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Discussing the Poem “Shema”

Primo Levi was a young Italian Jew who survived ten months in Auschwitz. After liberation from the camp in January 1945 he returned home to Turin, Italy. Levi attained world-wide fame for his writings after the war, especially for his book If this is a Man (also published as Survival in Auschwitz). He wrote the poem “Shema” in January 1946. You who live secure In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find Hot food and friendly faces: Consider, whether this is a man, Who labours in the mud Who knows no peace Who fights for a crust of bread Who dies at a yes or a no. Consider whether this is a woman, Without hair or name With no more strength to remember Eyes empty and womb cold As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been: I commend these words to you. Engrave them on your hearts When you are in your house, when you walk on your way, When you go to bed, when you rise. Repeat them to your children. Or may your house crumble, Disease render you powerless, Your offspring avert their faces from you. … The poem Shema was written in January 1946, which was a very short time after the end of the Holocaust. Primo Levi was liberated from Auschwitz in January 1945 and this is a very early warning to the world, to his readers, to convey what had just happened in Europe; to convey the potential for human evil.
When one teacher reads this poem in the classroom, there are certain main points that come out: The first one is the first word of the poem. Primo Levi starts with “You”, which means that you, everybody in the world, all the readers of the poem, should be engaged in conveying what had happened in Europe. This includes obviously the absolute imperative to talk and teach about the potential of human beings for the cruelty that he had just witnessed and experienced himself.
Primo Levi actually divided the poem into three main parts: The first four lines are his approach path to the general public, to the people that are reading the poem. The middle part of the poem is a very short but extreme description of the Holocaust. And the last part of the poem is where he invokes the prayer, the central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, “Shema” or “Listen”, “Hear! O Israel The Lord our God…” and he uses that to bring this injunction, this order, to talk and teach about the potential of human beings for the cruelty that he had just witnessed and experienced himself.
When I read at the end of the poem the threats that he uses, if we do not teach about what happened in Europe a year ago, I feel the plight and the pain of the survivor coming through. And I think this is a very important point to emphasize, because it’s very difficult for us after the Holocaust to imagine the extent of the tragedy that they went through physically during the Holocaust.

Please join me in this video, in which I deal with aspects of Primo Levi’s poem “Shema”.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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