In the winter of 2011, I took a graduate seminar on Holocaust Life Writing. In this particular course, “Life Writing” was defined (and problematized) as autobiography, memoir, and letters. Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved was our last text. During our first week of discussions of Levi, a student rejected the text. I remember feeling uneasy—everyone stopped talking and sat in silence—not a productive, contemplative silence, rather a deeply terrified silence. The student expressed hatred, overtly saying: “I hate him!” Our classroom discussion halted abruptly. Then, suddenly, students tried to intervene; without listening, they policed the space, now turned unsafe. They attacked the student, attacked the professor for not diffusing the “hate” comment. In the midst of this emotional outburst, I kept wondering whether the student hated the text, hated Levi, or both. What exactly was at stake in this expression of hatred? More importantly, what did it mean to hate a Holocaust survivor, someone who had survived extreme and overt forms of hatred: deportation, dehumanization, torture, and genocide? We never really asked the student to explain the expression of hatred toward Levi. The topic was left and never brought up again, never worked-through. We continued attending class with an incredible silence between us, a divisive energy that seemed irreconcilable. Our class discussions skirted around the articulation of hatred but never addressed what it meant directly.
Publication Date: 2016 Publication Name: Interpreting Primo Levi