“I believe that it is to Lorenzo that I owe being alive today… for having reminded me, by his presence, by his so flat and easy way of being good, that there still existed a just world outside of our own ” (If This is a Man, quoted on p. 144).
Lorenzo and Primo met at a construction site in Auschwitz (No. III, the Monowitz, the ‘Buna’), which was a kind of huge private labor camp. Lorenzo Perrone (the ‘Tacca’), from Fossano (the Burgué), emigrated to France during Fascism, and in 1942 ended up ‘seconded’ to a German firm (Farben), which worked in the Buna of Auschwitz-which Lorenzo called and spelled ‘Suiss.’ -under industrial agreements between Italy and Germany. He arrived to put up walls, and found himself rescuing Primo, and, as we find out at the end of the book, many other prisoners. So he was a civilian, a ‘volunteer,’ he was not Jewish, in theory a free man, as free as an Italian could be in Germany after September 8, 1943.
In February 1944 Primo arrived, No. 174517, he was 24 years old, Lorenzo almost 40. A chemistry graduate, Primo was destined to be a laborer in the Buna. One day in June, while trying to pass a casserole with mortar to Lorenzo on a scaffold, he made a wrong maneuver and the mortar ended up on the floor: “Oh yeah, you can tell, with people like this,” were Lorenzo’s first words in dialect, his only eight words that Primo reported in his books. Something wonderful was born between the two Piedmontese, that immense evil spawned a beautiful flower: “Look what you risk talking to me,” “I don’t give a damn,” Lorenzo replied (p. 105). “I did not study. To me a Jew is a Christian like any other” (p. 94). Two or three days after their first meeting, Lorenzo showed up at work with his aluminum alpine gavetta and handed it to Primo, “without saying a word at all” (p. 60).
A decisive element of this extraordinary story is revealed by Levi in two adjectives: ‘his so flat and easy way of being good.’ There are many ways of being good. The most common ones have to do with will. This voluntary goodness appeals to us, and it is fundamental to living. But there is also another goodness, Lorenzo’s ‘flat and easy’ goodness, where we do not feel we are the object of special ethical efforts, but are loved as if the other (almost) does not notice. It is a love similar to that of nature, of plants, of children, of some poor people. It is another love, very rare and beautiful.
An extraordinary friendship, among the most beautiful of those that have intersected with great literature, to be juxtaposed with that, imagined by Dumas, between Edmond Dantes and Abbot Faria in the Count of Monte Cristo (even in Auschwitz, not only in the Chateau d’If, inmates took the place of corpses to leave the camp).
An unlikely, asymmetrical friendship (Lorenzo called Primo ‘lei’ until the end), made up of very few words and infinite stupendous beauty, so important that it determined the names of Primo’s two children (Lisa Lorenza and Renzo): for a Jew, the choice of children’s names is always something extremely important. And Lorenzo senses this: “The greatest pleasure for me was that I put the name Lisa Lorenza on him so he will also bear my name but I hope, thanking the Lord, that he will not have to bear my sufferings that I have brought into my life” (p. 200). Lorenzo’s postcards, with his second-grade Italian, are among the most beautiful pages of the book, a song to the dignity of the poor and the defeated.