Survival in Auschwitz (77-116)


Chapter 7         A Good Day   (71-76)

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


Chapter 8.        This Side of Good and Evil    (77-86)


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 starve.

  • 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. 83)
  • What is the center of smuggling in the lager? (p. 84)
  • Who dominates the market in spoons?  (p. 85)

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?


Chapter 9.        The Drowned and the Saved             (87- 100)


In the struggle for profit and thus survival, Levi argues that two different types emerge: “The Drowned” and "The Saved”. 


The Drowned:

  • 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 say?
  • “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?

The Saved:

  • Primo 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. (QUOTE 92) What did they have to do to survive? Which ones achieve ‘salvation’ in a moral as well as physical sense? (pp. 90-92)
  • How did Schepschel survive? (pp.92-93)         
    • 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.
  • How did Alfred L. survive? (pp. 93-95)
    • 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?



Chapter 11.      The Canto of Ulysses                        (109-115)


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 ..." (115)

What truth has Primo briefly glimpsed?



Why is cleaning the inside of the petrol tank a luxury job? (p. 109)

  •  No supervision.

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? (pp.111-115)

  •  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.
  • 'Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
    Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
    To follow after 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 societies?
  • 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?

The allusion:

  • 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.


Chapter 10.      Chemical Examination           (101-108)


How did Primo secure this prominent position, thus enabling his chance at survival? (pp. 101-03)  

  • 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? (pp. 104-06)

  • 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?


How does Alex commit an unforgivable sin when he wipes his hands on Levi’s jacket?

  •  That mundane act indicates the thoroughness of the Nazi rejection of other humans as inferior. (pp. 107-08)


How does this chapter fit into your understanding of the memoir as a whole?