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Lecture: 'Primo's Yiddish Proverb'
November 20, 2019 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm
Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature University of California, Santa Cruz, explores “Levi’s Periodic Table,” a collection of short stories by chemist, author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.
Though he was told in Auschwitz that if he didn’t know Yiddish he wasn’t Jewish, Primo Levi begins The Periodic Table with a Yiddish proverb: “Iberkumene tzores is gut tzu dertseylin — Troubles overcome are good to tell.” Telling the Yiddish Proverb recuperates, even we might say, liberates him from the continuing trauma of the Nazi Lager.
The process of telling his coming of age story in The Periodic Table recuperates him as a chemist and a Jew, just as it liberates the carbon atom, with which the book concludes. As he notes in the Carbon chapter, not historical description but present-tense speaking — the telling — rescues this chemical element from its incarceration — “like Catholic Hell in limestone” — and the Jewish-Italian chemist from the ongoing trauma of the Shoah.
Dr. Murray Baumgarten is also the founding director of The Dickens Project, Projects Coordinator, Jewish Studies, UCSC Consigliere, for the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies.