If Not Now, When?, by Primo Levi
This book is something in a bit of a disguise. The author was an Italian Jew who survived the Holocaust through developing at least some privilege as a result of his chemical expertise, and in this book he seeks to write about something that was only partly within his experience, but something which he was able to connect with his own background by making Italy far more important to the book than it would otherwise be. The particular partisan bands that the main character, Mendel, a watchmaker, and various other Jews find themselves involved in through various complex machinations and events, discuss Italy’s abandonment of the Axis cause, drive an Italian truck, and find themselves (spoiler alert) in Italy at war’s end after an epic series of travels, meaning that even if the author is stepping a bit beyond his own expertise as an Italian Jew, it ends up including a great deal of insights about Italy’s situation and the situation of Italian Jews that are drawn from the author’s own experience. As a result, this book demonstrates the ways that an author can step a bit beyond himself while also maintaining a great deal of what he knows so that the authenticity level is high.
The plot of this story is somewhat picaresque in nature. After an introduction that places the novel within the life and experience of the author, we begin in July 1943 as two Jews seek to become part of one of the Jewish partisan communities that has sought survival in the forests of Eastern Europe between Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Ineffectual efforts against the Germans (something that appears often here) leads to the destruction of the Jewish forest settlement and Model and others wander off in search of other partisan bands that they known and demonstrate their usefulness, joining up with some Communists, and then splitting with another Jewish band of Zionist leftists who are looking to make their way to Palestine and a future war, something that is prophesied within the pages of the book but something that we never actually see. Through some vague leadership and agreements with Polish and other bands, the group of Jewish partisans finds themselves moving westward into first Poland and then Germany and then southward to escape from Soviet imprisonment in the Gulag until the band finds its way in a camp for displaced persons in Milan awaiting a more permanent fate.
Whether or not you find this book compelling depends on a lot of factors. Do you like a lot of conversations about freedom and survival and the beleaguered Jewish culture of the shetl that was destroyed as a result of the atrocities of World War II? If so, you will probably like this. While the Jewish partisans endure some epic struggles for survival given the hostility of the Germans, the mistrust of other partisan bands including Soviet and Polish bands, they do not strike out against the Germans as much as one would expect. Perhaps the author’s own painful experience as an ineffectual partisan and his desire to maintain his own humanity and that of his protagonists keeps them from being as effective in fighting as they could have been otherwise. This book lacks the hardness that some would expect to see, but a man with a sensitive and literary spirit probably has a hard time imagining or even wanting to be hard enough to think of what it would have taken to exercise full judgment against the Germans for the horrors they inflicted upon the generally innocent Jewry of Europe, and that is probably for the best.