Primo Levi’s “Shema”

Today is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I’ve been thinking about this lately with my work on Primo Levi’s writing and a few other projects I’m involved in. Levi introduces his Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man, with the poem, “Shema.” Named after the first Hebrew word of the prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” the poem weaves the content of Deuteronomy 6 and Numbers 15 with his experience in Auschwitz. Here’s Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann’s translation:


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.

Here’s a selection from Yad Vashem’s series on Poetry in Holocaust Education that looks a little more closely at the poem.

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