4: Video excerpt, oral history interview with Norbert Wollheim, 1994.
In this clip Norbert Wollheim, an Auschwitz survivor who was imprisoned at the Buna slave labor complex where Primo Levi toiled, describes the physical deprivations the laborers endured every day, enough to destroy many of them emotionally, if not physically. This raises the question of Levi’s suicide in 1987, more than forty years after his liberation. Did Levi take his own life because the Holocaust eventually did him in? Do we ever really survive our deepest traumas?
Suggested Activity: After viewing the clip, ask the students to read over the chapter of Survival in Auschwitz called “The Drowned and the Saved,” and then the scene where Levi’s friend Steinlauf urges him to wash up every day, even if it’s in dirty water. Ask them also to read over Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue” from resource #3 of this kit, and point out that Celan took his own life. Ask the students to respond to three questions in their journals: 1. What turned Auschwitz victims into what Levi called Musselmen? 2. Why do you think Levi didn’t become a Musselman? 3. Do you think Levi actually survived the Holocaust? Give them whatever information you think is necessary regarding Levi’s suicide. (For a fascinating novelistic meditation on Holocaust writers who committed suicide, see Golems of Gotham by Thane Rosenbaum.)
Source: Norbert Wollheim, “Norbert Wollheim describes forced labor at the Buna works,” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Archives, 1994), https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/oral-history/norbert-wollheim-describes-forced-labor-at-the-buna-works-1.