This poem is based on the principal Jewish prayer, ‘Hear, [Shema] O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deuteronomy, 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41). Primo Levi reworks some of its major ideas, making it possible to incorporate the experience of the Holocaust into the Jewish religion.

 

Shema

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.


Primo Levi
(Translated by Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann)