Veterans’ Day. A very forgettable holiday for me. If it weren’t for the bloggers who have mentioned it, I might have been altogether oblivious of its passing. I am unemployed at the moment, so no schedule change would have reminded me — except for the fact that the Post Office is closed tomorrow, so we won’t be preparing packages for Steve’ book business. The truth is, I don’t really know what to do with Veterans’ Day. I don’t know any vets. I don’t have any family members who have been in the service. And I am absolutely opposed to war. It seems like we should have figured out an alternative long ago. I’m truly puzzled that we have computers relaying information from Mars right now while we have yet to find an effective way to live together down here. Learning should lead to understanding, which ought to lead to compassion. At least that’s the trajectory I’m hoping for in my life.
It does occur to me, though, that I have been acquainted with a veteran whom I admire very much. I have read two of his books and have now embarked on a third. I’ve also seen a DVD documentary about his journey home from Auschwitz. His name is Primo Levi. I was attracted to him first because he’s Italian. In high school, I was the Vice President of the Italian Club. I was learning to speak Italian because I love opera, and I wanted to meet Italian guys…or at least Italian-American guys. I finally married a Galasso. Now that I’m (ahem!) more mature, my love of the Italian culture is much more broad-minded. Primo Levi’s writing is truly astounding. He was a chemist by trade, not a writer, but his experiences during and after WWII compelled him to share the intimate details, disturbing observations, and profound insights he hoped would prevent similar events from ever happening again. He could not let his story go unrecorded, even though its horrors caused recurring bouts of depression. I think that makes him a very brave soldier and a heroic humanitarian.
Here is an example of his extraordinary insight:
“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable. It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after. It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation: for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.” – from Survival in Auschwitz
Thank you, Signore Levi, for your service to all of us through the horrific war you survived and the work of writing your story.