Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is a Man…)
by Primo Levi (1958)
Any representation of the Holocaust is limited. The sheer scale of the event, the quantity and diversity of the individual experiences involved, make any representation of what took place an over simplification. However, it is an event which we have chosen to make an important moment in history. We must make an effort to understand what caused it, so our representation must somehow communicate our understanding of causes.... and that gets political.
The form of Levi's memoir is curious. Remember that he was trained as a scientist. You might think of each chapter as a 'weekly report' such as those he compiled to describe the progress of a laboratory experiment. His sentences are precise, concise, and comprehensible by just about any reader. Consider his choice of detail and his emphases in this imaginative memoir and try to discern Levi’s answer to the challenge of “Never again”.
As you read each chapter, underline key ideas and make notes in the margins. Consider the sections of the text that have been outlined below. See if you can write a topic sentence that links this chapter to Levi’s overall purpose.
Consider carefully Levi’s expressed purposes in writing this memoir. See if you can complete the idea suggested by the book’s original title: If This Is a Man…
p. 13 What was Levi’s character like before his capture and deportation?
p. 13 What was the nature of his brief experience as a partisan?
p. 13 Why did he identify himself during his interrogation as a Jew and not as member of the political resistance?
p. 13 What was the Doctrine of the Lager?
p. 14 Why were the Jews at Fossoli unable to avoid capture?
p. 13 When did word get out that the Jews were going to be killed?
p. 15 What made the day before departure surreal?
p. 15 How did the Gattegno family recreate the ancient Jewish ritual of lamentation?
p. 16 What does Levi find absurd about the
p. 18 Describe the impact of the conditions of the boxcar on the character of the prisoners.
p. 18 What were the ‘final farewells’ like before arrival ‘on the other side’?
p. 19 What made the selections on the platform ‘dreamlike’?
p. 20 Describe the ‘Canada’ detachment of prisoners who welcomed the prisoners.
p. 21 Who was the ‘Charon’ of Auschwitz?
Explain the double sense of the term “extermination camp”. What are the key ingredients to the Nazi psychological assault on the prisoners? What purpose does this assault serve?
p. 22 What does “Arbeit Macht Frei” mean?
p. 22 What does “Wassertrinken Verboten” mean? What makes this rule absurd?
p. 23 What other kinds of orders are given to the prisoners?
p. 24 Describe what happens in the shower room.
p. 24 What is the gist of the Prisoner Doctor’s speech?
p. 27 What does Levi find at ‘the bottom’? What psychological challenge will survival require to be overcome?
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 What does the French boy tell Primo when he asks if the Germans will return his toothbrush?
p. 29 Explain: “There is no why here.”
p. 30 What is the purpose of The Parade?
p. 31 Describe Schlome’s face.
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?
p. 35 How do you find the right job at the Buna Works?
p. 36 How does the nature of Time change at Auschwitz?
p. 37 How does the body rapidly change in this environment?
p. 38 Describe Block 36
p. 38 Describe Primo’s bunkmate, Diena
p. 38 What makes the block a ‘perpetual Babel’?
p. 38 Do the prisoners ever sleep?
p. 39 Describe the ‘daily hallucination’ of going to the bathroom each morning.
p. 39 What is the fiscal currency at Auschwitz?
p. 39 Describe the ‘frescoes’ in the washroom.
p. 40 What makes the effort to wash essential to survival, even if you never get clean?
p. 41 What does Primo learn from Steinlauf?
p. 42 Describe Null Achtzen, the ‘involucre’
p. 43 Is the fantasy of the trains healthy or not?
p. 46 How does Primo injure his foot? What makes this a ‘good’ wound?
p. 48 Describe Block 23: Schonungsblock
p. 48 How many “Du Jude Kaputt” have been documented there?
p. 50 What ‘thoughts’ occur to Primo in limbo?
p. 52 Describe walter Bonn and ‘organic decay’.
p. 53 Describe Schmulek and the ‘discrete massacre’ of surviving selections.
p. 54 How must one provide proof of dysentery?
p. 55 What does Primo describe as the most terrible pain of Ka-Be?
p. 55 What is “Heimweh”?
p. 56 What must Primo do to adjust quickly to life in a new block?
p. 57 What talents make Alberto the ‘acme of survivors’?
p. 58 Describe the culture of Block 45 on a winter night.
p. 59 What real estate challenge must Primo face?
p. 60 Describe how Primo enters the collective ‘lager dream’.
p. 60 What is the collective nightmare at Auschwitz?
p. 62 What are the rules of the shit bucket?
p. 63 Describe reveille, “Wstavac”.
p. 65 What is Resnyk’s story? Why does it belong in what Primo calls ‘a new Bible’?
p. 66 What is the ‘good’ approach to work?
p. 67 Describe the challenge of moving ‘the sleepers’. What is the value of pain?
p. 68 Describe Wachsmann and the trip to the latrine.
p. 69 Compare the siren, that ‘celestial meteor’, with the outbreak of dreams while dozing. What happens during moments of respite from work at Auschwitz?
p. 71 What old religion re-emerges as the prisoners wait for Spring?
p. 71 What makes the ‘colony’ of Greeks at Auschwitz special?
p. 72 Consider the Bunaworks. What irony haunts this inheritance of the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution?
p. 72 What danger exists in working too well? What benefits exist in pain?
p. 74 What fantasy grips Primo as he watches the steam shovel work?
p. 75 What is wrong with the newcomer’s attitude towards bread?
p. 76 What is the essential difference between ‘fressen’ and ‘essen’?
p. 76 What is Templer’s essential talent?
p. 77 Why is the ‘Waschetaushen’ such a vital event in the commerce of the camp?
How is survival in Auschwitz dependent upon maneuvering for profit at such moments?
What does Levi mean by ‘organization’?
pp. 78-79 Describe the exchange market. How have the Greeks managed to dominate the market? How are they the most civilized group in the camp? How long have they been at Auschwitz? How many Greeks are left?
pp. 79-83 How does one create ‘kombinacja’ in the mahorca market? Why does the SS paradoxically both outlaw yet also encourage this kind of drug trading?
pp. 84-86 What is the center of the illegal market at Auschwitz?
How does this chapter relate to Levi’s overall purpose in the memoir?
What connections are being established between the Lager universe and the larger economy outside of the camp? What is the difference between the brand of capitalism exercised in Auschwitz and that which occurs normally in the outer world? What is necessary for survival in both worlds?
p. 87 How does Levi answer the question, “Is it worthwhile to remember?”
p. 87 How can the lager universe be conceived as a gigantic laboratory which can teach us about our own societies? What checks and balances exist in our society which prevent full exposure to the brutality of natural selection?
p.87 What happens to moral judgment of individual behavior in such a situation?
Why does Levi insist that distinctions can only be made between the ‘drowned’ and the ‘saved’?
pp. 88-90 Describe why most inmates at Auschwitz sank into the state of ‘musselmen’.
pp. 90-92 Carefully read Levi’s descriptions of the saved. What did they have to do to survive? Did any achieve ‘salvation’ in a moral as well as physical sense?
pp.92-93 How did Schepschel survive?
pp. 93-95 How did Alfred L. survive?
pp. 95-98 How did Elias Lindzin not only survive but happily thrive in the lager?
pp. 98-100 What was Henri’s strategy for survival?
How does this chapter fit into your understanding of the memoir as a whole?
How do these stories affect your understanding of the meaning of good and evil?
Do you think the conditions at Auschwitz, although exaggerated, reflect the way the forces of natural selection actually work? Is there any moral basis for understanding natural selection? Does that make morality irrelevant?
pp. 101-03 What was the key moment in the sequence of events which led to Levi securing this prominent position, thus enabling a chance at survival?
pp. 104-06 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. 107-08 How does Alex commit an unforgivable sin when he wipes his hands on Levi’s jacket?
How does this chapter fit into your understanding of the memoir as a whole?
Get a member of the Dante class to explain the moment in The Divine Comedy’s ‘Inferno’ section to which Levi is alluding in this chapter.
p. 109 Why is cleaning the inside of the petrol tank a luxury job?
pp. 110-111 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’ moral understanding? Is concern for others part of his survival strategy, like Henri?
pp. 111-115 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?
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?
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.”
Has Levi’s experience in the Lager revealed for him the reality of human experience, where consideration of our true situation is futile and dangerous? Or does his survival depend upon imaginatively resisting the forces which would reduce us to an animal existence focused solely on immediate physical needs? (Only an inspired poetic sensibility could perceive the condition of the prisoners as ‘the opaque torpor of beasts’.)
What was the German response to the collapse of the front and the degeneration of the Bunaworks complex into ‘disconnected, frantic and paroxysmal confusion’? 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?
At this stage of his narrative, Levi chooses to pay tribute to the simple kindness and seeming charity of Lorenzo, the Italian civilian worker at the factory to whom Levi attributes his preservation. “Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”
Levi intensely analyzes the relationship between the ‘organized’ inmate and the civilian contact whose aid was essential to the prisoner’s survival. He suggests that the desire for profit, or guilt, or mere curiosity motivated the ‘good works’ of the civilians who risked their lives to help the ‘untouchable’ inmates. Levi also considers the corrosive effects on the characters of the inmates, like Henri, who resorted to any means possible in the terrible competition to seduce a civilian into being a reliable trading partner.
Is he able to thus devalue his relationship with Lorenzo? Is he 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....”?
Put simply, was the moral action of a righteous person essential to the preservation of Levi’s hold on identity (his soul?) as well as his physical existence?
Levi suggests that a new language must be invented to express the experience of the prisoners of the Lager as a new winter descended upon them. What sounds might be produced in this new language to express the sensations of ‘winter’, ‘tiredness’, ‘pain’ or ‘fear’?
As winter set in, rumors spread through the camp of an impending massive selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chamber. 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 Levi himself respond? How did he avoid the selection?
Why does Levi feel nothing but contempt for Kuhn’s prayer of thanks to God for having spared him from death?
Describe how the prisoners’ response to the freezing November rains demonstrates Levi’s theory that perfect unhappiness is impossible.
Levi 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 Levi deliberately attacks him, in a way which he knows will be effective.
How is Levi being deliberately cruel by telling Kraus about his dream of being welcomed home to a sumptuous dinner?
Is Levi justified in attacking a newcomer in such a lethal manner? Does the contorted moral code at Aushcwitz permit such a choice? Or has Levi committed a transgression which, in his own eyes, is unpardonable, given even the extreme circumstances of the Lager universe?
Consider the peculiar sequence of contingencies which led 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 becomes available. 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?
How does Levi cope with the way his appearance and smell confirm the racist ideas of the girls with whom he works at the Laboratory? He fantasizes about explaining to one of them about what has happened to him over the past year. Does he believe he could make contact? Has he made contact with you, the reader?
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 zinc-pot made from drainpipes. Levi describes how this ‘neolithic’ tool has increased their prominence in the camp’s social hierarchy. Possession of this valuable tool indicates the achievement of civilized status. He and Alberto are nearly human again.
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?
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?
Levi juxtaposes his celebration of success with the description of the execution of the last surviving member of the Sonderkommando unit 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.”
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?
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’. For ten days, until the Russians arrived, Levi and his comrades worked together to stay warm and to find food.
On the second day (January 19th) Levi describes the moment the lager died.
How did that happen? Are Levi 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 recover their dignity through moral action?
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.