In recent years, we’ve seen an abbundant increase in publications linked to the memory of the Holocaust and an opening of the publishing market to this type of material, thanks to a positive and interested reception on the part of readers. This shouldn’t lead us to believe that this has always been the case. The route that has brought Testimonial Literature to win its own place in the already difficult world of collective interest, was neither easy nor short.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the almost physical need to try to detoxify the poison of Auschwitz, and the moral and civil duty to bare witness, pushed many survivors to entrust their experiences to written accounts.
Between 1946 and 1947, a number of different testimonies came out. The example of If this is a man by Primo Levi, today an accepted reference point for studies on the camps, is symbolic of the climate of that particular historic moment in Italy and abroad.
Begun while interned in Auschwitz III, If this is a man, was finished by Levi on his return to Italy, and sent to the Einaudi publishing house, (as well as three other “Large Publishers”), that decided not to publish it. It’s important to highlight that the Einaudi editorial board included people of the calibre of Cesare Pavese.
The book came out in 1947 under the imprint of De Silva, a small Torinese publishing house until then little known, which printed 2,500 copies, 600 of which were found later unsold in a Florentine bookshop, when, in 1966, the city was submerged in the infamous floods.
There were other testimonies of deported Jews at this time, for example Frida Misul, Luciana Nissim, Giuliana Tedeschi, Teresa Noce, Liana Millu, which remained largely ignored.
At that time, in Italy as elsewhere, the interest in the Jewish Genocide was tiny. The population, worn down by years of war, deprivation and suffering, preferred to forget, turning its face to the task of rebuilding. The returning survivors were isolated, and their recounts largely ignored. For a long period, it was as if one of the recurring nightmares of the camps was becoming real:
Almost all of the survivors, verbally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of imprisonment, varied in its detail but uniform in its substance: they had returned home, and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved person, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and most cruel) form, they interlocutor turned and left in silence. [Primo Levi The Drowned and the Saved]
Just as predicted by their persecutors:
However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world would not believe him. There will perhaps be suspicions,discussions, research by historians, but there will be no certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you. And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed: they will say that they are the exaggerations of Allied propoganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you. We will be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers
[Simon Wiesenthal The murderers are amonst us]
Of the women in particular, as highlighted by Daniela Padoan, an even greater disbelief exists, linked to the suspicion, more or less explicit, that they had been prostitutes, or that they had in some way collaborated with the Germans.