Quotes from If Not Now, When?

Primo Levi ·  331 pages

Rating: (2.2K votes)


“Not that he [Uzbek] rejected Mendel's proposals or rebelled against his decisions; but he exercised a subtle, passive abrasion against every active thrust: like dust in a watch, Mendel thought to himself. He's got dust in him, even though he is young. It's stupid to say the young are strong. You understand many things better at thirty than at twenty and you can also bear them better.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“The Gedalists were nearly run down by a Dodge truck on which two grand pianos had been loaded: two uniformed officers were playing, in unison, with gravity and commitment, the 1812 Overture of Tchaikowsky, while the driver wove among the wagons with brusque swerves, pressing the siren at full volume, heedless of the pedestrians in his way.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“The sea of grief has no shores, no bottom; no one can sound its depths.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“But Gedalah had something in mind. He sent four men to collect a dozen pumpkins, and he had them set in the pylons that supported the overhead power line that ran the train, one pumpkin to each pylon.
“What are they for?” Mendel asked.
“Nothing,” Gedaleh said. “They’re there to make the Germans wonder why they’re there. We’ve wasted maybe two minutes; they’re methodical, they’ll waste a lot more.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“…We also have friends among the railroad men, and they tell us that so far the Germans of the garrison haven’t dared touch the pumpkins. They’ve blocked the line and have brought in a team of mine detectors from Cracow. They’re more worried about the pumpkins than about the car you stole.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?



“Pavel interrupted him. “I’ll explain what the Talmund is to you, with an example. Now listen carefully: Two chimneysweeps fall down the flue of a chimney; one comes out all covered with soot, the other comes out clean: which of the two goes to wash himself?”
Suspecting a trap, Piotr looked around, as if seeking help. Then he plucked up his courage and answered: “The one who’s dirty goes to wash.”
“Wrong,” Pavel said. “The one who’s dirty sees the other man’s face, and it’s clean, so he thinks he’s clean, too. Instead, the clean one see shte soot on the other one’s face, believes he’s dirty himself, and goes to wash. You understand?”
“I understand. That makes sense.”
“But wait; I haven’t finished the example. Now I’ll ask you a second question. Those two chimneysweeps fall a second time down the same flue, and again one is dirty and one isn’t. Which one goes to wash?”
“I told you I understand. The clean one goes to wash.”
“Wrong,” Pavel said mercilessly. “When he washed after the first fall, the clean man saw that the water in his basin didn’t get dirty, and the dirty man realized why the clean man had gone to wash. So, this time, the dirty chimneysweep went and washed.”
Piotr listened to this, with his mouth open, half in fright and half in curiosity.
“And now the third question. The pair falls down the flue a third time. Which of the two goes to wash?”
“From now on, the dirty one will go and wash,”
“Wrong again. Did you ever hear of two men falling down the same flue and one remaining clean while the other got dirty? There, that’s what the Talmund is like.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“On the contrary, I believe it doesn't make much sense to say that one man is worth more than another. One man can be stronger than another but less wise. Or more educated but not so brave. Or more generous but also more stupid. So his value depends on what you want from him; a man can be very good at his job, and worthless if you set him to do some other job.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“If I'm not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? If not now, when?”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“To the Germans, these Jewish foreigners, so different from the local bourgeois Jews who had, with discipline, allowed themselves t be rounded up and slaughtered, seemed suspect: too quick, too energetic, dirty, tattered, proud, unpredictable, primitive, too "Russian". The Jews found it impossible, and at the same time necessary, to distinguish the headhunters they had eluded and on whom they had taken passionate revenge from these shy, reserved old people, these blond, polite children who looked in at the station doors as if through the bars of the zoo. They aren't the ones, no; but it's their father, their teachers, their sons, themselves yesterday and tomorrow. How to resolve the puzzle? It can't be solved. Leave: as soon as possible. This land, too, is searing under our feet, this neat, trim town, loving order, this sweet bland air of full summer also scorches Leave, leave: we haven't come from the depths of Polessia in order to go to sleep in the Wartesaal of Plauen-am-Elster, and to while away our waiting with group snapshots and the Red Cross soup.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“The truck went on its way in the night and Gedaleh shouted, laughing, "If not this way, how? And if not now, when?”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?



“We were also born," Line said abruptly. Mendel questioned her with a look, and Line tried to clarify her thought: "Born, expelled. Russia conceived us, nourished us, made us grow in her darkness, as in a womb; then she had labor pains, contractions, and threw us out; and now here we are, naked and new, like babies just born. Isn't it the same for you?"

"Narische meidele, vos darst do freden?" Mendel rebutted, feeling on his lips and affectionate smile and a light veil over his eyes.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“Válka, to je hlavně velký zmatek, na poli i v lidských hlavách: často člověk ani nechápe, kdo vlastně vítězí a kdo prohrává, o tom pak rozhodnou generálové a ti, co píšou dějepisné knihy.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“To the Jews who wanted a land of their own, where they could organise themselves and live according to their traditions, Stalin had offered a bleak territory in Eastern Siberia: Birobidzhan. Take it or leave it. Anyone who wanted to live as a Jew should go to Siberia; if anyone refused Siberia, that meant he preferred to be Russian. There was no third way. But if a Jew wanted to be Russian, what can, what should he do, if the Russians deny him access to the university, and call him a zhid, and turn the pogromists on him, and form an alliance with Hitler? He can't do anything- especially if he's a woman.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“Když Tvůj přítel padne, nemáš se radovat, ale ani mu nemáš pomoct vstát.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


“Perhaps memory is like a bucket; if you want to cram into it more fruit than it will hold, the fruit is crushed.”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?



“They accept us as martyrs: maybe afterwards they’ll put up monument in the ghettos, but as allies they won’t accept us,” Dov said
(discussing the partisans and rebel groups who did not want to work with Jews)”
― Primo Levi, quote from If Not Now, When?


About the author

Primo Levi
Born place: in Turin, Italy
Born date July 31, 1919
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