Is there to be a roll-call? It is not a roll-call. We have seen the crude glare of the searchlight and the well-known profile of the gallows.
For more than an hour the squads continued to return, with the hard clatter of their wooden shoes on the frozen snow. When all the Kommandos had returned, the band suddenly stopped and a raucous German voice ordered silence. Another German voice rose up in the sudden quiet, and spoke for a long time angrily into the dark and hostile air. Finally the condemned man was brought out into the blaze of the searchlight.
All this pomp and ruthless ceremony are not new to us. I have already watched thirteen hangings since I entered the camp; but on the other occasions they were for ordinary crimes, thefts from the kitchen, sabotage, attempts to escape. Today it is different.
Last month one of the crematoriums at Birkenau had been blown up. None of us knows (and perhaps no one will ever know) exactly how the exploit was carried out: there was talk of the Sonderkommando, the Special Kommando attached to the gas chambers and the ovens, which is itself periodically exterminated, and which is kept scrupulously segregated from the rest of the camp. The fact remains that a few hundred men at Birkenau, helpless and exhausted slaves like ourselves, had found in themselves the strength to act, to mature the fruits of their hatred.
The man who is to die in front of us today in some way took part in the revolt. They said he had contacts with the rebels of Birkenau, that he carried arms into our camp, that he was plotting a simultaneous mutiny among us. He is to die today before our very eyes: and perhaps the Germans do not understand that this solitary death, this man’s death which has been reserved for him, will bring him glory, not infamy.
At the end of the German’s speech, which nobody understood, the raucous voice of before again rose up: “Habt ihr verstanden?” Have you understood?
Who answered “Jawohl?” Everybody and nobody: it was as if our cursed resignation took body by itself, as if it turned into a collective voice above our heads. But everyone heard the cry of the doomed man, it pierced through the old thick barriers of inertia and submissiveness, it struck the living core of man in each of us:
“Kamaraden, ich bin der Letze!” (Comrades, I am the last one!)
I wish I could say that from the midst of us, an abject flock, a voice rose, a murmur, a sign of assent. But nothing happened. We remained standing, bent and grey, our heads dropped, and we did not uncover our heads until the German ordered us to do so. The trapdoor opened, the body wriggled horribly; the band began playing again and we were once more lined up and filed past the quivering body of the dying man.
At the foot of the gallows, the SS watch us pass with indifferent eyes: their work is finished, and well finished. The Russians can come now: there are no longer any strong men among us, the last one is now hanging above our heads, and as for the others, a few halters had been enough. The Russians can come now: they will only find us, the slaves, the worn-out, worthy of the unarmed death which awaits us.
To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.
Alberto and I went back to the hut, and we could not look each other in the face. That man must have been tough, he must have been made of another metal than us if this condition of ours, which has broken us, could not bend him.
Because we also are broken, conquered: even if we know how to adapt ourselves, even if we have finally learnt how to find our food and to resist the fatigue and cold, even if we return home.
We lifted the menaschka on to the bunk and divided it, we satisfied the daily ragings of hunger, and now we are oppressed by shame.
Excerpt from Primo Levi, If this is a man, The Orion Press, New York 1959, translation by Stuart Woolf.