Survival in Auschwitz, 116- 144
What happens to the moral judgment of an individual when life is reduced to its primordial situation? Can Socrates’ conception of morality survive in Auschwitz? How about Kant's?
Consider the following episodes and Primo's actions. Are they moral, or is morality irrelevant to survival? Jean the Pikolo (112); Lorenzo (119); Kuhn (129); Ziegler (129); Kraus (132)
What events enable Primo to join the Prominentz of the camp? Is this merely random?
Chapter 12. The Events of the Summer (116-122)
pp. 116- 117
During the summer of 1945, rumors abounded of the collapse of the German Wehrmacht, and distant bombardments heralded the approach of the Red Army and liberation. Yet the old Haftlinge’s wisdom lay in resisting the temptation to hope. For him, “history had stopped.”; “...for us, hours, days, months spilled out sluggishly from the future into the past, always too slowly, a valueless and superfluous material, of which we sought to rid ourselves as soon as possible.”
What was the German response to the approach of the Red Army and the collapse of the Bunaworks complex into ‘disconnected, frantic and paroxysmal confusion’? (QUOTE 116) Might the Nazi’s redoubled fury directed against their helpless prisoners help explain the origins of the decision to shift the Final Solution to an extermination policy in late 1941?
Consider Lorenzo, the Polish civilian who helped Primo
Is Lorenzo another example of the righteous individual who risked his life to help one of the untouchables: a Jewish inmate?
Primo says, “He did good without expectation of reward. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.” (122)
However, he also thinks carefully about Lorenzo’s motives for helping him. Levi is merciless in his interrogation of the motives for charity. Does good work expiate the terrible guilt one must feel for even witnessing what the Germans were doing at Auschwitz? How can one be in the precense of humans reduced to scrambling about like animals for scraps of food? Did Lorenzo help Primo simply to get rid of this guilt? Were his acts momentary impulses? Is Primo fooling himself into believing that Lorenzo acted out of true charity: “he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward....”? (QUOTE 120)
What does Primo think of his own cultivation of this relationship? Did he consider himself a 'seducer', like Henri?
No matter what, “It was due to Lorenzo that I am alive today.” (122)
Chapter 13. October 1944 (123-130)
As another winter sets in, Primo insists that a new language must be invented to describe what it was like for the prisoners to face the cold.
Rumors spread through the camp of an impending massive selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chamber: 7% of the camp; 35% of Ka-Be. How did different people cope with the threat that at any given moment one person in ten would be sent to their destruction? How did Ziegler respond?
When Kuhn realized that he had been spared, he began praying aloud-- thanking God that he hadn’t be chosen-- oblivious to the fact that Beppo the Greek was nearby and had been chosen. Primo says, “If I were God, I would spit on Kuhn’s prayer.” There are some sins that are abominable and which cannot be pardoned and which we all committed. We are all guilty.
Chapter 14. Kraus (131-135)
Why does Primo lose patience working with Kraus? Why does he tell Kraus his dream of being welcomed home to a sumptuous dinner?
Primo ridicules the Hungarian newcomer who is working too hard in the mud pit and forcing Levi to work too hard as well. Kraus has not yet learned the underground art of survival which requires economizing all effort. Kraus has not yet learned that to be beaten is better than to become exhausted. Kraus has not yet learned the danger of thinking logically. For that reason, he will not survive. “It is as logical as a theorem.” So Primo deliberately attacks him, in a way which he knows will be effective.
Is he justified in attacking a newcomer in such a lethal manner? Does the contorted moral code at Aushcwitz permit such a choice? Or has Primo committed an unpardonable transgression even in the extreme circumstances of the Lager universe? What would Socrates say?
Consider the peculiar sequence of contingencies which lead to Primo’s salvation at the moment when his strength was giving out. He is shifted from the seeming privilege of his Buna works position to a seemingly doomed job as a latrine digger. And then the lab position suddenly opens. What advantages will this job give Levi?
Consider how the forces of natural selection must follow similar circuitous paths. Can one ascribe Primo’s acquisition of the Laboratory position to mere random luck? What particular attributes did he have to possess in order to take advantage of this stroke of fortune (this shift of the ‘environmental conditions’)?
Note the way Levi describes his friend Alberto’s genuine joy when he hears of Levi’s stroke of fortune. Levi describes their relationship as a combination of identities. For Primo and Alberto organization means functioning as nearly symbiotic organisms. Does this commitment suggest that morality is connected in a concrete way to the struggle for survival?
Even so, while working at the Lab, Primo must suffer the embarrassment of being in the presence of the women who also work there and refer to him as “Stinkjude”. His appearance and smell confirm the racist ideas of the girls. How often do we mistake the effect for the cause in our judgment of poor people?