Survival in Auschwitz (77-116)
Chapter 7 A Good Day
- Consider the Bunaworks.
What 'utopian' dream did it represent? What irony haunts this
inheritance of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution? (p.
8. This Side of Good and Evil
By design the Germans
deliberately issued starvation portions of bread and soup to the prisoners.
If you followed the rules and only ate what was given to you, you would
How different is the
brand of capitalism driving Auschwitz’s economy from that which occurs
normally in the outer world? What is necessary for survival in both worlds?
Is the struggle for survival in nature different?
- If you were a prisoner, how could you
turn a quick profit if you knew that the economic flurry which
accompanied the Waschetaushen was imminent? (p. 77)
- Describe the location of the black
market at Auschwitz. (p. 77)
- How must a newcomer acquire capital the hard way in
order to go into business? (p. 78)
- Who are the toughest
businessmen at the market? Why does Primo respect them despite
their cut-throat economics. (p. 78)
- How does one create kombinacja
in the mahorca
market? (pp. 79-83)
- Describe other businesses which
prisoners embrace in order to make a profit. (pp. 79-83)
- How is the
civilian world beyond the camp a vital part of the Auschwitz
economy? (p. 82)
- What is the
SS attitude towards the rampant theft which goes on in the camp? (p.
- What is the center of smuggling in the
lager? (p. 84)
- Who dominates the market in spoons? (p. 85)
9. The Drowned and the Saved
In the struggle for profit and thus survival, Levi
argues that two different types emerge: “The Drowned” and "The Saved”.
- What checks and balances
exist in society which prevent our full
exposure to the brutality of a market economy? [QUOTE 88] When those
checks and balances are removed (in a time of crisis), what happens to
the weak, the innocent, the children, the ‘good’? What would Malthus
- “To he that
has will be given; from he that has not will be taken away." Why is
this the first rule of the Lager?
- pp. 88-90 Describe how most
inmates at Auschwitz sank into the state of ‘Muselmann’. [QUOTE 90]
- What would Voltaire
say about this destruction of the innocent? (Natural vs. Moral Evil) Is
there any moral basis for understanding natural selection, or is it
simply a natural force, like an earthquake or a tsunami?
does not shy away from the ugly truth
that many among the oppressed sought to curry favor with their
oppressors. The whole Nazi system of coercion relied upon dividing and
dehumanizing the Jews by making Jews Kapos and thus part of the first
line of oppression along with the common criminals who had been
sentenced to Auschwitz. (p. 90)
- Carefully read Levi’s
descriptions of the Saved.
What did they have to do to survive? Which ones achieve ‘salvation’ in a
moral as well as physical sense? (pp. 90-92)
- He found a simple kombinacje,
making braces from broom handles and wires; he dances for the Slovak
prisoners; he has no qualms about betraying an accomplice. He is lucky.
- Disciplined and methodical,
he gains a humble job cleaning the Polish workers' pots, yet he keeps
his appearance neat and clean and tailors his rags to give himself the
appearance of a prominent. To be judged powerful is to become so. When
opportunity knocked, and the Chemical Commando was formed, his moment
came. He got the job and used his position to suppress any potential
rival. (Remember Steinlauf’s advice?)
- How did Elias Lindzin
not only survive but happily thrive in the lager? (pp. 95-98)
- The dwarf, a human battering
ram, a born acrobat with amazing strength: he was ideally suited to
success in this environment. "a parahuman"; "an atavism"- different
from our modern world and better adapted to the primordial conditions
in the camp. Physically indestructible yet certifiably insane, he
thrives but would wind up incarcerated in the outside world.
- Eminently civilized and sane,
he speaks many languages and possesses great a superb education in
science and the classics. His theory: organization, pity and
theft; his method: seduction: he sympathizes with you and cultivates
pity for himself, thereby makes himself everyone's best friend,
even the Germans; the cunning and incomprehensible Serpent.
But what of Alberto?
- What talents make Alberto the
‘acme of survivors’? (p. 57)
- He understood quickly that
life is war; he entered the battle immediately, using all his
intelligence and intuition; he picked up languages quickly and spoke
sign 'gesture' language eloquently; he was everyone's friend YET he did
not become corrupt! “The strong and peace loving man against whom the
weapons of night are blunted.”
And what of Resnyk?
- What is Resnyk’s
story? Why does it belong in what Primo calls ‘a new Bible’? (p. 65)
- It is unknown because he told
it in French which Primo could not understand, but Primo knows that it
is like all the others’: simple and incomprehensible like the stories
in the Bible. “Are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?”
And what of Jean the Pikolo?
11. The Canto of
Enroute to the kitchen to pick up
the vat of soup for their kommando's mid-day 'meal', Primo and Jean the
Pikolo have a brief moment of leisure, and Primo uses this opportunity to
teach Jean a new language: Italian. Of course, Jean is grateful. A new
language will make him that much more valuable as a messenger, but Jean
really asks Primo for help just because he loves learning. Primo responds by
trying to translate for Jean his favorite passage from the greatest poem in
the Italian language: Dante's Divine Comedy. In Canto 26 of 'The
Inferno', Dante describes how the great explorer Ulysses, after finally
returning home to his wife Penelope, had decided at the end of his life to
leave home to go on one last voyage of discovery. He gathered his old sailing
mates and set off beyond the gates of Gibraltar into the unknown, never to be
heard from again. In translating the passage for Jean, Primo becomes more and
more impassioned in his desire to share this moment with his new friend.
At the conclusion of the walk,
Primo has an epiphany, a
moment of near prophetic insight, in which briefly he thinks he may
understand why God has allowed Auschwitz to exist.
"I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary
and urgent that he listen, that he understand this 'as pleased another'
before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see
each other again, I must tell him, 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
What truth has Primo briefly glimpsed?
Why is cleaning the inside of the
petrol tank a luxury job? (p. 109)
How has Jean the Pikolo been able to maintain a charitable concern for
others while engaging in the same struggle for survival which has erased
others’ morality? Is concern for others part of his survival strategy; is he
like Henri? (pp. 110-111)
- His skill at
making his Kapo look good by doing all of his
work has enabled him to earn a position of influence with him. Jean is
fluent in French and German, and he is constantly burnishing his
understanding of all languages.
What do Jean and Primo do during
their ‘leisure’ time? How is leisure time essential to the function of moral
traits like civility and aesthetic experiences like the pleasure of poetry?
- Jean asks
Primo to teach him Italian. They speak of home. They speak of language,
and Primo struggles to find the perfect words to translate for Jean the
greatest poetry in the Italian language. “It is vitally necessary and
urgent that he listen, that he understand…”
And then they speak of the lessons of the greatest literature. We are
men, made for experiences that the animals are not: the joys of reason
in the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.
How might this chapter be essential
to your understanding of the memoir’s overall meaning?
- In The Divine Comedy, the ‘Canto of Ulysses’ tells of how Dante
emerged from the Inferno to stand at the base of Mt. Purgatory. What
must be purged from our natures before true humanity can be manifested?
Or what luxuries must exist before civilized traits can emerge in our
- Remember the lesson Dante is
teaching us about Ulysses’ sin. It is right, and utterly human, to
pursue knowledge, but to employ language to persuade others to act in
your interest is a misuse of a gift for communication. Jean uses his
gift for language charitably. He shares with others out of the pure desire
to learn. That is human nature in its purest goodness.
- Charity is purely gratuitous.
The good has no purpose beyond itself. This moment gives Primo a glimpse
into the reason why both Auschwitz and God may exist. Could he have
achieved this understanding of the very best qualities of human nature
in any other place?
- In Canto 26
of The Inferno,
Dante and Virgil come upon the 8th abyss, agleam with
flickering fireflies, flames moving along the gullet of the ditch, each
a sinner guilty of having given false counsel. Dante stands on a bridge
over the ditch and nearly falls in. Virgil says, “within the fires
are the spirits: each swathes himself with that which burns him.”
Ulysses is within the divided fire, his fork linked with that of
Diomedes. The two lament their creation of the Trojan Horse, but that is
a deception from their true sin.
- Dante is standing
the Odyssey on its head: for nothing, not home, son, father or
wife could conquer in him the longing to explore more of the world.
Wanderlust drives him to leave home again and travel beyond the pillars
of Gibraltar, a gate beyond which humans are forbidden to go. (Dante’s
idea is partly inspired by the voyage of the Genoese brothers Vivaldi
who sailed past Gibraltar in 1291 and were never heard from again.) His
speech inspires his men to follow their star. “Consider your origin; you
were not meant to live as brutes but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” At
midlife, Dante has come to the mountain of purgatory, the end of the
inferno. He is criticizing rhetoric: the use of language as an end in
and of itself in the pursuit of self interest.
How did Primo secure this prominent
position, thus enabling his chance at survival? (pp.
- Primo is not given the opportunity to be interviewed
initially, but he is called back in the afternoon.
Describe the encounter with Dr. Pannwitz. How does the look that Pannwitz
gives Levi explain for him the essence of the insanity of the Third Reich?
- He looks at Primo as if he
is looking into an aquarium at a fish: does this fish have a utilizable element before I destroy it?