Of the survivors of Auschwitz who wrote about their experiences, most were Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, a rural world that had changed little in hundreds of years.
Primo Levi, the subject of Sir Antony Sher's stunning one-person play, "Primo," could not have been more different.
Born in 1919 to an Italian-Jewish family in Turin, he was from a middle-class, highly assimilated family and had been trained as a chemist.
When, after a five-day trip squeezed into a cattle car, he stepped into the death camp in late winter of 1944, he arrived at a "lucky" moment.
As he explained in the book on which this play is based (published in the U.S. as "Survival in Auschwitz"), the war was going badly for the Germans. They were letting their prisoners live longer to use as slave labor.
Even luckier, his skills as a chemist enabled him to spend his last few months in the camp in a chemical factory, where the inmates were treated better.
After all, they were working alongside members of the Master Race, who might have been offended had they had to confront the dehumanized creatures in the rest of the camp.
His scientific training guided Levi's responses to what he lived through. In a sense, he was observing an experiment. The Germans had calculated not just the most efficient way to exterminate millions of people, but how to disintegrate the humanity of their prisoners.
One way was to force them to walk in ill-fitting wooden shoes. Even if they learned to move, their feet became swollen and infected, bringing them to the hospital wards, where their inability to recover led them inevitably to the gas chambers. Here, too, Levi was lucky. His feet survived, and so did he.
Most accounts of Auschwitz present horrors too great for us to absorb. The "parable" of the shoes makes the unimaginable understandable.
Sher, an actor we see too seldom here (I was lucky enough to see his astounding "Richard 111" 20 years ago in London), never sensationalizes Levi's writing.
Except for a moment of anger at a fellow inmate's prayer, his tone is detached and awestruck, as if, even decades later. he is still numbed and in wonder at what he has witnessed.
He also conveys the gentleness that is my own memory of Levi, whom I interviewed a few years before he killed himself in 1987.
Hildegard Bechtler's simple set, in shades of gray, hauntingly lit by Paul Pyant; simple, evocative music by Jonathan Goldstein, and subtle sound effects by Rich Walsh enrich this powerful portrait of a soul in a vew modern hell.
In every way - as a human document, as a theatrical statement, as a piece of indelibly powerful acting – Sir Antony Sher makes "Primo" an extraordinary experience.
Opening last night at the Music Box Theatre for a sadly limited run (through Aug. 7), it casts a light on the Holocaust that is unblinking and convincing, especially in its understated naturalness.
Here is epic pain shaped into the understandable dimension of humanity - the deep-etched story of one man's survival, fortuitous perhaps more than heroic, and yet still heroic in its ability to hold on to life against the cruelest odds.
It is the story of the Italian-Jewish chemist Primo Levi, captured in 1943 while a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and sent to Auschwitz, a German death camp in occupied Poland.
Sir Antony - looking like any mid-century European intellectual in a trim goatee, and dressed simply in trousers and an old cardigan, shirt and tie - seems totally spontaneous against a bleak but neutral setting that suggests a prison chamber of dark memory.
He doesn't appear to be acting in any customary concept of the term -there is no sense of interpretation here, only the unbearable heaviness of being, as he offers witness to a Kafka-esque world of unpredictable horror.
The British actor himself adapted the play from Levi's dispassionate 1947 memoir, "If This Is a Man," and Levi's words, as originally translated into English by Stuart Woolf, come across as the calm voice of reason in a babble of insanity.
The play's almost serene remembrance of horrors past conjures up memories of the interviewing technique Claude Lanzmann used in his masterly film of concentration camp survivors, "Shoah."
Here, the emotional, near-poetic fabric of Levi's text - revealing itself in simple phrases like "as naked as worms" to describe the first time the prisoners, shorn of all body hair, were forced to strip - has the added resonance of art, though it never strays from the truth.
Originally performed at London's Royal National Theatre, the entire staging - Richard Wilson's seamlessly invisible direction, the awesome blank-faced designs by Hiidegard Bechtler, Paul Pyant's lighting, Jonathan Goldstein's Ernest Bioch-like music and Rich Walsh's eerily terrifying sound design -emerges as a single statement.
Still, the final triumph is Sir Antony's gentle description of the face of evil. As a virtuoso feat, it has a lot in common with Alec McCowen's much earlier exploration of goodness in "The St. Mark's Gospel."
Perhaps because evil is more compelling than goodness - and the evil that betrayed Germany into vicious sadism is still horribly relevant today - it will be Sher's calm exposition of man's inhumanity to man that will enter the annals of theatrical legend.
Even the way he walks is a kind of remembering, a testament to being used like a pack animal and wearing shoes that maim. When the extraordinary Antony Sher steps onto the stage of the Music Box Theater in ''Primo,'' his crystalline adaptation of Primo Levi's memoir ''If This Is a Man,'' he moves with a stiffness and caution that speak of pain held at bay and long awareness of the danger of falling down.
Wearing a professorial cardigan and spectacles, he looks in many ways like a garden-variety academic, plagued perhaps by arthritis or gout. But there's an uncommon intenseness about both the humility and the will power that seem to be involved in his simply keeping his balance. And as he continues to speak, leading his audience through the months he spent in a chamber of hell called Auschwitz, you come to realize that this man's posture is as much a legacy of that time as is the six-digit number tattooed on his arm.
In ''Primo,'' a production of the National Theater of Great Britain that opened last night and runs only until Aug. 7, Sir Antony creates a portrait in which brutal memory penetrates the very marrow of one man's existence. Recollection has become a physiological reality that he wakes to every morning and that never leaves him in sleep.
The great accomplishment of Sir Antony, a South African-born actor best known for his work on the London stage (''Richard III,'' ''Stanley''), and his director, Richard Wilson, is that they have translated this act of remembering into an expressly theatrical language that never sensationalizes, never lectures and never begs for pity.
''If This Is a Man,'' better known in the United States under the title ''Survival in Auschwitz,'' is one of the essential books of the 20th century, an experiential account of a Nazi extermination camp rendered in exact and unsparing sensory detail. Levi, an Italian chemist who was 25 when he was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, wrote in 1947 (two years after his liberation) of his daily life in the camps with a transparent prose that approached the clinical.
Implicit in this approach is the idea that his systematic dehumanization must be recorded as cleanly and objectively as possible, that interpretive shading would fall short of the improbable cruelty and monumental absurdity described. ''Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at the table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened,'' Levi writes in ''If This Is a Man.''
Capturing this stunned neutrality on stage would seem close to impossible. The theater, after all, demands, well, drama, a heightening of emotional response. And you can appreciate the reluctance of the estate of Levi, who died in an apparent suicide in 1987, to grant Sir Antony the stage rights.
Sir Antony has said that the 1985 documentary film ''Shoah,'' with its latter-day interviews with concentration camp survivors, steered him in his adaptation. ''Primo'' is indeed presented as a retrospective narrative. Sir Antony wears civilian clothes, not the striped uniform of a work camp inmate. But as he talks, it is the clear that the past is always present.
The bleak gray room of a set (designed by Hildegard Bechtler) helps to convey this notion. So does the lighting (by David Howe after Paul Pyant's original design), -- wherein shadows seem to lap at, consume and spit out Sir Antony's Levi. And so do sound effects (by Rich Walsh) and music (by Jonathan Goldstein), which summon weighted echoes of closing doors and bells of reveille.
But the larger burden of blurring past and present is left to Sir Antony, and he shoulders it with beautiful precision. His pedantically high-pitched voice is at once hesitant and determined, especially at the show's beginning, as if both reluctant and compelled to proceed. There is the sense throughout of Levi's measuring his words and finding them inadequate.
His body speaks its own language. Much of Levi's life in Auschwitz was spent on his feet -- standing in showers, in line-ups of naked men in the cold, walking long distances with heavy burdens. Sir Antony demonstrates the dragging shuffle that became Levi's stride, in part a consequence of the ill-fitting wooden-soled shoes he was made to wear. What's frightening is how naturally the walk still comes to him. Similarly, as he recalls standing naked for inspection or -- to use the play's most ominous word -- selection, he reflexively cups his hands over his genitals.
There is a single chair on which Sir Antony sits for Levi's rare moments of relaxation in the camps, which came mostly when he was in the infirmary. And you sense the luxurious, primitive release of his being able merely to bend his knees. He makes it clear, though, that such moments exact a price, allowing him to remember when he was a free man and how far from that state of grace he has been pushed.
For when Levi writes that ''to destroy a man is difficult,'' he is referring less to the killing of men than to stripping them of their sense of who and what they are. Early in the show, Sir Antony asks us to imagine being deprived of every personal possession, even a handkerchief.
He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and holds it up for inspection, a simple square of white cloth. ''Then you can fully understand the term extermination camp,'' he says. He then wipes his brow with that handkerchief. Though it is performed as a throwaway gesture, the double-edge image of that handkerchief's being available to him suddenly looms large.
Sir Antony carefully husbands his display of emotion. At one point, he stretches out his arms, head backward, to evoke hunger beyond words, when ''you and hunger become the same thing.'' Full anger blazes only a few times, when wonder at the animalistic state to which Levis has been reduced flares into humiliating brightness.
It could be argued that a couple of scenes -- especially those involving Levi's friendship with a fellow Italian, underscored by violin music -- are sentimental in ways that the book never is. And of course no 90 minutes of theater, no matter how fine, can approach the achievement of ''This Is a Man,'' in which an entire subculture of suffering is mapped out, right down to its sui generis systems of language and economics.
But that is not to diminish the true grandeur of what Sir Antony accomplishes here. Grandeur may seem a strange word to describe the modesty, selflessness and accumulation of small, exact gestures that are the keynotes of Sir Antony's interpretation. But from the beginning to the end of ''Primo,'' grandeur is what fills the stage.
The man in the promotional photo for "Primo" leans against a gray wall with a faraway look in his eyes and a peculiar placement of his hands. He is a neatly groomed, middle-aged fellow, dressed in the sweater-vest and tie of a professional, perhaps an academic. His hair and beard - more pepper than salt - have been carefully, almost rakishly trimmed.
But what about those hands? The left one is over his chest, almost in the position of a pledge. The right, the one over his crotch, suggests a more instinctive gesture of shame and fear. Oh, and if you study that arm held uneasily near his heart, tattooed numbers tell the story beyond the businesslike blue shirt.
Such is the understated power of "Primo," the 90-minute solo that actor Antony Sher adapted with mesmerizingly ordinary detail from the 1947 memoir by the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi.
The piece - more narrative docudrama than conventional theater - opened last night at the Music Box Theatre after sold-out runs at London's National Theatre, the West End and in Cape Town, where the South African-born actor had not performed since he left 35 years ago.
Sher, whose 1997 Broadway debut as artist Stanley Spencer emphasized a furious, almost effusively internalized energy, will have none of that showiness in this guide through the unspeakable but well-documented level of hell. Indeed, though stories of the camps now have the familiar churning of myth, Sher's respect for Levi's straightforward and meticulously-detailed observations is both admirable and awesome.
As a witness, Levi can still surprise us. When he was herded into a train from Turin in the last year of the war, the name Auschwitz meant nothing to him. Once there, he was struck by the almost "comic berets and long striped overcoats." The first - time he was beaten, he had never known man to "hit without anger." He explains the importance of shoes to survival and the arrival of spring as "one fewer enemy" in a world in which the words for hunger and cold were inadequate.
Oddly, the unsaid in Richard Wilson's production lingers beyond the words. Levi is wearing glasses at the beginning and, behind them, Sher's alert eyes seem never to stop looking around. After an SS man orders the new arrivals to undress and "make a bundle of our clothes," Sher removes his glasses and doesn't wear them again until the end of the play. The eyes stop moving. We don't notice until later that Levi talks in the past tense until the train stops and he is chosen for slave labor on the platform. From there on, we're stuck with him in his now.
Except for his eyeglasses, there is no costume change to telegraph the moment. Sher does travel from gray wall to gray wall (costumes and sets by Hildegard Bechtler). But only once does he address the audience directly. It is after being stripped as "naked as worms" and sheared. He asks us to "think of the value of your smallest possessions ... Think of this. Then you can fully understand the term, "extermination camp."
Every so often, a prison band plays a surreal popular tune or a march. Less effective are the overlytheatrical shadows and mournful music, which cheapen the quality of the manipulation. Levi, who committed suicide in 1987, should be beyond special effects.