Survival in Auschwitz “Se questo 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.


Preface (9-10)


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…


Chapter 1    The Journey   (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?

p. 13    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 Lager?

 "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 surreal?

 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 Germans methods?

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).

p. 17    How many of the people in Levi's boxcar would survive and make the return journey to Italy?


p. 18    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 exhaustion..."

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 platform ‘dreamlike’?

 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 prisoners.

 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.


Chapter 2         On the Bottom            (22-37)


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 loses himself.

What are the key ingredients to the Nazi psychological assault on the prisoners?

 'pieces'...blows 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?

 Work Will Make You Free.

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 shower room.

 They are locked in a shower room and forced to stand in cold water.

p. 24    What is the gist of the Prisoner Doctor’s speech?

 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 only soup.

p. 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'

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?

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.

  • 30,000-80, 000 only a few left
  • 116,000- 117,000 the Jews of Salonika
  • high numbers? comic freshmen who will not last long.

p. 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, unpredictable force.

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 face.

 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 system.

 Prisoners: criminals (green), politicals (red) , and Jews (red and yellow Jewish star)

p. 33    What is the basic rule about all possessions at Auschwitz? (food, paper, wire, buttons, shoes)

 Everything is useful and can therefore be stolen.

p. 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 your spirit.

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 at Auschwitz?

 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         (38-41)


p. 38    Describe Block 36

p. 38    Describe Primo’s bunkmate, Diena

p. 38    What makes the block a ‘perpetual Babel’?

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 sense

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 save time

p. 39    What is the fiscal currency at Auschwitz?

 the holy grey slab: bread-brot-Broid-chleb-pain-lechem-keyner

p. 39    Describe the ‘frescoes’ in the washroom.

 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 filthy

p. 40    What makes the effort to wash essential to survival, even if you never get clean?

“In 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


Chapter 4.        Ka-Be             (42-55)


p. 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 sufferings

p. 46    How does Primo injure his foot? What makes this a ‘good’ wound?

 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: Krankenbau

  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;

p. 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 limbo?

 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 decay’.

 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?

 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?


Chapter 5         Our Nights      (56-64)


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 Alberto's block.

p. 57    What talents make Alberto the ‘acme of survivors’?

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 Primo face?

 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 at Auschwitz?

 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 bucket?

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.



Chapter 6         The Work       (65-70)


p. 65    What is Resnyk’s story? Why does it belong in what Primo calls
            ‘a new Bible’?

 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 work?

 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
            of pain?

 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.

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?

 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....



Chapter 7         A Good Day   (71-76)


p. 71    What old religion re-emerges as the prisoners wait for Spring?

 Pagan Sun worship.

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....

p. 72    Consider the Bunaworks. What irony haunts this inheritance of the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution?

 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

p. 72    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

p. 74   What fantasy grips Primo as he watches the steam shovel work?

 eating spaghetti at home

p. 75    What is wrong with the newcomer’s attitude towards bread?

 He does not eat it immediately which means it can be stolen.

p. 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 essential talent?

 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.



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


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’?

 business sense


pp. 78-79   Describe the exchange market. How have the Greeks managed
            to 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 market?
           Why does the SS paradoxically both outlaw yet also encourage this
            kind of drug trading?

 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 like.


How does this chapter relate to Levi’s overall purpose in the memoir?

 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?




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


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.


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?

 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.


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’?

 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
           of ‘musselmen’.

 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
           as physical sense?


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'.


pp.92-93          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.


pp. 93-95         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.


pp. 95-98         How did Elias Lindzin not only survive but happily thrive
             in the lager?

 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 outside world.


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 Serpent


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?



Chapter 10.      Chemical Examination           (101-108)


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?



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


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?

 No supervision.


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 poetry?

 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 goodness.


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 beasts’.)


pp. 117-118


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?


pp. 119-122


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?



Chapter 13.      October 1944              (123-130)


p. 123             


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’?


pp. 124-126


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?


pp. 126-129


How did Levi himself respond? How did he avoid the selection?


p. 129


Why does Levi feel nothing but contempt for Kuhn’s prayer of thanks to God for having spared him from death?



Chapter 14.      Kraus              (131-135)


p. 131


Describe how the prisoners’ response to the freezing November rains demonstrates Levi’s theory that perfect unhappiness is impossible.


p. 132


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?



Chapter 15.      Die Drei Leute vom Labor    (136-144)


pp. 136-141


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’)?


p. 138


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?


pp. 141-144


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?



Chapter 16.      The Last One  (145-150)


pp. 145-46


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?


pp. 146-148


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?


pp. 148-150


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?



Chapter 17.      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 moral action?




Thesis Statement


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.