So says Theodore Dalrymple in “Notes of a Bibliomaniac,” an essay that begins like a memoir of bookishness and wends quietly into a meditation on historical humility, concluding appropriately with the sentence quoted above. Dalrymple’s gift for turning the commonplace (a fondness for old books) into common-sense moral reflection (“history should not be read as the backward projection of our current discontents, or of our grievances”) remains the source of his abiding charm and persuasiveness.
Dalrymple finds an 1857 volume published by Dr. Peter Hood, The Successful Treatment of Scarlet Fever. About the once-devastating disease, Dalrymple says, Hood “discovered nothing new.” His research was a medical cul-de-sac, one of many. With the introduction of antibiotics in the twentieth century, the disease became, according to Dalrymple, “rare.” But not eradicated. Scarlet fever saved Primo Levi’s life.
In January 1945, with Soviet troops approaching, the Nazis evacuated the healthy prisoners – that is, ambulatory -- held in Auschwitz. Most of them died during the subsequent march or later in Buchenwald or Mauthausen. Sick with scarlet fever in the camp infirmary, Levi was left behind. Soviet troops arrived ten days later, on January 27. Levi describes that gap between Nazi evacuation and Soviet arrival in the final chapter of his first book, If This Is a Man (1947, also titled Survival in Auschwitz):
“All the healthy prisoners (except a few prudent ones who at the last moment undressed and hid themselves in the hospital beds) left during the night of 18 January 1945. They must have been about twenty thousand, coming from different camps. Almost in their entirety they vanished during the evacuation march. Alberto [Dalla Volta, Levi’s friend] was among them. Perhaps someone will write their story one day.”