The title of this piece is not intended to be tendentious. I don’t mean to suggest that to be able to write imaginatively it is necessary, or even desirable, to start out in a trade which bears no relation to literature. I am telling you simply that this was what destiny had in store for me. That is: how I became a writer without having chosen to, and without having consciously prepared myself for it.
I studied to become a chemist, and worked as one for thirty years, before, during and after the war; but I turned, unexpectedly, into a writer because during the war I was sent to a German extermination camp. It would be cynical to say that this was a piece of luck. It is the kind of fortune one shouldn’t wish on even one’s worst enemy. But, with hindsight, it provided me with an extraordinary experience, a rare observatory on human behaviour, and an enormous reservoir of ‘raw material’. In short: a paradoxically great store of riches.
During my year in Auschwitz I collected such a mass of things that pressed on me to be told that, after returning home, I felt almost obliged to write them down. My first book, If This is a Man, is a concentration camp story; its history is long and strange. I had been driven, almost forced, to write during the actual days of my imprisonment. I scribbled hurried notes with a stump of a pencil on shreds of cement sacks. I knew very well that all this was useless, for it was practically impossible to preserve these fragmentary records. Indeed, it was madly dangerous, because the Germans were extremely watchful for any signs that news was being smuggled out. They were only too aware of the deadly import of the massacre going on daily in Auschwitz and elsewhere. The mere act of writing was considered suspect; if the written matter referred in any way to what happened in the camp, the punishment was a public hanging.