I attended an event at the 92nd Street Y that celebrated the life of Primo Levi. Levi was a Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor. His major work was “If This Is A Man” an account of the time he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He was rounded up with 650 other Jews. They traveled for many days on a cramped train and were incarcerated for almost a year. By the time the camp was liberated by the Russians only 20 had survived.
An impressive group of writers and publishers had assembled in tribute to this remarkable man. I thought I would stick around afterward and try to meet some of them. The evening was sponsored by the New Yorker magazine. The magazine’s editor David Remnick read from “If This Is A Man,” the chapter about the round up and the trip to Auschwitz. About how no one knew what to expect. Upon arrival, under the watch of guards, the women, children, elderly and sick were taken away in one direction, the men in another. They were told to leave their luggage on the platform. It was a poignant reading. Many people were in tears. I must admit I myself was a little weepy.
At the end of the evening there was a wine and cheese reception and an opportunity to meet the readers. Not knowing anyone, I stood by the bar, glass in one hand and cheese plate in the other surveying the crowd and waiting for an opening to talk to Mr. Remnick. Near me, I noticed a small elderly woman standing by herself. She must have been around 90 years old, dressed in a lovely suit with a scarf and carrying a handbag. Her hair was nicely coiffed. I thought I would go over and say hello.
I introduced myself and we shook hands. In an effort to make small talk I allowed as to how much I enjoyed the evening, especially the Remnick reading. I noted how palpable the emotion was in the auditorium and how much I was affected. She admitted that she too and became a little teary eyed. At that moment she turned, looked in my eyes and said simply “I made the trip.” I was stunned, I didn’t know what to say. It was as if a boxer had hit me in my stomach and I stopped breathing. I couldn’t speak. When I gathered my composure I said “Words fail me, I have no words.” She smiled and said, “I see some friends that I must speak to. Thank you for coming over. It was so nice to have chatted with you.” And she tottered off leaving me to wonder what had just happened. She was so self assured. She was proud. Like a Marine vet who says “I made Iwo.” It was her metaphor for letting me know that she was a survivor. Of the Holocaust.
To this day I still don’t know what happened. That brief encounter affected me in a very deep and profound way that I make no attempt to understand or explain. Perhaps some day I will. All I know is that for a few brief minutes that night I was in the company of an an angel.