Survival in Auschwitz  (38-77)

Some ideas to consider for your Cosmic Salon:

  • Can the civilized self survive at Auschwitz?  
  • Is Auschwitz revealing our true selves: man in the state of nature?
  • How could the civilization which grew from the Greek Ideal have arrived at Auschwitz? What happened in the late nineteenth century which led us so astray?
  • How did the Nazi experiment in de-humanization re-create the conditions which existed during the eons before civilization emerged?
  • Can Socrates’ conception of the good and of a soul exist in this environment? (Quote from Peter Weiss’ The Investigation on what happened to the good at Auschwitz.)

Remember one of the key reasons why Levi wrote the book: he believes that the Lager universe can be re-activated. The primitive instinct to regard all strangers as enemies lies latent in us all only awaiting the necessary cues to emerge.

The lager universe reveals terrible aspects of reality which are obscured by the veneer of civilization. Is the idea that we possess the rational will to determine our destiny only an illusion which exists temporarily in our comfortable middle class environment?

Review Different Conceptions of Man in the State of Nature:

See Rousseau (More on Rousseau); Locke(Tabula Rasa); HobbesMachiavelliDarwin;  FreudNietzscheKant; SocratesJesus; Lucretius


Describe the primordial civilization that reveals itself in the Auschwitz laboratory. 

  • What language is spoken? 

  • What is the most basic rule of survival at Auschwitz?
  • What other absurd rules must be followed? 
  • What common deity does everyone worship? 
  • What common dreams do they share?  
  • What talents reveal themselves as essential for survival? 
  • For how many millennia did homo sapiens live this way? 

Chapter 2  “On the Bottom” (continued) (pp.30-38)

p. 28    What is Levi’s number? Why are the prisoners numbered? How can the history of the camp be explained in numbers? Why are those with high numbers regarded with ridicule?

p. 29    When Primo reaches for an icicle, it is knocked from his hand by a kapo. When he asks, “Why?”, he is told, “There is no why here.” What does that mean?

p. 30    What is the purpose of the prison band and the Parade? Why are the prisoners forced to march in this manner? What is its purpose? (The Tune ‘Rosamunda')


YET p. 31    How does Primo describe Schlome's  face, a face he never saw again?

Consider the economy that emerges in Auschwitz. Which of the political philosophers we have studied would recognize it? (Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, Charles Fourier, Karl Marx)

p. 32    Describe the topography of the Auschwitz real estate market.

p. 33.   Describe the hierarchy of Auschwitz’s class system.

p. 33    What is the basic rule about all possessions at Auschwitz? (food, paper, wire, buttons, shoes)

p. 34    What are the rules at Auschwitz designed to do to the prisoners?

p. 35    What is the work like for prisoners at Auschwitz?

p. 35    How do you find the right job at the Buna Works?

p. 36    How does the nature of Time itself change at Auschwitz?

p. 37    How does the body rapidly change in this environment?

Chapter 3         Initiation         (38-41)


p. 38    What makes the block a ‘perpetual Babel’?

p. 39    Describe the ‘daily hallucination’ of going to the bathroom each morning.

p. 39    What is the fiscal currency at Auschwitz?

p. 41    What does Primo learn from Steinlauf? 

Chapter 4.        Ka-Be             (42-55)


p. 42    Describe Null Achtzhen, the ‘involucre. Why does no one want to work with him?

p. 46    How does Primo injure his foot? What makes this a ‘good’ wound?

p. 48    Describe Ka-Be: Krankenbau [QUOTE 55]

p. 48    How many “Du Jude Kaputt” have been documented there?

p. 50    What thoughts about the Parade occur to Primo while he is in limbo? [QUOTE 50-51]

pp. 52-53  What do Walter and Schmulek teach Primo about the meaning of the numbers tattooed on their arms?  What happens to Schmulek right after this conversation?

p. 53    Despite the relative comforts of Ka-Be, what terrible pain does it reawaken?

Chapter 5       Our Nights      (56-64)


p. 55    What situation does Primo find himself in after he has been discharged from Ka-Be?                   (What stroke of luck happens for Primo?)

p. 57   What talents make Alberto the ‘acme of survivors’? [QUOTE 57]

p. 58    Describe the culture of Primo’s Block on winter nights. [QUOTE 58]

  • Engineer Kardos' profession
  • The storyteller's song of the Lager
  • "Who has broken shoes?"
p. 60   Describe the collective ‘lager dreams’ that everyone experiences 

p. 62    Primo's dream vision of the lager universe.

p. 63    Describe reveille, “Wstavac”.

Chapter 6         The Work       (65-70)


p. 65    What makes Resnyk a good bunkmate?

p. 65    Why does Primo beleive that Resnyk's story should be included in a new Bible?

p. 67    Describe the challenge of moving ‘the sleepers’. What is the value of pain?

p. 66    What is the ‘good’ approach to work?

p. 68    How does Primo succeed in avoiding work for most of the morning? 

           (Describe  Wachsmann, the rabbi.)


Chapter 7         A Good Day   (71-76)


p. 71   What old religion re-emerges as the prisoners await the arrival of Spring?

p. 71    What makes the ‘colony’ of Greeks at Auschwitz special?

p. 72   Consider the Bunaworks.  What 'utopian' dream did it represent? What irony haunts this inheritance of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution?

p. 72    What basic fact of human existence is revealed by the arrival of Spring at Auschwitz: (why is perfect happiness unattainable?)

p. 74    What treat has Temple, the kommando organiser, found for them that day?

p. 76    What is the difference between 'fressen' and essen'?