Survival in Auschwitz, (145-173)
Chapter 16. The Last One (145-150)
Through Lorenzo’s help, Alberto and Levi have been able to trade for six to eight pints of soup each day. To transport their surplus food, they have contracted with a tin-smith for the construction of a menaschka, a sturdy, bucket sized zinc-pot made from drainpipes.
Levi describes how this ‘neolithic’ tool has increased their prominence in the camp’s social hierarchy. A menaschka was one of the original artifacts of civilization. Possession of this valuable tool indicates the achievement of civilized status. Auschwitz has recreated the conditions present at the origins of civilization. Primo and Alberto are nearly human again, members of the elect just like Henri and Elias.
What other exploits have Levi and Alberto achieved in the Auschwitz economy? Is it their prominence or their ingenuity which enables them to engineer these profitable trades?
Primo revels in his business exploits with Alberto: the smuggled brooms, the labels for showers… Yet Levi is still troubled by the moral aspects of his new prominence. He comments on how suspiciously easy it is to find moral justifications for achieving success in the ruthless struggle for survival in the Lager universe. Why should he feel troubled?
Levi juxtaposes his celebration of success with the description of the execution of the last surviving member of the Sonderkommando unit (Canada) which revolted and blew up one of the Birkenau crematoria. At the moment of his death, the prisoner shouted, “Comrades, I am the last one.” As he is marched past the dead man’s body, Levi agrees. He concludes that the Nazis have succeeded in destroying him. He says, “... we also are broken, conquered: even if we know how to adapt ourselves, even if we have finally learnt how to find our food and to resist the fatigue and cold, even if we return home.” (150)
Is Levi justified in this bitter conclusion? Is not survival in such extreme circumstances victory enough? Can he not argue that the ends justify the means when survival is at stake? Or should he have resisted by taking arms and fighting although that choice would have meant certain death?
Chapter 17. The Story of Ten Days (151-173)
In "The Story of Ten Days" Primo describes how he and the ten other sick people in the 'Infectious Hut' survived until the camp was liberated by Red Army troops. In January of 1945, the camp finally collapsed. Those prisoners who could walk were forced to march west, fleeing the approaching Russian troops. Because he had contracted scarlet fever, Levi had been left behind to die with a handful of ill prisoners in the ‘Infectious Hut’. (albertofarewell)
the healthy prisoners (except a few prudent ones who at the
last moment undressed and hid themselves in the hospital beds) left during the night of 18
January 1945. They must have been about twenty thousand, coming
from different camps. Almost
in their entirety they vanished during the evacuation march: Alberto was among them. Perhaps
someone will write their story one day." (155)
For ten days, until the Russians arrived, Levi and his comrades worked together to stay warm and to find food.
On the first day (January 18) (bombardment)
"Cagnolati, a young peasant also from the Vosges,
had apparently never experienced a raid. He had jumped out naked from
his bed and was concealed in a corner, screaming. After a few minutes it
was obvious that the camp had been struck. Two huts were burning
fiercely, another two had been pulverized, but they were all empty.
Dozens of patients arrived, naked and wretched, from a hut threatened
by fire: they asked for shelter. It was impossible to take them in. They insisted, begging and
threatening in many languages. We had to barricade the door. They
dragged themselves elsewhere, lit up by the flames, barefoot in the
melting snow. Many trailed behind them streaming bandages. There seemed
no danger to our hut, so long as the wind did not change.
The Germans were no longer there. The towers were empty.
Today I think that if for no other reason than that an Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence. But without doubt in that hour the memory of biblical salvations in times of extreme adversity passed like a wind through all our minds." (156-57)
On the second day (January 19th) Primo describes the
moment the lager
"We went out into the wind of a freezing day of fog, poorly wrapped up in blankets.
What we saw resembled nothing that I had ever seen or heard described.
Lager, hardly dead, had already begun to
decompose. No more water, or electricity, broken windows and doors
slamming to in the wind, loose iron-sheets from the roofs screeching,
ashes from the fire drifting high, afar. The work of the bombs had been
completed by the work of man: ragged, decrepit, skeleton-like patients
at all able to move dragged themselves everywhere on the frozen soil,
like an invasion of worms. They had ransacked all the empty huts in
search of food and wood; they had violated with senseless fury the
grotesquely adorned rooms of the hated Blockaltester, forbidden to the
ordinary Haftlinge until the previous day; no longer in control of
their own bowels, they had fouled everywhere, polluting the precious
snow, the only source of water remaining in the whole camp." (158)
Charles, Primo and Arthur search for and find a functonal stove and a wheelbarrow, but Arthur collapses and Charles helps him back to the hut. Primo has to move the stove back to the hut on his own.
"[S]taggering with difficulty, I was trying to manoeuvre the heavy wheelbarrow as best as possible. There was the roar of an engine and an SS man entered the camp on a motorcycle. As always when I saw their hard faces I froze from terror and hatred. It was too late to disappear and I did not want to abandon the stove. The rules of the Lager stated that one must stand at attention with head uncovered. I had no hat and was encumbered by the blanket. I moved a few steps away from the wheelbarrow and made a sort of awkward bow. The German moved on without seeing me, turned behind a hut and left. Only later did I realize the danger I had run. (158)
When the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty-three,typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed.
a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of
the Lager said: 'eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour', and left no room
for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was
20 January (electricity)
"In the afternoon I went to the ex-surgery, searching for anything that might prove of use. I had been preceded: everything had been upset by inexpert looters. Not a bottle intact, the floor covered by a layer of rags, excrement and soiled bandages. A naked, contorted corpse. But there was something that had escaped my predecessors: a battery from a lorry. I touched the poles with a knife a small spark. It was charged.
That evening we had light in our room.
Sitting in bed, I could see a large stretch of the road through the window. For the past three days the Wehrmacht in flight passed by in waves. Armoured cars, Tiger tanks camouflaged in white, Germans on horseback, Germans on bicycle, Germans on foot, armed and unarmed. During the night, long before the tanks came into sight, one could hear the grinding of their tracks." (162)
21 January (new clothes)
Primo and Charles find a spot in the kitchen where they can cook soup but are quickly surrounded by starving, freezing wraiths.
"After a long search we finally found a small area of floor not excessively soiled in a spot formerly used for the laundry. We lit a live fire to save time and complications and disinfected our hands, rubbing them with chloramine mixed with snow.
The news that a soup was being cooked spread rapidly through the crowd of the semi-living; a throng of starved faces gathered at the door. Charles, with ladle uplifted, made a short, vigorous speech, which although in French needed no translation.
The majority dispersed but one came forward. He was a Parisian, a high-class tailor (he said), suffering from tuberculosis. In exchange for two pints of soup he offered to make us clothes from the many blankets still to be found in the camp.
Maxime showed himself really able. The following day Charles and I were in possession of a jacket, trousers and gloves of a rough fabric of striking colours." (164)
Primo and Charles extend their search to the SS. Camp and find a treasure trove of goods: "a bottle of vodka, various medicines, newspapers and magazines and four first-rate eiderdowns". They gleefully return to the hut. Only later do the realize the close call they had risked:
"Some SS men, perhaps dispersed, but still armed, penetrated into the abandoned camp. They found that eighteen Frenchmen had settled in the dining-hall of the SS-Waffe. They killed them all methodically, with a shot in the nape of the neck, lining up their twisted bodies in the snow on the road; then they left. The eighteen corpses remained exposed until the arrival of the Russians; nobody had the strength to bury them." (165)
That night Lanamaker, one of the patients, is struck with illness: Lanamker's illness;
"In the middle of the night he groaned and then threw himself from his bed. He tried to reach the latrine, but was too weak and fell to the ground, crying and shouting loudly.
Charles lit the lamp (the battery showed itself providential) and we were able to ascertain the gravity of the incident. The boy's bed and the floor were filthy. The smell in the small area was rapidly becoming insupportable. We had but a minimum supply of water and neither blankets nor straw mattresses to spare. And the poor wretch, suffering from typhus, formed a terrible source of infection, while he could certainly not be left all night to groan and shiver in the cold in the middle of the filth.
Charles climbed down from his bed and dressed in silence. While I held the lamp, he cut all the dirty patches from the straw mattress and the blankets with a knife. He lifted Lakmaker from the ground with the tenderness of a mother, cleaned him as best as possible with straw taken from the mattress and lifted him into the remade bed in the only position in which the unfortunate fellow could lie. He scraped the floor with a scrap of tinplate, diluted a little chloramine and finally spread disinfectant over everything, including himself." (167)
23 January unlimited potatoes
Primo and Charles find a hole in the barbed wire fence and a trail leading to a trench full of frozen potatoes.
"Charles and I left, into the wind of the leaden plain. We were beyond the broken barrier.
'Dis donc, Primo, on est dehors!'
It was exactly like that; for the first time since the day of my arrest I found myself free, without armed guards, without wire fences between myself and home.
Perhaps 400 yards from the camp lay the potatoes-- a treasure. Two extremely long ditches, full of potatoes and covered by alternate layers of soil and straw to protect them from the cold. Nobody would die of hunger any more."
"An old Hungarian had been surprised there by death. He lay there like hunger personified: head and shoulders under a pile of earth, belly in the snow, hands stretched out towards the potatoes. Someone came later and moved the body about a yard, so freeing the hole.
then on our food improved. Besides boiled potatoes and potato soup, we
offered our patients potato pancakes, on Arthur's recipe: rub together
raw potatoes with boiled, soft ones, and roast the mixture on a red-hot
iron-plate. They tasted of soot." (168)
24 January (re-birth of commerce)
Some of the prisoners have made contact with the camp where the English prisoners live and returned with wonderful commodities: margarine, custard powders, lard, soya-bean flour, whisky. And Primo goes into business:
Our room, with its lethal
atmosphere, transformed itself into
a factory of candles poured into cardboard moulds, with wicks soaked in boracic acid. The
riches of hut 14 absorbed our entire production, paying us in lard and
25 January. Somogyi's death
It was Somogyi's turn. He was a Hungarian chemist, about fifty years old, thin, tall and taciturn. Like the Dutchman he suffered from typhus and scarlet fever. He had not spoken for perhaps five days; that day he opened his mouth and said in a firm voice:
'I have a ration of bread under the sack. Divide it among you three. I shall not be eating any more.'
We could not find anything to say, but for the time being we did not touch the bread. Half his face had swollen. As long as he retained consciousness he remained closed in a harsh silence.
But in the evening and for the whole of the night and for two days without interruption the silence was broken by his delirium. Following a last interminable dream of acceptance and slavery he began to murmur; 'Jawohl' with every breath, regularly and continuously like a machine, 'Jawohl', at every collapsing of his wretched frame, thousands of times,. enough to make one want to shake him, to suffocate him, at least to make him change the word.
I never understood so clearly as at that moment how laborious is the death of a man. (170)
In the evening, around the stove, Charles, Arthur and I felt ourselves become men once again. We could speak of everything. I grew enthusiastic at Arthur's account of how one passed the Sunday at Provencheres in the Vosges, and Charles almost cried when I told him the story of the armistice in Italy, of the turbid and desperate beginning of the Partisan resistance, of the man who betrayed us and of our capture in the mountains.
the darkness, behind and above us, the eight invalids did not lose a
syllable, even those who did not understand French. Only Somogyi
implacably confirmed his dedication to death. (171)
Dawn. On the floor, the shameful wreck of skin and bones, the Somogyi thing.
The Russians arrived while Charles and I were carrying Somogyi a little distance outside. He was very light. We overturned the stretcher on the grey snow.
Charles took off his beret. I regretted not having a beret.(172)
Of the eleven of the lnfektionsabteilung Somogyi was the only one to die in the ten days. Sertelet, Cagnolati, Towarowski, Lakmaker and Dorget (I have not spoken of him so far; he was a French industrialist who, after an operation for peritonitis, fell ill of nasal diphtheria) died some weeks later in the temporary Russian hospital of Auschwitz. In April, at Katowice, I met Schenck and Alcalai in good health. Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher's profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day. (173)
Are Primo and his comrades able to recover their humanity merely because the Nazis have left and the conditions of survival have eased? Or do these people achieve a remarkable moment of pure human goodness wrested from the worst of situations?
Write an essay about how Levi survived his ordeal in Auschwitz. Consider the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of this struggle.
After reading this chronicle, the reader can argue that the Lager experience has taught Levi the hard facts of existence. The lethal facts of life in Auschwitz reveal the true conditions of the struggle for survival in the state of nature. By taking advantage of random opportunities, by creating beneficial trading relationships, and by resisting the temptation to give up, Levi survives. He is wrong to condemn himself for the ambiguous moral choices he has been forced to make along the way. To be human is to survive.
However, another reader could also argue that in the final analysis Levi did not survive his ordeal at Auschwitz. Even though he preserved his physical existence, he could not sustain the spiritual identity necessary to maintain his humanity. Even though it is impossible for us to judge him, can we identify the moral choices which doomed him?
There are certainly other ways to formulate a response which addresses the moral questions which this remarkable memoir raises. Come to class next time prepared to discuss Levi’s central intentions in writing this book.