gathering darkness, breaking off at one point to exclaim quietly, “No, I cannot. It is no good, you come from a society of human beings, whereas here we are divided into human beings and… ” She fell into a long silence. Later while they were sitting together, in near darkness, her son, Lev Gumilev, recently released from prison, came in and the three of them ate a dish of cold potatoes together. She spoke, Berlin later remembered, “without the slightest trace of self-pity, like a princess in exile, proud, unhappy, unapproachable in a calm, even voice, at times in words of moving eloquence.” With war finally ended, with her son home and many of the poems in the Requiem cycle completed, she knew she had given voice to the torment of her people. It was a calling that she had not chosen, one that made her feel as desolate as the mad women of czarist times who had gathered below the Kremlin tower to wail in vain for their husbands’ release. But it was a calling she was prepared to assume. As she said proudly, she had never chosen exile or escape, had never looked away from horror, and had fulfilled her duty as a witness.

Thanks to her smile and to the genius of the woman who saw it, a poem was written that puts everyone who reads it under an obligation never to forget.

Auschwitz, summer 1944. On a hot Sunday afternoon, two young men in their twenties, one from northern Italy, the other from Strasbourg in Alsace, are walking through the camp to the kitchens to pick up a tureen of soup and carry it back to their barracks. They have both been in the camp for about six months and know its routines. They do not trust each other because you cannot trust anybody here, but Jean has picked Primo for the soup detail. It is the one moment they can stretch out, a brief hour of grace in an infernal routine of exhausting and degrading labor in a place where the smoke from the crematoria colors the sky.

The camp is a babble of languages, with Hungarian and Yiddish being the most prominent, but these two are conversing in French and German. When Jean, the Frenchman, says he would like to learn Italian, Primo, to his own surprise, begins reciting a few fragments from canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno that he had memorized in high school. The canto tells the story of the Greek hero Ulysses who reaches the Gates of Hercules and exhorts his exhausted crew to go farther, to sail out beyond the gates into the wide-open sea. As the verses return to the Italian’s memory, fragment by fragment, Jean becomes engaged in how to translate them best: mare aperto, should it be “open sea”? A Blockführer passes by on a bicycle. They freeze and remove their caps. Once he passes, they resume. When Ulysses “sets out” into the open sea, they argue about whether Dante’s misi mi should be rendered as je me mis in French. Then, with a growing sense that they are sharing a text that contains a promise of freedom, Primo remembers the key lines—the exhortation delivered by Ulysses to convince his crew to set out beyond the Gates of Hercules, beyond the known world—

Consider well the seed that gave you birth
You were not born to live your lives as brutes,
But to be followers of virtue and knowledge

When these lines rise from the darkness of his memory, Primo feels as if he were hearing them for the first time, like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. Jean begs him to repeat them and tell the rest, since they are approaching the kitchen. Primo struggles to remember the concluding lines. He closes his eyes, he bites his finger—it is no use. The cooks are shouting “soup and cabbage” in German and Hungarian, and behind them the men from the other barracks are clamoring to take their turn.

In Primo Levi’s account of this scene, he does not tell us whether he managed to remember the ending. What matters is that the words reminded the two prisoners that they were not born to be brutes, and that there was another world, beyond the wire, where one day they might live as men.

This is undoubtedly why he felt such a surge of exaltation, but we also need to remember how Dante’s tale actually ended. Ulysses and his crew did sail beyond the Gates of Hercules into the wide-open sea. Their mad journey continued into the darkness. They lost sight of the stars and the moon, then a storm struck and just as they saw an island looming up above them their ship foundered, turned over, and they all drowned. The last line of Dante’s canto di Ulisse reads:

Until the sea again closed over us.

Hungary, October 1944. Farmworkers pause in their work in the fields to watch a column of men passing by on the road, a Hungarian labor service brigade, mostly composed of Jews, being marched back from a copper mine in Serbia across the Hungarian countryside. Their work uniforms are ragged; they are a brown and gray river of bodies, some stumbling and falling, others struggling to pick their fellows up and carry them along. Uniformed guards, mostly Hungarians, under the control of the German SS, patrol up and down, and the watching workers see men falling in the ditch, hear shots ring out, until the column disappears over the horizon.

As he stumbles along, one of the prisoners puts words together, assembles phrases, and commits them to memory. They have been on the march for days. In the distance, they can hear the thunder of the approaching Russian divisions. The war will surely be over soon, and they will make it home to their families. At night, lying on the bare ground of a brickyard, among the ragged sleeping men, he takes out a small notebook and writes down seven lines in a meticulously neat hand, conjuring into life the workers in the fields who had watched them pass. With laconic irony, he titles the poem “Picture Postcard”:

At nine kilometers, the pall of burning
Hayrick, homestead, farm.
At the field’s edge, the peasants, silent, smoking
Pipes against the fear of harm.
Here: a lake ruffled only by the step
Of a tiny shepherdess is what the ruffled sheep
Drink in their lowliness.

He procured the notebook by bartering his last cigarettes with Serbian villagers who came to the wire of the Heidenau camp. On the march home, he keeps writing in the hope that he will see his wife, Fanni, again. Of her, he had written, “you whose calm is as the weight and sureness of a psalm.” As he stumbles along, he dreams of her, of verandas, of plum jam, of the stillness of late summer in sun-dappled gardens.

What matters is that the words reminded the two prisoners that they were not born to be brutes.

He has survived months of hard labor in the copper mine, and when the guards started them on the march, he might have thought the journey would take him home, but as the days pass he begins to understand the truth. On the night of October 7-8, 1944, at a brickyard in Serbia, near the Hungarian border, the SS guards order the prisoners to lie down and empty their pockets of valuables. They machine-gun half their captives. A Budapest cabaret violinist topples to his knees and as the prisoner tries to help him the guards shoot the violinist in the neck. The prisoner falls beside him and lies still, not moving. He hears the guard speaking German just above his head. The SS and their Hungarian associates then force the survivors to their feet to resume the march. They are not going home, they now realize, but to labor camps in Germany. By October 24th, they are halfway across Hungary, and he has time, at night, to write another “Picture Postcard”:

The oxen drool saliva mixed with blood
Each one of us is urinating blood.
The squad stands about in knots, stinking, mad.
Death, hideous, is blowing overhead.

By now, they are marching northeast toward the border of the German Reich. The guards make them pitch camp on the tarmac of an abandoned airfield, and while the remnant of men lies sleeping, the prisoner takes up a piece of cardboard he picked up on the road—on the back, an advertisement for cod liver oil—and he writes another “Picture Postcard,” this time describing his encounter with death days before:

I fell beside him and his corpse turned over
Tight already as a snapping string
Shot in the neck. “And that’s how you will end too.”
I whispered to myself, “Lie still, no moving.
Now patience flowers in death.” Then I could hear
Der springt noch auf, above, and very near.
Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.

He copies the seven lines into his notebook and dates it October 31, 1944. It is the last entry. One of the survivors of the column, who returned from Germany, later said that he last saw the prisoner, sitting alone on the tarmac of the airfield, staring down at his dilapidated boots.

On November 8th, the Hungarian guards filled two carts full of prisoners no longer able to walk, among them the poet, and took them to local hospitals at a town near the German-Hungarian border. The hospitals turned the dying men away. Then the four Hungarian guards trundled the carts out to the woods outside of town, shot the prisoners in the backs of their heads, and tipped their bodies into a shallow grave.

In August 1946, the poet’s wife, Fanni, was informed that bodies had been exhumed and some of her husband’s personal effects had been found near the town where he had last been seen alive. These effects had been handed over to a local butcher, the leader of the town’s Jewish community. When she went to the butcher shop, he gave her a brown paper parcel. When she unwrapped it, she found a wallet with his photograph and hers, his insurance card, a picture of his mother as a young woman, and the notebook. On the inside page was a message the poet had addressed in five languages—Hungarian, English, French, German, and Serbo-Croatian—informing anyone who found it that it contained the work of a Hungarian poet. When Fanni turned the pages, she found the “Postcards,” written out in his steady, unvarying hand.

Fanni never recovered her husband’s body or gave him a proper burial, but she did live long enough to see Miklós Radnóti recognized as one of the greatest poets of Hungary and Europe. There was indeed an answer to the last line of one of his poems: “But tell me, did the work survive?” His poetry is taught in Hungarian schools to this day. His act of witness also ensured that the suffering of his comrades in the labor service gang would not be forgotten. Like Akhmatova, like Levi, his act of witness was also a judgment that their countries still are reluctant to accept. Radnóti’s work was incorporated into the national canon, but the uncomfortable fact remains that the guards who murdered him were Hungarian.

In the early 2000s, when Fanni was well into her eighties, her husband’s biographer asked her whether the pain of losing him had diminished over time. She shook her head. Did she know, the biographer went on, the poem by Emily Dickinson?

They say that “time assuages,”—
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.
Time is a test of trouble,
But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.

Fanni nodded again. Yes, she did know the poem.

__________________________________

On Consolation

Excerpted from ON CONSOLATION: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021 by Michael Ignatieff. All rights reserved.

Michael Ignatieff
Michael Ignatieff
Michael Ignatieff is the author of Isaiah Berlin and The Warrior’s Honor, as well as over fifteen other acclaimed books, including a memoir, The Russian Album, and the Booker finalist novel Scar Tissue. He writes regularly for the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books.





More Story
Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen on the History of Libraries Hosted by Andrew Keen, Keen On features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the economic,...