BOOKS / Letter from Strasbourg: Not born to live like beasts: Anthony Rudolf talks poetry and survival with Primo Levi's soul mate

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ON A RECENT visit to France I spent a day in Strasbourg. The purpose of my journey was to spend some time with Jean Samuel, who was immortalised in Primo Levi's great book, If This is a Man, as the Pikolo, a young French prisoner in Auschwitz. At one point Pikolo listens to Levi while the latter, during a kind of tutorial, tries to remember some lines from Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno. The episode is crucial, coming immediately after a chapter which ends with a Kapo wiping his hands on Primo Levi. With these lines, Levi reminds himself and his friend that they are men and not beasts. Three lines, in particular, Pikolo begs Levi to repeat: 'Consider the seed from which you spring / You were not born to live like beasts / But to seek both virtue and knowledge.'

The life-giving importance of poetry returns in the other masterpiece of the Holocaust, The Human Race by Robert Antelme, whose return from Buchenwald was disturbingly told by his wife, Marguerite Duras, in La Douleur. During a gathering of French prisoners, one comrade recites a poem by Du Bellay about the return of Ulysses, during which: 'He was anguished as if he had to express one of the most rare, most secret things ever given him to speak; as if he feared that, brutally, the poem might break in his mouth.'

Jean Amery, the writer with whose ghost and ideas Levi wrestles in The Drowned and the Saved, writes in At The Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz of the need to have somebody with whom to share those moments. On one occasion in Auschwitz, Amery saw a flag waving in front of a half-finished building. It reminds him of the last few lines of Holderlin's beautiful lyric, 'Half-way through life': 'Speechless and cold / Stand the walls, in the wind / The weathervanes (in German, the same word as flags) clatter'. He repeats it to himself, hoping that this reminder will awaken an emotional and mental response: 'But nothing happened. The poem no longer transcended reality. There it was and all that remained was objective statement: such and such, and the kapo roars 'left', and the soup was watery and the flags are clanking in the wind. Perhaps the Holderlin feeling, encased in psychic humus, would have surfaced if a comrade had been present whose mood would have been somewhat similar and to whom I could have recited the stanza. The worst was that one did not have this comrade.'

After their extraordinary meeting, Jean Samuel and Primo Levi remained close friends until Levi took his own life in 1987. The letters Levi wrote to him immediately after the war, in excellent French, are a treasure trove for future writers, including Carole Angier and Ian Thomson, who are both working on books on Levi. In these letters, Levi reveals his feelings about himself and the book he was working on at the time, If This is a Man. In his beautifully appointed flat opposite the main synagogue in Strasbourg, Jean Samuel - who is a retired pharmacist and a Rotarian - talked to me about the great Italian writer.

He is a modest man who looks up to Levi, but his own privately circulated account of Auschwitz deserves to be expanded and made more widely available. Precisely because he is not obsessed and because his text does not have literary ambitions, his gaze presents a reflection on these matters which illuminates them in a direct and unmediated way.

In his study, Jean Samuel brought out his letters from Levi, and while we talked about them, about other writers, and about the activities of Samuel since his retirement - he lectures to students and schoolchildren about Auschwitz and about our responsibility to prevent its recurrence - I stole glances at him, the Pikolo, the man who said no to death, Primo Levi's mate. He still believes in the central importance of that moment of shared poetry in allowing them to hold on to their humanity.

I was very struck by a paragraph in a letter from Levi to Samuel, written on 13 May 1967. The extract is published here, in my English translation, for the first time: 'I believe that to deserve the name of mensch you must fight, ceaselessly, two battles throughout your life: the first, against inertia, bad conscience and stupidity in other people; the second, against the same faults and for clearheadedness in yourself.'