Tuesday, February 21, 2017

If This is a Man

Survival in AuschwitzSurvival in Auschwitz 
by Primo Levi

"Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses:  he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.  He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgement of utility.  It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term 'extermination camp', and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: 'to lie on the bottom'." (p 27)

Captured in December of 1943 by the Fascist Militia, a young twenty-five year old Primo Levi was drawn out of his life as an "Italian citizen of the Jewish race" into a nightmare that could only compare to the depths of Dante's Inferno. This book is his story of the capture, journey to, and life in the Buna section of Auschwitz. This was a "work" camp that provided slave labor for a rubber factory built for the I. G. Farben company.

Levi describes his experiences with vignettes from his period of internment. These vignettes are interspersed with his commentary on his own feelings, relations with other "haftlings" (prisoners), all of whom have become identified with a number tattooed on their arm. Primo Levi was number 174517.

One of the themes of Levi's memoir is language; its meaning and importance for life in the camp. Early on he becomes "aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man." The difficulty of being understood when you do not speak the language of your captors heightens the misery of daily activities making life more tortuous than it already was. At the end of the eighth chapter Levi observes that theft among the prisoners (a daily reality) " is generally punished , but the punishment strikes the thief and the victim with equal gravity." Further, he comments directly to the reader:
"We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words 'good' and 'evil', 'just' and 'unjust'; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire." (p 86)

Each chapter is named and these names signal the emphasis and direction of the book, if at times only metaphorically. Thus the descent of Levi includes a discussion of "The Drowned and the Saved" and encompasses "The Work" and "A Good Day". Of course a good day for Levi is one in which he can merely revel in the smile of one other person -- never matter the hunger!

In these moments he considers the meaning of his experiences and asks "if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state." He replies affirmatively, saying:
"We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing." (p 87)

In the chapter "The Canto of Ulysses" (a reference to Dante's Inferno) he quotes part of the Canto from memory, sharing with his fellow workers in the Chemical hut where he had fortunately been transferred. It is during this episode that "For a moment I forget who I am and where I am." He repeats a few lines for his friend Pikolo, but later bemoans the fact that he cannot remember the whole Canto, claiming he would give up his daily soup to remember the missing lines. His action can be seen as an attempt to maintain his humanity in the face of tremendous difficulties, thinking that:
"I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today . . ." (p 115)

Levi eventually survives the camp and lives to share his story and write even more after returning to his native home. However, it is not until after he has experienced a multitude of tortures and indignities. Not the least of which was the hanging of one inmate who made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. Of this episode Levi writes:
"To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.: (p 150) 
In January, 1945, the Russians arrived and Primo Levi began his journey home.


Stephen said...

We used this book in one of my European history classes, specifically when discussing Italian fascism and its comparative mildness when compared to the NSDAP's anti-semitism. As I recall, Levi spent time hiding in Italy before being abducted by the Nazi state...?

James said...


Yes, Levi was part of the resistance movement in Northern Italy. He was captured by the Fascist Militia in December, 1943 and taken to an internment camp. In early 1944 the Nazis took over that area and Levi along with others was deported to Auschwitz. He relates his experience before the deportation in more detail in his memoir, The Periodic Table.

Survival in Auschwitz details his time in the concentration camp (mostly spent in the work camp section known as Buna) while his return journey is related in a companion volume, The Reawakening.

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James.

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I do need to get to it.

The observations on language seem very important. It seems that our language is not designed for, and breaks down, under such extreme conditions.

James said...


Language was important to Levi and one aspect was that breakdown you mention, but there was also the impact on Levi of not speaking German. He was not alone as there were Poles and others in the camp who shared that difficulty. They learned the basic terms quickly, but more importantly, shared language was important for Levi's relations with the few inmates who would become his coworkers and even friends.