Survival in Auschwitz
e un uomo…”
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 the events 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.
What is the meaning of the original title of Levi’s
memoir: “Se questo e un uomo…” In English it means, “If This Is a Man…” Can you finish
the sentence for him?
Levi took his own life years later in 1987. He survived
Auschwitz physically, but in the end it can be argued that the experience
robbed him of his life.
Throughout the fourth quarter we have been thinking about
how the Greek Ideal was challenged by the twin forces of industrial
revolution and colonialism. Ultimately the social pressures of industrial
change and opportunities to dominate world trade led to outbursts of savagery
among the most advanced nations on earth.
How can the curious title of Levi’s memoir and his
ultimate rejection of life be linked to our understanding of the ultimate
fate of liberalism?
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 “If This
is a Man….”
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…
(13-21) (January 1944)
p. 13 What was Levi’s character like
before his capture and deportation?
He lived "in an unrealistic world of my own, a world
populated by civilized Cartesian phantoms..."
p. 13 What was the nature of his brief
experience as a partisan?
Why did he identify himself during his interrogation as a Jew and not as
member of the political resistance?
He feared, wrongly, that being regarded as a partisan
would make things worse for him than being regarded as a Jew.
p. 13 What was the Doctrine of the
"Man is bound to pursue his own ends by all possible
means, while he who errs but once pays dearly...."
p. 14 Why were the Jews at Fossoli unable to avoid capture?
Imprudence, secret accusations; a few had even given
themselves up to avoid separation from a relative- or absurdly, 'to be in
conformity with the law'
p. 13 When did word get out that the
Jews were going to be killed?
On the morning of the 21st, the announcement was made
that every man woman and child, even the old and the ill, would be
deported. Only the 'ingenuous and deluded' continued to hope.
p. 15 What made the day before departure
It was completely normal. Only the children were given no
homework by their teachers.
p. 15 How did the Gattegno
family recreate the ancient Jewish ritual of lamentation?
"When all was ready for departure, they loosened
their hair, took off their shoes, placed the Yahrzeit
candles on the ground and lit them according to the customs of their
fathers and sat on the bare ground in a circle for the lamentations,
praying and weeping all the night."
p. 16 What does Levi find absurd about the
The nightmarish touches: referring to people as 'pieces' of
cargo, obsession with precise counts, violence inflicted without emotion.
The Nazis are mixing pseudo-reason (hard materialism) with 'rational'
violence. Their methods are effective at dehumanizing the Jews, but they
are unhinged from reality.
p. 17 Why does Levi argue that perfect
unhappiness is unattainable?
Our human condition is opposed to everything infinite.
Our ever insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it; the certainty of
death opposes it. We are distracted from our misfortunes by the immediate misfortune
at hand and therefore it is difficult to suffer (contemplate pain).
17 How many of the people in Levi's boxcar would survive
and make the return journey to Italy?
Describe the impact of the conditions of the boxcar on the
character of the prisoners.
the nightmare of darkness:
"Our restless sleep was often interrupted by noisy and futile
disputes, by curses, by kicks and blows blindly delivered to ward off some
encroaching and inevitable contact. Then someone would light a candle and
its mournful flicker would reveal in obscure agitation, a human mass,
extended across the floor, confused and continuous, sluggish and aching,
rising here and there in sudden convulsions and immediately collapsing in
p. 18 What were the ‘final farewells’ like
before arrival ‘on the other side’?
"Now, in the hour of decision, we said to each other
things that are never said among the living."
p. 19 What made the selections on the
they were conducted in silence as if in an aquarium... the
selections are made with the calm assurance of the SS as they did their
normal duty, but there was little reason associated with the choices
made... then sudden, emotionless violence....Only 125/625 survive the
selections; the rest are gassed that night.
p. 20 Describe the ‘Canada’ detachment of
prisoners who welcomed the
Two groups of strange individuals walking with odd
embarrassed step: wearing comic berets, dressed in long striped overcoats,
filthy and ragged: This was the metamorphosis that awaited us.
p. 21 Who was the ‘Charon’ of Auschwitz?
the armed German guard who
accompanies them in the lorry, asking politely if the prisoners have any
money or watches to give him.
On the Bottom
26-27 Explain the double sense of the term “extermination camp”.
They have even taken away our name and if we want to keep
it we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, so that something
remains of who we once were. Even without possessions we still have our
daily habits, but those will be disrupted and taken.
Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he
loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short
of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering
and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often
What are the key ingredients to the Nazi psychological
assault on the prisoners?
without anger...Boxcar: thirst...darkness...cold... the platform:
selections...Canada squad... thirst... absurd regulations...
nakedness... hair shorn...the Prison Doctor's absurd lies... the
tattoo... the Parade of Haftlings
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?
"It is forbidden to drink." They have not had
anything to drink for four days. Their terrible thirst is mocked by the
presence of a faucet and the order to not drink.
p. 23 What other kinds of orders are
given by the prisoners?
Orders are given in German, which only a few understand,
to strip and separate the clothes into different bundles. They are told to
make sure their shoes are not stolen, but then the shoes are all swept
willy nilly into a big pile. One man wears a
truss (for a hernia) and he is told to remove it. He will be given Mr. Coen's. That is an example of German humor. He holds
the door open to watch people write naked in the cold. He tells them to be
quiet; they are not in a rabbinical school.
They are shaved and sheared.
It is like they are in a mad mystery play one in
which the Holy Spirit and the Devil will both make their appearance.
p. 24 Describe what happens in the
They are locked in a shower room and forced to stand in
p. 24 What is the gist of the Prisoner
He mixes truth with absurd, self aggrandizing lies. They
are in Monowitz, the Auschwitz complex's work
camp which produces rubber, hence, the Buna Works. They are awaiting shower
and disinfection. He refuses to answer questions about their women and
relatives. He tells them that every Sunday their are concerts and football matches.... He
says that good boxers can become cooks.... he says that you can win coupons
for tobacco and soap. He says that the water really is undrinkable, Drink
27 What does Levi find at ‘the bottom’? What psychological
challenge will survival require to be overcome?
There is nowhere to look in a mirror but our appearance
stands in front of us reflected in a hundred livid faces, in a hundred
miserable and sordid puppets: our language lacks words to express the
offense which has been committed against them 'the demolition of a man'
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?
174517: the funereal science of the numbers of Auschwitz which
epitomize the stages of the destruction of European Jewery:
another example of the absurdity of numbers and reason at the core of the
reality that is being revealed to Primo Levi.
000 only a few left
117,000 the Jews of Salonika
- high numbers? comic freshmen who will not last long.
29 What does the French boy, Schlome, tell Primo when he asks if the
Germans will return his toothbrush?
"You are not at home here."
p. 29 When Primo reaches for an icicle,
it is knocked from his hand. When he asks, “Why?”,
he is told, “There is no why here.” What does the guard mean?
Everything is forbidden. Only brute, irrational,
p. 30 What is the purpose of The Parade?
The Parade of Haftlings: a collossal farce in Teutonic taste... stiff puppets made
of jointless bones
p. 31 Describe Schlome’s
Gentle and serious, he offers Primo a human welcome on the
threshold of the house of the dead.
p. 32 Describe the topography of the
Auschwitz real estate market.
60 wooden blocks; shower, latrines, kitchens, special blocks,
infirmary, Block 24: quarantine, Block 7: Prominenz,
Block 47: Reichsdeutche, Block 49: Kapos, Block 12: canteen for Kapos
and reichdeutche, Block 37: Quartermaster's
Office, Block 29: Frauenblock
Roll Call Square and bed of grass with gallows
Within a Block:
Tagesraum and entourage's space, then the dormitory for 200-250 in
triple bunk beds, two men per bunk, narrow corridors
p. 33. Describe the hierarchy of Auschwitz’s class
Prisoners: criminals (green), politicals
(red) , and Jews (red and yellow Jewish star)
33 What is the basic rule about all possessions at
Auschwitz? (food, paper, wire, buttons, shoes)
Everything is useful and can therefore be stolen.
34 What are the rules at Auschwitz designed to do?
infinite and senseless: make your bed perfectly, smear shoes with
appropriate grease, five buttons on jackets, no mud stains on filthy
jackets: a Gordian knot of laws taboos and problems: designed to exhaust
p. 35 How do you find the right job at
the Buna Works?
through the intercession of the Arbeitsdienst
p. 36 How does the nature of Time change
the past has no meaning....the
remote future no longer exists, only the challenge of finding enough to eat
that day. Will it snow? Will there be coal to unload?
p. 37 How does the body rapidly change
in this environment?
chronic hunger, chronic paranoia about theft, chronic
sores on heels of feet, swollen belly, yellow skin
Chapter 3 Initiation
p. 38 Describe Block 36
p. 38 Describe Primo’s
p. 38 What makes the block a ‘perpetual
“The confusion of languages is a fundamental
component of the manner of living here: everyone shouts orders and threats
in languages never heard before, and woe betide anyone who fails to grasp
the meaning”: language in the original state of nature: more sound than
p. 38 Do the prisoners ever sleep?
No deep sleep in this Block
p. 39 Describe the ‘daily hallucination’
of going to the bathroom each
Some bestially urinate while running to the latrine to
p. 39 What is the fiscal currency at
the holy grey slab: bread-brot-Broid-chleb-pain-lechem-keyner
p. 39 Describe the ‘frescoes’ in the
the good haftlinge stripped to
the waist and the bad haftlinge only tipping his
finger in the fetid water; the louse is death; wash your hands before
eating: pure examples of Teutonic sense of humor because the water is
p. 40 What
makes the effort to wash essential to survival, even if you never get clean?
this place it is practically pointless to wash everyday in the turbid water
of the filthy washbasins for purposes of cleanliness and health; but it is
most important as a symptom of remaining vitality and necessary as an
instrument of moral survival.”
p. 41 What does
Primo learn from Steinlauf?
ex-sergeant of the Austrian army: Washing is no mere
mechanical habit, a waste of energy and warmth; “precisely because the
Lager is a great machine designed to reduce us to beasts, we must not
become beasts; even in this place one can survive, one must survive to bear
witness, so the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization must be
maintained” so we refuse to give our consent and maintain our dignity
42 Describe Null Achtzhen, the
‘involucre’. Why does no one want to work with him?
Zero Eighteen is no longer a man: he has forgotten his
name: “he is like the slough of certain insects one finds on the banks of
swamps, held by a thread to the stones and shaken by the wind.” He is
indifferent to the point of not even troubling to avoid tiredness or blows
or to search for food. He will go to his death with the same indifference.
p. 43 Is the fantasy of the trains
healthy or not?
Fantasy of Escape as the train passes.... the moment of
the return to consciousness that accompanies the awakening is acutest of
46 How does Primo injure his foot? What makes this a ‘good’
Carrying a heavy support with Null Achtzehn,
they trip and fall, and the metal catches the back
of his foot. Now, he no longer has to work with Null Achtzehn.
The wound is not dangerous, but it guarantees a short period of rest.
p. 48 Describe Ka-Be:
eight huts separated by a wire fence: staying longer than two weeks
is deadly; entering with shoes on is forbidden but one must not lose them
or your bowl or spoon before reaching the deposit; however the next day he
brings them with him instead of hiding them and they are taken away. Idiot!
p. 48 Describe Block 23: Schonungsblock
a queue of human skeletons; laughter at his high number which
identifies him as one of the Italian Jews, the lawyers who do not know how
to work and get their bread stolen and are soon to die.) 150 bunks with two
patients for every bunk; selections every day;
48 How many “Du Jude Kaputt” have
been documented there?
"You Jew finished You soon ready for the
crematorium." Primo's number is
in the 170,000's, and the numbers began to be assigned only eighteen months
before, and there are only 10,000 at Birkenau. Where are the others.
p. 50 What ‘thoughts’ occur to Primo in
Deep sleep is possible for the first time since he
entered the camp, yet one hears in the distance the infernal music of the
camp band leading the march to work: it is the voice of the Lager, the
perceptible expression of geometric madness, the monstrous rite created by
the Germans to celebrate their resolution to annihilate the Jew as man
before he is killed more slowly. “the music drives
them, like the wind drives dead leaves and takes the place of their will.
There is no longer any will: every beat of the drum becomes a step, a
reflected contraction of exhausted muscles…They are ten thousand and they
are a single grey machine; they are exactly determined….” (51) The March is
often witnessed by the SS: it is proof of their victory
p. 52 Describe Walter Bonn and ‘organic
Primo does not explain. What do you imagine?
p. 53 Describe Schmulek
and the ‘discrete massacre’ of the selections.
a Polish Jew with an emaciated face who is selected, and
Primo is given his spoon and knife
p. 54 How must one provide proof of
dysentery patients must 'prove' they still have diarrhea; therefore,
they hold it until the right time.
p. 55 What does Primo describe as the
most terrible pain of Ka-Be?
"the Lager without physical
discomfort" enables one to suffer, ie
consider the injustice of what is being done to them. More terrible than
even death is the awareness Primo has gained about the fragility of
personality: ‘the old wise ones instead of warning uo ‘remember that you must die’ would have done much
better to remind us of this greater danger which threatens us.”
p. 55 What is “Heimweh”?
Homesickness: is this healthy?
5 Our Nights
p. 56 What must Primo do to adjust
quickly to life in a new block?
You leave Ka-Be naked, are given new clothes and shoes, need
to acquire a new knife and spoon, and must learn a new hostile environment
from the ground up. In short, you have no capital. You need to adapt
quickly: dig in, erect a new barrier of defense and conclude non-aggression
pacts with new neighbors, but Primo is lucky. He is assigned to his friend
p. 57 What talents make Alberto the ‘acme of
He understood quickly that life is war; he entered the battle
immediately, using all his intelligence and intuition; he picks up languages
quickly and speaks sign 'gesture' language eloquently; he is everyone's
friend YET he did not become corrupt! “The strong and peace loving man against whom
the weapons of night are blunted.”
p. 58 Describe the culture of Block 45
on a winter night.
Nights are longer, so there is time to sleep. Before
lights out, the neighborhood trades flourish: the foot doctor plies his trade, the storyteller comes who tells the life of the
Lager in Yiddish verse; some nights broken shoes are exchanged in a mad
rush. tailors ply their precious needle and thread
p. 59 What real estate challenge must
His fat bunk mate forces him to sleep on the edge of the
bunk, like on a railway tie.
p. 60 Describe how Primo enters the
collective ‘lager dream’.
He recalls the pain of the day's labor on the train
tracks... he climbs toward consciousness and hears a real train whistle,
and realizes that everyone in the block has the same dream: the dream of
the unlistened to story: trying to tell a relative
what is happening and watching him or her turn away.
p. 60 What are the collective nightmares
Our listeners will not understand or worse, will not
care. This idea produces the purest of pain, like the pain of one's early
infancy. Others are dreaming dreams of eating real food. The myth of
Tantalus made real.
p. 62 What are the rules of the shit
An obscene torment and an indelible pain. When it is full, it
must be emptied by the last user. So one must gauge by sound and counting
when to use it.
p. 63 Describe reveille, “Wstavac”.
the terror arrives early and awakens you before the sound
itself; everyone must get up, make their bed and eat their bread, rush to
the latrine and the washroom and put on your shoes-- reopening sores.
6 The Work
p. 65 What is Resnyk’s
story? Why does it belong in what Primo calls
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?”
p. 66 What is the ‘good’ approach to
It is less exhausting to work on big loads rather than
small ones: it is subdivided work and you have better tools. You must never
work to exhaustion and any ruse you can use to reduce the load is good.
p. 67 Describe the challenge of moving
‘the sleepers’. What is the value
To be beaten lovingly enables one to use adrenalin
to access the last resources of strength.
p. 68 Describe Wachsmann
and the trip to the latrine.
A survivor for two years in the camp because he is a rabbi whose
energy seems to emanate from his study of and discussion of the Torah.
69 Compare the siren, that ‘celestial meteor’, with the
outbreak of dreams while dozing. What happens during moments of respite from
work at Auschwitz?
The usual dreams: to be at home, in a hot bath; to tell
the story of never ending hunger, of the slave's way of speaking....
7 A Good Day
71 What old religion re-emerges as the prisoners wait for
p. 71 What makes the ‘colony’ of Greeks
at Auschwitz special?
the terrible Jews of Salonica: tenacious, thieving, wise, ferocious, and
united: the conquerors of the kitchens and the yards whom even the Germans
respect: they have survived for three years....
72 Consider the Bunaworks. What
irony haunts this inheritance of the enlightenment and the Industrial
the huge entanglement of iron, concrete, mud and smoke is
the negation of beauty; a large city; 15-20 languages spoken: Carbide
Tower: the tower of Babel: a curse hangs over the building: it will never
produce any rubber
Why again is perfect happiness or unhappiness impossible?
As the warmth of Spring ends the months of terrible cold,
hunger reasserts itself.... Grief and Pain do not add up to a whole in our
consciousness but hide the lesser behind the greater according to a
definite law of perspective
74 What fantasy grips Primo as he watches the steam shovel
75 What is wrong with the newcomer’s attitude towards
He does not eat it immediately which means it can be
76 What is the essential difference between ‘fressen’ and ‘essen’?
Eating furiously on your feet without worrying whether you
burn your mouth: the manner of an animal, not a human
p. 76 What is Templer’s
organization: a nose for finding discarded food and the unique
ability to empty his bowels utterly in anticipation of a meal so that he
can make maximum use of his gastric capacity.
This Side of Good and Evil
p. 77 Why is the ‘Waschetaushen’
such a vital event in the commerce of the
the ceremony of the change of underwear: in order to obtain
cloth, you had to cut fabric from your shirt, but it cannot be done too
obtrusively. You could also obtain a new shirt through trade, but at the
moment that the announcement of the Waschetaushen,
the market price of shirts plummets, so people are trying to dump them at
the Exchange Market. You can exchange any rag for a new shirt so
people will trade good shirts for rags and bread.
How is survival in Auschwitz
dependent upon maneuvering for profit at such moments?
Although every exchange is forbidden, such exchanges
are necessary for survival. At the most elemental, there is a trade in
bread and 'denaturalized soup' (ie the potatoes
have been consumed and all that is left is broth.) , in shirts, in stolen
potatoes, turnips and carrots, in tobacco (purchased through prize coupons
supposedly awarded to good workers but inevitably in the hands of the Kapos.) The value of this currency fluctuates with camp
conditions (such as the arrival of 'fresh' girls in the Frauenblock.)
There is also a highly lucrative trade in gold teeth with outsiders
contacted at the Bunaworks.
What does Levi mean by ‘organization’?
pp. 78-79 Describe the exchange market. How have
the Greeks managed
dominate the market?
systematic theft and seizure, monopolizing the market,
aversion to brutality and the survival of their dignity
pp. 79-83 How does one create ‘kombinacja’ in the mahorca
Why does the SS paradoxically both outlaw yet also encourage
Investing bread in the mahorca
market enables one to sell tobacco at a profit in bread (which you can
eat). The tobacco inevitably winds up in the hands of Poles in the market
external to the camp, and so the economies are connected. The SS
tolerates this trade even though it is explicitly illegal (except when the
trade involves gold teeth.) In this way essential items
such as grease for shoes, spoons, and kitchen utensils are made available
through the 'free market'.
pp. 84-86 What is the center of the
illegal market at Auschwitz?
Ka-Be where nurses trade in medicine, the spoons and shoes
of the dead and patients leaving Ka-Be. In this way Ka-Be acquires
essential equipment: rubber tubing, thermometers, glass equipment and the
How does this chapter relate to Levi’s overall purpose in
Theft in Buna, punished by the civilians is authorized
and encouraged by the SS. Vice-versa for theft in camp. Both thief and
victim are punished equally in the camp.
What is the meaning of good and evil, just and injust?
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?
The Drowned and the Saved
p. 87 How does Levi answer the question,
“Is it worthwhile to remember?”
Fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be
deduced from this particular world.
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?
Anytime that people live in a regular, enclosed
environment which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs, you
have created a laboratory which will establish what is essential and advantitious to the human animal in the struggle for
life. Levi's vision of human nature is not simple: he does not conclude
that man is fundamentally brutal egoistic and stupid. However, in the face
of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and
instincts are reduced to silence.
These checks and balances include a sense of
community with neighbors; typically no one can acquire unlimited power or
fall to utter ruin. We also possess spiritual, physical and financial
resources which preclude utter shipwreck. The law cushions our
interactions, and morality imposes further restrictions on our behavior. In
such a way no one man can become too strong or too weak.
In the Lager the struggle for life is reduced to
its primordial mechanism.
happens to moral judgment of individual behavior in such
situation? Why does Levi insist that distinctions can only be made
between the ‘drowned’ and the ‘saved’?
Musselman drag down all and get no sympathy. Those who discover a
new way of making profit. To he that has will be
given; from he that has not will be taken away." They will complain
and speak of food at home. They have no connections. They get no extra
rations. They are not part of a profitable commando. They are only here on
a visit. Within weeks they will be gone.
pp. 88-90 Describe
why most inmates at Auschwitz sank into the state
Whoever does not know how to become an 'Oranisator', 'Kombinator' or
'Prominent' soon becomes a musselman.
To sink is the easiest of matters: just follow
all the rules and try your hardest at work. You will be overcome before you
can adapt, You don't learn German, you can't figure out the bizarre logic
of camp life; your body decays and you become exhausted. The end. An anonomous mass of non-men continually renewed and
always identical, the divine spark dead within them. To Levi, they are the
image of the ultimate evil of this time.
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
Those who achieve prominence have inevitably
collaborated with the oppressors and become oppressors themselves. That is
the trick of dominating a large number of people: make the oppressed turn
on each other. Here is a very different picture from the one we would like
to have of victims: the oppressed who unite to
resist or at least share their suffering.
One has to fight against the current; to battle
each day and every hour against exhaustion, cold, and the resulting inertia
to resist enemies and have no pity for rivals; to sharpen one's wits, build
up one's patience, strengthen one's will power. Or else to throttle all
dignity and kill all conscience to climb down into the arena as a beast
against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by
those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and
individuals in cruel times. Survival without compromise of dignity or
morality was accorded to only a few 'martyrs' and 'saints'.
How did Schepschel survive?
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?
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.
How did Elias Lindzin not only survive but happily
The dwarf, a human battering ram, a born acrobat with amazing
strength: he was ideally suited to succeed in this environment. "a parahuman"; "an
atavism"- different form 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
pp. 98-100 What was
Henri’s strategy for survival?
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
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
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?
Primo is not given the opportunity to be interviewed
initially, but he is called back in the afternoon.
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?
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?
pp. 107-08 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
How does this chapter fit into your understanding of the
memoir as a whole?
The Canto of
The allusion: In Canto 26 of The Inferno Dante and Virgil come upon the 8th ditch, 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 Ulysses 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.
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’ morality? Is concern for
others part of his survival strategy; is he like Henri?
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. “Although he
continued his secret struggle against the camp and death, he did not
neglect the human relationships.”
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
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 animals are not:
the joys of reason in the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.
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
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?
This moment gives Primo a glimpse into the reason why
both Auschwitz and God may exist.
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.”
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
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
Why does Levi feel nothing but contempt for Kuhn’s prayer
of thanks to God for having spared him from death?
Chapter 14. Kraus
Describe how the prisoners’ response to the freezing
November rains demonstrates Levi’s theory that perfect unhappiness is
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 Auschwitz 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?
Die Drei Leute vom Labor
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?
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 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
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
The Story of Ten Days (151-173)
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
Write an essay about how Levi survived his ordeal in
Auschwitz. Consider the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of this
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
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