Survival in Auschwitz
Experienced in the Concentration Camps Portrayed in Night by Elie Wiesel and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
Despite the various books and films depicting the Holocaust and the war against the Nazis, no one can truly understand life in the concentration camps and the atrocities the Jews faced unless experienced first-hand. We are privileged to gain insight from the personal accounts of survivors such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel who describe their experiences in Auschwitz and how they were able to survive the Holocaust. In Night, Wiesel writes from this childhood experience and places emphasis on the value of family, religion, and identity. During his time spent in the camps, we can see these once central values devolve and lose their importance as Wiesel cannot comprehend the brutality and mercilessness of the Nazis. Levi describes his experiences in the concentration camps in Survival in Auschwitz as being very different from that of Wiesel. He approaches his situation analytically, using strategic rebellion as a means for survival while struggling to maintain his humanity and sense of self. Both authors offer a unique and valuable perspective on life in Auschwitz and illustrate various instances of human descent from “living” to surviving”.
In the beginning of the novel, Wiesel and other Transylvanian Jews remain fairly optimistic about their situation. Their perpetrators at first appeared “distant but polite”, and despite deportations, forced confinement to ghettos, and warnings of “Fascist attacks on Jewish stores [and] synagogues”, people remained positive and hopeful (9). Even in the cramped and despicable conditions of their journey to the camp, “the Jews of Sighet were still smiling” and not willing to accept what awaited them at their destination (Wiesel, 9). It is only when they arrive at the camp that they realize their fate and naivety, witnessing first-hand the horrendous atrocities, senselessness, and inhumane cruelty of the Nazis. This is a major turning point for Wiesel’s mentality as he begins his transformation from the once innocent, hopeful servant of God to a hardened, empty, soulless frame of the boy he once was.
Seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, Wiesel uses graphic and emotionally charged language to describe his experience, focusing on the mass genocide that surrounds him, the fate of his family, and the devolution of humanity. He tries to cope with the loss of a normal life and attempts to understand why these horrible things are happening to innocent people, particularly children and babies thrown in the “flames that consumed [his] faith forever”, blaming God when he cannot find a logical answer (34). A once religious boy, he becomes angry and question God, exclaiming that a God this indifferent and unjust doesn’t deserve his praise. He dwells on his beliefs over the course of the novel and the beliefs of other Jews in the camp who are also seen to lose their faith. He argues that man is stronger than God for being able to endure such atrocities, but ultimately resorts to prayer in moments of extreme despair.
Another element present throughout Wiesel’s narration in Night is the theme of mortality. Death surrounds Wiesel at the camp and it is unlike anything he has ever heard of or experienced before. He frequently describes the image of billowing smoke from the crematoriums and the unnerving “smell of human flesh” throughout the camp (28). He is confronted with his own mortality for the first time and comes to the realization that his death and the death of his loved ones is imminent. Upon realizing this, he contemplates suicide on many occasions, justifying that running into an electric fence or hanging himself would be a nobler death than that in the crematorium.
The Germans use the threat of death as a means to uphold authority and keep the prisoners fearful. Wiesel sees the pleasure the Nazis gain from the violence against the Jews and how they are also able to use psychological abuse as a tactic to maintain control. He also notices that the local German civilians gain satisfaction at the persecution of the Jews as they throw bread at the prisoners and “watched in spectacle” as a son killed his father over the scraps (100).
The Germans and the Kapos are portrayed to be extremely violent, senseless, and merciless in their treatment of the Jews.
The only thing truly keeping Wiesel and other prisoners in the camp both physically and emotionally alive is familial connection. People in the camp seek out any sort of connection to their old lives and live for good news on their loved ones’ safety; however, the crushing realization of a loved one’s death destroys their hope and their reason to live, and death is welcomed rather than feared. In the beginning, he believes that there is “no longer any reason to live, any reason to fight” once his father is dead, but as his experiences strips him of his identity and humanity, Wiesel soon comes to resent his father and wishes he would die (99). Having to care for his father puts him in a position of weakness, and once his father dies, he is relieved to be “free at last!” and able to focus on his own survival (112). Returning to an almost primitive state where physical needs are valued above all others, survival instincts take over and people lose their humanity.
The recurring image of night plays a large role in how Wiesel interprets his experiences and is used to symbolize death, loss of faith, and a loss of humanity. He finds it extremely difficult to come to terms with the situation and its implications as it completely destroyed his sense of self. As liberation loomed near, he describes himself as a corpse, no longer thinking of his family with “only one desire: to eat” (113). Wiesel’s life-altering experiences in the concentration camps are unimaginable and incomparable; nevertheless, another survivor offers a different perspective in describing his experiences at the hands of the Nazis.
Before his experience in Auschwitz, Primo Levi lived through four years of Nazi racial laws and anti-Semitism in Italy and had previous knowledge of the death camps. His narrative in Survival in Auschwitz lacks the same emotional tone found in Night which can be explained by the author’s older age, his disconnect with Jewish culture, and his scientific profession. He is immediately sent to a labour camp and is able to detach from the horrors and brutalities witnessed by Wiesel, admitting that they “expected something more apocalyptic” (19). Levi describes the camp as “a gigantic biological and social experiment” governed by illogical rules, ceremonies and rituals, and quickly begins to develop a strategy for survival (87).
While there are minor instances of resistance in Night, acts of rebellion are prevalent throughout the novel and used as part of Levi’s survival strategy. He sees the opportunity of becoming a Prominent as his best chance at survival with access to special privileges and better treatment, including warm clothes, extra rations, and valuables that can be traded for extra food in the secret Lager Exchange Market. Comparing to the experiences of Wiesel, the prisoners are solely concerned for their own well-being; however, they realize that working with one another can be the best means of survival. The malnourished prisoners “come to the market to sell their only shirt” for scraps, unafraid to endure the harsh consequences at the hands of the guards (78). Levi also describes a prisoner sentenced to death for exploding a crematorium whose final cry, “Comrades, I am the last one!”, goes ignored by the prisoners who are seen to have completely given up hope (149).
Levi regularly dwells on the senseless rules of the camp and the Germans’ attempts to strip the prisoners of their identity and humanity. He describes the camp as an arbitrary system designed to break the prisoners’ spirits and ruled by personal whim, blind chance, and senseless violence. He refuses to let the Nazis “reduce [them] to beasts”, and he sustains this notion of self-preservation throughout the novel (41). However, this notion is not widespread throughout the camp; Levi describes many Jews as Muselmann, men who succumb to their surroundings and are “already too empty to really suffer”, and expresses his determination to avoid their fate (90).
Similar to Wiesel’s experiences in Birkenau, Levi and the other prisoners endure merciless treatment and are dehumanized daily. In direct comparison to Wiesel’s image of night, Levi uses the morning to symbolize death and violence, stating that “the new sun rose as an ally of [their] enemies to assist in [their] destruction” (16). Levi is especially distraught at the loss of his identity and struggles with finding the strength to maintain a sense of his humanity. He asserts that “no human condition is more miserable than this” as his clothes, hair, and name are taken away from him (26). Language and communication are seen as non-physical elements of their identity that the Nazis couldn’t take away from them. However, language is also seen to segregate the prisoners who are “surrounded by a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard”, creating tension and confusion amongst the already panicked prisoners (38).
Both Elie Weisel in Night and Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz paint the picture of atrocities and inhumane treatment experienced in the concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesel is at first optimistic about their fate at the camp and finds his will to live in his father’s survival; this soon changes as he is forced to endure the cruel treatments of the Nazis and his physical survival becomes more valued than his family and religion. Levi remains fairly optimistic through his experience and he analyzes his surroundings and constantly plans for his survival. It is through these survival stories that we can fully understand the horrendous experiences of Jews and use the knowledge to condemn racism and prevent anything similar from happening in the future.
The Struggle of Prisoners in Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, paints a vivid and horrifying picture of the life of a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War Two. The description of everyday life consisted of mental, emotional and physical struggle. Prisoners who entered the camp had everything stripped from them. Upon arrival, families were separated, heads were shaved, clothes were stripped, personal belongings were discarded and names were replaced with a series of numbers. Mass genocide took place, millions died. Those who lived through the Holocaust relied on distraction, compassion and hope for their survival.
Those in the camp worked almost every day from dusk till dawn, performing demanding manual labor. But perhaps the most painful and devastating physical struggle was one of thirst. Starvation and dehydration contributed to physical torture of the prisoners. Levi’s physical trauma can be seen in the following quote, “We have a terrible thirst. The weak gurgle of the water in the radiators makes us ferocious; we have had nothing to drink for four days. But there is also a tap—and above it a card which says that it is forbidden to drink as the water is dirty. Nonsense. It seems obvious that the card is a joke, ‘they’ know that we are dying of thirst and they put us in a room, and there is a tap, and Wassertrinken Verboten. I drink and I incite my companions to do likewise, but I have to spit it out, the water is tepid and sweetish, with the smell of a swamp.” (Primo Levi, Survival In Auschwitz (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 22) Levi’s physical pain translates into a mental struggle, for he is extremely thirsty and tempted by the forbidden tap. He knows not the drink from it, but reasonably does so anyway. To him, it is illogical to have what seems to be a perfectly suitable water supply labeled ‘off limits’. It is almost as if the water tap was placed in such a spot to torment the disadvantaged. Levi learns that he can no longer apply logic or reason to his situation, he has no control over his wellbeing. This concept of dependence is hard for him to comprehend at first. Levi comes to realize that his physical struggle is just as painful as his mental struggle.
For well over a year, Levi is forced to endure unimaginable suffering. In the camp, Levi and other prisoners are beaten, starved and worked without limitation. This physical pain had a serve effect on one’s mental health, “Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.” (Levi, Survival In Auschwitz, 16). The rising sun is usually a beacon of hope, it universally symbolizes a new day, a fresh start and a clean slate. However, for Levi and others in the camp, this was not the case. In the book, Levi describes the sun as if it too only existed to shed light on the pain and suffering of the prisoners. This reflects Levi’s mental struggle for an optimistic view in a world where even the most objective of things seem to be against him.
The physical struggle of life at Auschwitz was demanding, but what gets overlooked in most textbooks and classrooms, is the ever so slightly more demanding mental strength needed to survive. Levi comes to a philosophical realization, “Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.” ((Levi, Survival In Auschwitz, 17) Levi attempts to come to terms with his situation, but comes to realize, logically, that true happiness is unattainable within the camp. Likewise, he thinks that, perfect unhappiness is also unattainable. He finds comfort in the idea that it’s impossible to be completely miserable, it gives him hope. Although Levi lives what seems to be a miserable life, he always finds something to keep him going. The physical pain he experiences can at least distract him from the genocide around him.
Distraction of any kind was necessary for Levi’s survival. Sometimes, self-inflicted pain was the only distraction that was affordable, “After fifty steps I am at the limit of what a person is theoretically able to support: my knees bend, my shoulder aches as if pressed in a vice, my equilibrium is in danger. At every step I feel my shoes sucked away by the greedy mud, by this omnipresent Polish mud whose monotonous horror fills our days. I bite deeply into my lips; we know well that to gain a small, extraneous pain serves as a stimulant to mobilize our last reserves of energy.” ((Levi, Survival In Auschwitz, 67) Levi intentionally inflicts pain on himself, in efforts to distract himself from the demanding and dreadful haul. While it seems counterintuitive, he does indeed find relief at least for a moment. It is a sad truth and a concept hard to grasp, but sometimes, the only thing that distracts one from a painful reality is shock of a lesser pain, one that is more tolerable. At least he can control that.
Levi believes that survivors have responsibilities within the camp. One of the most profound experiences he has is with an Italian bricklayer, Lorenzo. Unlike Levi, Lorenzo is not a prisoner, but a civilian worker. Lorenzo risks a lot in helping Levi. He illegally gives Levi bread and soup, and demands absolutely nothing in return. This is extremely abnormal because for most at Auschwitz, it is every man for himself. To obtain anything extra, one would have to trade in an underground market. Lorenzo’s illegal actions give Levi a glimpse of hope. He says that Lorenzo’s ‘humanity was pure and uncontaminated’ and that “thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.” (Levi, Survival In Auschwitz, 112) Lorenzo’s actions reminded Levi that compassion still exists and that hope for compassion propelled Levis mental stability. Levi was completely dehumanized, he was stripped of everything. He forgot that he was human, he forgot that compassion and love and happiness existed. Lorenzo was a narrow beam of light, in a dark desperate tunnel. Levi believes that compassion for others is critical in maintaining sanity. Personally, I agree with Levi, in that compassion is necessary in a world of pain a suffering. As long as compassions exists, mankind and all things good will prevail.
In conclusion, Survival in Auschwitz, tells a sad story about one of the biggest stains in the historical fabric of mankind. Levi’s perseverance and strength is apparent throughout the story. In times of darkness, when hope is lost and there seems to be no end in sight, compassion for others can lift ones spirit, and maybe even carry them to survival.
Primo Levi’s Personal Experience in Survival in Auschwitz
Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz revealed the cruel ruthless torture that occurred daily in one of the most famous concentration camps – Auschwitz. His personal story revealed the harsh reality of survival and the endless struggle to hold on to any form of humanity. Those brought to Auschwitz were dehumanized, starved, got sick, and worked in harsh conditions until they died. Primo Levi’s physical and psychological survival depended on various factors: luck, kindness, adaptation, and taking whatever opportunities needed to survive.
Luck is one of the main reasons why Levi survives physically from this horrific event. Right from the beginning, when he was being transported to the camp or Lager, Levi was not picked as part of the group that goes to the death camp. Out of the 650 people that were being transported to Auschwitz with Levi aboard, only 96 men and 29 women were chosen as ‘fit’ enough to work. Levi was one of them. From these numbers alone, he could have died at the beginning of this moment in his life since the odds were against him. With the extremely fast-pace of men and women being picked as “fit” or “unfit,” Levi was simply lucky enough to be picked as ‘fit.’ However, despite being lucky enough to survive this first obstacle, he was then tested to survive in the third camp, Auschwitz-Buna.
Other lucky moments that led to Levi’s physical survival occurred before and during his short time in Ka-Be. Before Levi was admitted into Ka-Be, he was paired to work with Null Achtzehn or 018. Levi was considered a weak man and was often paired with Null Achtzehn who wasn’t particularly weak, but no one else wanted to work with him for various reasons (Levi, 43). This is another moment of luck; it was because of being paired with this man, Levi received a foot injury. Levi’s foot injury was enough to stop him from being able to work, but was not life threatening. This allowed him to stay in the Ka-Be for a couple months. This was absolutely necessary for Levi’s survival. The time he used to rest in the Ka-Be was the time needed to adjusted to life in the Lager. There was little food going around, and he was being worked to death. Adjusting to his new life was important in allowing him to learn the rhythm and the strategies to prolong his life. So it was sheer luck that working with Null Actzehn led to that injury which gave him time to adjust, rest, eat, recover, and stay warm. By being in the Ka-Be, it reduced the chances of him getting hurt in more serious/life- threatening ways. It kept him alive physically. It was also possible that working with another person other than Null Actzehn would have led to Levi working himself to death, or he could have caught a deadly disease while working in the constant cold. Levi was also fortunate to have survived during his time in Ka-Be. During his rest, there was a selection process there. A healthy man was picked to die instead of Levi. The SS man picked a man named Schmulek for death even though Levi and an even sicker man was in a bunk next to him. There was absolutely nothing that Levi could have done to create this moment to keep himself alive. He was lucky again, and it led to his survival.
One of the luckiest moments for Levi that also allowed him to survive this horrifying event was when he contracted scarlet fever. As Levi was recovering from the fever in Ka-Be, Alberto and other healthy men left the camp on a march while many of the sick men were left behind. Although Levi does not explicitly say Alberto died along with the healthy men, he did say “perhaps someone will write their story one day” which indicated that they died since they are not writing their own stories (Levi, 155). If scarlet fever didn’t hit Levi at the time it did, it was likely he would have left on the march with his best friend, Alberto. It was also very possible that he would have died alongside the other men whether it is from starvation, sickness, or simply shot for whatever reason. With some time to recover from his illness, Levi lives long enough to leave the camp and be rescued by the Russians.
Life in the camp was more than physically cruel, it causes massive psychological damage as the people are dehumanized and treated as livestock. Luck may be a significant factor in saving Levi physically, but it was kindness that led to his psychological survival. There were a couple moments of kindness towards Levi that helped him continue living. Kindness was rare in Auschwitz since many were not willing to waste energy on helping others and worried about their self-preservation. One of the first instances of kindness occurred near the beginning of Levi’s time in the camp. Levi meets Schlome, a young boy, who tells him not to drink the water because it makes people’s belly ‘Geschwollen,’ or swell up (Levi, 31). He even hugs Levi at the end of their interaction. This is the first instance where Levi spoke about someone caring about another person or being kind. It helped Levi hold on to hope and humanity which allows him to continue on with surviving. The way the camp is set up, it breaks up any form of group mentality or cooperation so that everyone feels the need to fend for themselves. It is the small acts of kindness that helped Levi continue the grueling life in the Lager.
The greatest moment of kindness that Levi experiences is from a civilian worker named Lorenzo. Lorenzo brought Levi food rations every day for six months, wrote and sent postcards to Italy for him, and more, while never asking for anything in return. This grand act of kindness saves Levi psychologically. Every day, Levi is continuously crushed by the camp’s system where he and many others lose hope of leaving the camp and believes death is near. Most people in the camp are also reluctant to help anyone else and are focused on their own survival. Therefore, kindness is not common in Auschwitz. By meeting someone who is kind and good, Levi remembers the good in humanity. Levi even claims, “it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today” and goes on to say that Lorenzo’s presence as a good, uncorrupted, and pure person is worth surviving for (Levi, 121). Lorenzo is a beacon of hope for Levi; Levi sees humanity as life itself. Lorenzo helps Levi realize that he and the prisoners have buried their humanity over time. It is the recognition that they are still men and humans that gives them the will to live on. Lorenzo saved Levi psychologically as Levi gradually remembers that he is still a man.
Adapting to the camp and taking whatever opportunities to survive was another way Primo Levi survived physically. Adaptation by learning quickly about the daily camp life was absolutely necessary for survival. Levi described all the useful things he learned: how to reply to questions, how to use all resources like using the wire to tie up shoes or use rags to wrap around their feet, and more (Levi, 33). By learning new tricks, tactics, and to use everyday resources in other possible ways, he adapts to life in the camp. Having wired up shoes can mean the difference of working with covered toes or bare foot in the snow. So understanding how to expand the use of resources can be life or death. Another moment of adaptation for Levi involves food rations. Food, resources, and utensils are like currency in the camp. Levi learns when not to trade for resources/keep his rations or trade them. This is another level of adaptation because if he strictly followed the rules of the camp, only ate what was given, and worked hard, he would not have survived Auschwitz. He would have died early-on like many others, and since the camp is a test of survival, Levi needed to break the rules and do whatever means necessary to live even if it was considered “illegal.”
A great opportunity for Levi, which prolonged his life, was becoming a chemical specialist. He took the chemical examination and luckily, he recalls his education and passes the test. Because Levi was working in the laboratory, he was saved from working in the harsh environment outside. Being indoors, he is warm and doesn’t have to worry about getting sick or receive life threatening injuries. Levi is also given more food and is put in new clothes which help him regain his humanity and identity as a man. Because he took the opportunity to be in this new position, it saved him from being worked to death.
Many people did not last more than three months in the camp, but Levi managed to survive longer. Since many individuals died soon after the moment they arrived, those in the camp did not care for helping others and worried about themselves. This makes it even harder to survive in Auschwitz. Levi, however, did survive it because he was mainly lucky for the most part. The injured foot helped him avoid hard labor in freezing temperatures as he rested in the Ka-Be and had time to adjust to life in the camp. Luckily, even the timing of an illness spared him from death near the end of the book. Kindness was another significant factor that saved himself psychologically where it helped him remember the good in humanity and that it was something to live for. Lastly, adapting and taking certain opportunities helped him survive as he was able to work in the lab away from deathly conditions outside, steal materials, and trade these materials for extra food. All of these events led to his survival both mentally and physically.
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi: Hope, Unity, and Staying Alive
Hunger. Coldness. Abuse. Conditions of negative extremes: “…we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this…” (Levi 26). Despair. Hopelessness. Yet, the human spirit can be abundant with resilience and endurance.
Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz exposes just that. In this account, Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, writes about his experience in the Holocaust. From deportation from Italy following arrests by Italian fascists to life in the German death camp, Levi reveals the resilience in character and hope of survival that arise in the most desperate and low of situations. In his ten month duration in Auschwitz, Primo Levi learns and adapts to methods of survival—the final objective. But how was he, and others interned, able to withstand the cruelty and wretched conditions of these death camps? Primo Levi’s text serves to underscore the forced compliance into the death camp lifestyle as means of survival. Through adaptability, unique and strong ties of camaraderie as in the case of the Greeks, and efforts to retain the remaining sense of humanity helped those interned in death camps such as Auschwitz, survive.
Primo Levi reveals how life in the death camp could not be questioned. One must follow the orders, live by the routine of starvation and constant beating, and hope to live another day. There was no time to question, simply act. He notes that this form of adaptability in such extreme conditions is “partly passive and unconscious, partly active…by virtue of this work, one manages…a certain degree of security in the face of the unforeseen” (Levi 56). Acting upon the required tasks meant simply obeying them. This was a strategic act of survival as you attempt to go unseen. Perhaps causing no trouble meant no death, for some more hours. This was the case in the Ka-Be medical unit, and could be applied to outside of it. The place was in itself unfamiliar, but getting familiar with a place of such horror and violence could be a matter of life and death.
The case of the unified Greeks raises the possibility of tightknit communities amid the hopelessness that Auschwitz represented. This bond meant some more spared life for those who were a part of it. When describing them, Primo Levi notes:
Those admirable and terrible Jews of Salonica, tenacious, thieving, wise, ferocious and united, so determined to live, such pitiless opponents in the struggle for life; those Greeks who have conquered in the kitchen and in the yards, and whom even the Germans respect and the Poles fear (Levi 71).
The tragedy and sorrow of the Holocaust can cloud the bravery and endurance of those who survived. Here, it is evident that the Greeks maintained strong loyalty to one another in the quest for day-to-day survival. This method resonates to adaptability. In this case however, it becomes a means of adapting with those around you and working towards collective survival. The allegiance described was a strategic twist onto the camp’s intended efforts to destroy possibilities of hope and unity.
The death camp was designed to instill despair, to dehumanize. Precisely because this was the case, an act of resistance meant not consenting to this self-deterioration that amounted to the already inhumane acts that occurred within the confines of the barbed wires. Primo Levi was introduced to this outlook by another man in the camp, Steinlauf. He sums up what Steinlauf advised accordingly:
That precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive…and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization (Levi 41).
This counter to the attempts of the Germans to degrade the Jews and other prisoners represents a valiant act of preserving dignity, and much beyond that: humanity. It is incredible; even in this circumstance of horror, protecting their essence, specifically spiritual, upheld their morale and hopes for survival. Their refusal to consent to the effects of the dehumanization represented a power that they could use to their advantage in maintaining alive.
The death camps embodied just that: death. Nonetheless, Primo Levi’s account in Survival in Auschwitz explores varying attempts of survival that worked in fostering what the death camps strove to dismantle: unity, hope, resilience. Through his own experience living in Auschwitz, Primo Levi allows the reader to understand the conditions that led to these counteracts of endurance. Daily quests for food, clothes, and survival was an incessant worry. Yet by preserving their humanity through close bonds and hope, they worked to “remain alive, not to being to die” (Levi 41).
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi: Depiction of Nazi Assault on Humanity
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the Nazi death camps; few who entered ever left. Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, miraculously survived after being deported to the camp at the young age of 24 in 1944 (Levi 9). Although fate was ultimately in the hands of the Nazis, Levi had control over his ability to consent to what he was being subject to, his conscious support of basic human nature, and his attitude towards his experiences. This micro autonomy gave him the tools necessary to internalize a subconscious hope that aided his survival.
The dehumanizing torture tactics exhibited by the Nazis in the camps unforgivingly stripped the victims down to their most vulnerable layers. The perpetrators were certain to convey a message of total control to the prisoners through their atrocities. Any remaining instances in which the prisoners had autonomy were scarce but crucial to nursing what was left of their emotional well being and ultimately their likelihood of survival in the camp. Levi described the experience— “We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all out strength for it is the last— the power to refuse our consent” (41). Hope is the forward vision of improvement, and is the universal motivation for progress. Without hope, one can not expect progress to be achieved. Giving up hope and surrendering to the perpetrators was the quickest way to be executed in the camps. Levi was able to hold on to his last power as an individual: his refusal to consent. By refusing to normalize the abusive treatment he received, he was able to create expectations for progress and improvement. This final manifestation of control in his life prolonged his unwillingness to surrender.
Levi’s perseverance here was indirect and subconscious. Early in his journey, he internalized what his probable fate would be, believing they “will kill us, whoever thinks he is going to live is mad, it means that he has swallowed the bait, but I have not; I have understood that it will soon all be over” (24). Even though he directly admitted that he does not see a positive end, Levi’s power to not consent to it was a subconscious hope that he carried with him for the entirety of the Holocaust. Hidden from himself was an internal voice that influenced every action he made. It was this subconscious motivation that also influenced his interpersonal behavior with the other prisoners.
There was an established social system within the camp that was unwritten but understood by Levi. He consciously lived conforming to pseudo-theories such as social darwinism; being so violently and irrationally enforced, the Haftling social hierarchy was easily accepted as the natural order of things. Social climate was determined by many factors, but there was a gauging indication to know where someone fell on the social ladder: “To the old hands of the camp, the numbers told everything: the period of entry into the camp, the convoy of which one formed a part, and consequently the nationality.” (28) By having a standardized method of identifying people not only by name but by their nationality and seniority in the camp, creating an internal social hierarchy among the prisoners was easily achieved. Having a type of caste system in the camp provided a semi-self maintained structure that the Nazi’s did not directly control. This consciously or subconsciously affected all of the prisoners on a constant basis. This construct is a direct product of how breaking an individual down to their most essential level can bring out the purest, most primitive form of human nature. Levi explains that, “it is the normal order of things that the privileged oppress the unprivileged: the social structure of the camp is based on this human law” (44). While in the camps, prisoners were broken down to the most basic human state. Through dehumanization tactics prisoners lost all sense of what morality meant. As a symptom of that, true human nature manifested in the social contracts between one another.
Perhaps his greatest form of control was that Levi never accepted life in the camp as usual. That can be accredited to his attitude toward the different situations going on around him. When one negative occurrence, like the frigid weather, began to change to a more positive outcome, Levi made sure to remember that these feelings were all relative to the atrocities that he was experiencing. When the sun came out and prisoners began to smile, Levi remembered that nothing had really changed, everything was not okay, and that people were still starving. He explains that “human nature is such that grief and pain…do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater….It is providential and is our means of surviving in this camp” (73). He believes that no matter what, there will always be more aspects of our lives that are incorrect or uncomfortable. When problems are resolved, it is on an individual basis— meaning not all problems in one’s life are abolished simultaneously. As a result, perpetual instances of disenchantment arise. This constant evolution of unsettling circumstances, according to Levi, is crucial to survival in the camps. This is because uncomfort is an inducement for change. A strive for change and betterment can also be seen as another form of hope. Levi’s possession of these small hopes were the key to his survival. Even when he was beaten physically, mentally, and emotionally, he still subconsciously held a little glimmer of a better place beyond where he was currently.
Primo Levi experienced one of the most horrendous barbarisms in human history and survived to share his story. On top of good timing a luck, Levi’s ability to find means of gaining control in his life put him on the track to survival in this death camp. Establishing control through refusal of consent, social hierarchy and attitude gave him a subconscious level of hope that eventually sustained his life in the camp until he was liberated.
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi: Literary Review
In Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, times of pain are commonly associated with times of relief in his life, portraying the idea that being injured or ill is more humane than the conditions of their everyday lives. Levi and other prisoners at Auschwitz were treated like animals, living in conditions as inhumane as possible. There are times throughout his experience at Auschwitz when he experiences pain, such as when Primo cuts his foot badly, when winter is coming and he is sure he will die, and when he gets scarlet fever. Levi uses diction, structure, and rhetorical language to imply that a life of pain was a relief from a life at the camp. While these are times of pain, Levi more vividly describes them as brief times of relief from the suffering of his normal conditions at Auschwitz. Although he is in pain, his relief allows him to reflect on his conditions, and on his humanity. In a camp where the objective is to dehumanize prisoners, Levi is able to keep his character by reflecting on his past during this time of relief.
Primo goes through a time of pain when he cuts his foot badly while carrying an iron support. At first, he is forced to continue working, since he can stand on his foot and it is not broken. After completing his work, and waiting for hours on his injured foot, he gets medical attention. While the injury to his foot caused him severe pain, it was about to bring him temporary relief from his life in horrible conditions. Levi uses diction and metaphor to describe the relief he feels while in the Ka-Be, saying “And for the first time since I entered the camp the reveille catches me in a deep sleep and its ringing is a return from nothingness. As the bread is distributed one can hear, far from the windows, in the dark air, the band beginning to play: the healthy comrades are leaving in squads for work” (Levi 50). Levi uses the metaphor of a return from nothingness to show this time as a relief from his suffering. The return from nothingness represents his temporary ability to have real time to think and reflect on the conditions of the camp. For the first time in his imprisonment, he is able to think about what he is going through and see the camp from the outside. By presenting this as a metaphor, Levi portrays his typical condition as ‘nothingness’ in which he is constantly overworked and starved, without time to think. His diction in this passage is also used to show his time in the Ka-Be as a time of relief. Levi uses phrases like “far from the windows” and “in the dark air” to show that he was so distant from the world that he lived in every day, being in the Ka-Be. By saying that he is far from the windows and the dark air, it implies that he is separate and distant from his normal pain. Additionally, Levi says “The life of Ka-Be is a life of limbo. The material discomforts are relatively few, apart from hunger and the inherent pains of illness” (Levi 50). Using the metaphor of a life of limbo, Levi reiterates that this time is just a temporary period of relief, limbo, surrounded by the pain of his everyday life. Though Levi is in pain, it offers him a time of relief in an otherwise horrible condition of living.
As winter quickly approaches, Primo is afraid that it will be his last. Living conditions worsen in the winter, and he is working with chemicals that burn his skin. He describes individuals who had become ill, and one who had died, to further give the impression that this coming winter would be difficult to survive. Levi also lists the various jobs, and the various members of that group, to give the illusion that this is a normal day, right before he gets news that is anything but normal. Though this seems to be a time of pain, it results in a second period of relief for Levi. He is one of three men chosen to work in the laboratory. Primo’s living conditions significantly improve during this time, as he has warm shelter for the winter, plenty of food, and does not have any conflicts with other prisoners. He again has a temporary relief from his pain, saying “The glass instruments in a corner to drip, the precision balance, a Heraeus oven, a Hoppler thermostat. The smell makes me start back as if from the blow of a whip: the weak aromatic smell of organic chemistry laboratories. For a moment the large semidark room at the university, my fourth year, the mild air of May in Italy comes back to me” (Levi 139). His simile and diction in this passage not only imply his relief from life at the camp, but also takes him back to his life before his imprisonment. Levi begins by introducing the various instruments throughout the room, naming them individually, to provide imagery. Normally, he did not have time to think, as he did not have any time to himself. Levi describes how the smell of the laboratory jogged his memory, using the simile ‘as if from the blow of a whip’. He also uses descriptive words such as weak, aromatic, semidark, and mild. This diction shows the clarity in which he could recollect and reflect on his life before his imprisonment, and what it has become. By inserting this brief passage of recollection, Levi offers a comparison between his first life, and his second life. His ability to do this in a time of pain could imply that this period of relief in Levi’s life reminds him of his humanity. Their cruel treatment was intentional, in order to dehumanize them and to see them as objects, or pieces. In Levi’s relief, he is able to regain his humanity and gain the strength to keep it during his time at Auschwitz.
On January 11, 1945 Levi became ill with scarlet fever. As a result, he gets sent to the Ka-Be again, beginning another temporary period of relief for Levi, brought on by the pain of scarlet fever. He gets assigned small, clean room, sharing the room with two French political prisoners, two young Hungarian Jews, and eight others. He was excited for his time in the Ka-Be, saying “Four of the others had scarlet fever; there were three with diphtheria, two with typhus, while one suffered from a repellent facial erysipelas… I was lucky enough to have a bunk to myself: I lay down with relief knowing that I had the right to forty days’ isolation and therefore of rest, while I felt myself still sufficiently strong to feat neither the consequences of scarlet fever nor the selections” (Levi 151). He first shows us the relief and fortune he feels in his current situation, although he has an illness. He describes in detail the illnesses of other prisoners that share his room, portraying the living conditions as inhumane, treated like animals. Further, by listing the numerous conditions and diseases in a quick order, there seem to be an overwhelming amount. Though he has scarlet fever, Levi never described how it affected him, what symptoms he had, or if he had any discomfort as a result. By omitting this, it seems as if Levi’s sense of relief in the Ka-Be had made him forgot his illness. Although Levi was sick, his temporary relief from his usual pain is more important than any illness. His sentence structure also seems to suggest that even though Levi is relieved at the time, he is my no means in a safe or healthy environment. The structure of pairing every positive thought with a negative thought has a negating affect. Levi gets scarlet fever, a negative, but he is lucky enough to have a bunk to himself, a positive. He then feels strong, but must mention that he has scarlet fever and could still be subject to selections. By doing this, Levi expresses the idea that while some aspects of his life have improved, he is still a prisoner at Auschwitz, and can only reminisce on his previous life. His relief from everyday life allows Levi to reflect on his condition and the pain he has suffered at the camp.
Scarlet fever causes another time of relief for Levi, when the Germans evacuate the camp. He was in the Ka-Be as a direct result of his being in pain from scarlet fever, and would have been kept as a prisoner or killed if he had not been there. Since he had scarlet fever, he got to stay behind with the other sick prisoners, and found plenty of food, blankets, alcohol, and eventually freedom when the Russians arrive. He describes his time saying “We loaded ourselves with a bottle of vodka, various medicines, newspapers…Cheerful and irresponsible, we carried the fruits of our expedition back to the dormitory” (Levi 165). By listing the luxuries that he found, Levi makes it seem as if there is an abundance of luxuries, making this time period of relief seem comfortable. This feeling of comfort is a sharp contrast from his usual way of life, in dehumanizing conditions and starving. Levi’s diction further implies this point, when he describes themselves being ‘cheerful’ and ‘irresponsible’. These words give the impression of humanity, or innocence, which is a relief from the constant inhumanities that they face every day. ‘Cheerful’ and ‘Irresponsible’ are both words that are associated with happiness and carelessness, not with imprisonment in Auschwitz. This contrast further suggests that this is a time of relief for Levi, in a previously painful time. If Levi had not experienced the pain of scarlet fever, he would not experiences any of these luxuries, his relief, and he would not have been rescued by the Russians.
Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz commonly associates times of pain in his life, with times of relief, implying that injury or illness were better conditions of living than their everyday lives. In a prison where the goal was to dehumanize prisoners, these times of relief offered opportunities for Levi to regain humanity and reflect on everything that has happened to him. He experiences pain during his time at Auschwitz, specifically when he cuts his foot, when winter is on its way and he fears for his life, and when he gets scarlet fever. Although he is ill or injured, Levi never describes in as much detail the conditions of his pain. Instead, he portrays the relief that he felt as a result of this pain. Primo Levi uses diction, structure, and rhetorical language to associate pain with relief in Survival in Auschwitz, implying that living in pain was better than living in the conditions of a Nazi prison.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Located approximately 37 miles west of Krakow, Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp complex established by the Nazi regime in April of 1940. Containing three other subcamps within the camp which all used prisoners for forced labor, one doubling as a killing center. Nazi Germany gained this area of land after invading and conquering Poland in 1939. The three main camps of Auschwitz were called Auschwitz I, established in April 1940, Auschwitz-Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) established in October 1941, and Auschwitz-Monowitz (also called Auschwitz III), established in October 1942. “The best estimates of the number of victims at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, including the killing center at Auschwitz-Birkenau, between 1940 and 1945 are: Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died); Poles (147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died); Roma (23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died); Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died); and other nationalities (25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died).” Reports claim that police and the SS deported at least 1.3 million victims to the Auschwitz complex within the years of 1940 and 1945, of which approximately 1.1 million were murdered by the camp authorities. In November 1943, the SS decided Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz would become independent concentration camps, but that only lasted until November of 1944 when Auschwitz II was reunited with Auschwitz I. Auschwitz III stayed independent and was renamed the Monowitz concentration camp. There were many commanders of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex including: SS Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Hoess, from May 1940 until November 21943; SS Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Liebehenschel, from November 1943 until mid-May 1944; and SS Major Richard Baer, from mid-May 1944 until January 27, 1945. While Auschwitz-Birkenau (November 1943 until November 1944) the commanders of the camp were SS Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Hartjenstein, from November 1943 until May 1944; and SS Captain Josef Kramer, from May to November 1944. Unlike Birkenau, Monowitz kept one commander with the name of Captain Heinrich Schwarz, who commanded the camp from November 1943 to January 1945.
Auschwitz I was constructed in April of 1940 near Oswiecim in an abandoned Polish army barrack. The SS Authorities used prisoners to expand the camp using forced labor, clearing about 40 square kilometers as a development zone to be reserved for exclusive use in the camp. Prisoners from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were moved to Auschwitz to serve as the first prisoners of Auschwitz I, where they had be incarcerated for repeated criminal offenders. Polish political prisoners from Lodz via Dachau concentration camp and from Tarnow in Krakow District of the General government were also of the first to be introduced to the camp. Auschwitz was constructed for three main reasons, like most concentration camps; “to incarcerate real and perceived enemies of the Nazi regime and the German occupation authorities in Poland for an indefinite period of time”, “to provide a supply of forced laborers for deployment in SS-owned construction-related enterprises (and, later, armaments and other war-related production)”, and “to serve as a site to kill small, targeted groups of the population whose death was determined by the SS and police authorities to be essential to the security of 3Nazi Germany.” Like other concentration camps, Auschwitz I had gas chambers and a Crematorium. At first, engineers developed an improvised gas chamber but after time they constructed a larger, permanent gas chamber. SS physicians conducted medical experiments, such as forced sterilizations and castrations of adults. and pseudoscientific research on infants, twins, and dwarfs. SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele is the best-known of these kinds of physicians. The “Black Wall”, standing between the medical-experiments and the prison block, was where SS guards executed thousands of prisoners.
The construction of Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, began in the area of Brzezinka in October of 1941. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp had the largest total prisoner count of all three camps. Birkenau was divided into ten different sections separated by electrified barbed-wire fences. Just as Auschwitz I, Birkenau was patrolled by SS guards, including SS dog handlers- after 1942. The Camp had sections for women, men, a separate family camp for Gypsies deported from Germany and Austria, and a family camp for jewish deported from the “Theresienstadt ghetto”. Auschwitz-Birkenau played a central role in the German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Zyklon B gas was introduced during the summer and fall of 1941 and used as an instrument of mass murder in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz complex. The SS initially converted two farmhouses near Birkenau to use as gas chambers until the SS judged these facilities to be inadequate for the scale of gassing they planned. In June of 1943 four large crematorium buildings were constructed. “Each [building] had three components: a disrobing area, a large gas chamber, and crematorium ovens. The SS continued gassing operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau until November 1944.”
Auschwitz III, commonly known as Buna or Monowitz, was established in October of 1942. The prisoners it housed were assigned to work at the Buna synthetic rubber works, near the outskirts of Monowice. In 1941 German conglomerate I.G Farben built a factory in which the executives intended to deed concentration camp labor to fabricate synthetic rubber and fuels. I.G Farben devoted more than 700 million Reichsmarks (Approximately 2.8 million US dollars, in 1941 terms) into Auschwitz III. The SS had transported prisoners from Auschwitz I to the “Buna Detachment”, initially by foot but later by rail, from May 1941 to July 1942. The prisoners who were deployed at Buna lived in Auschwitz III. Monowitz also had a Labor Education Camp for non-Jewish prisoners who were believed to have violated any German-imposed labor discipline.
In late january 1945, SS and German police forced over 4,000 prisoners to evacuate Blechhammer, a subcamp of Auschwitz-Monowitz, on foot. The SS was estimated to have murdered about 1,000 people during the march to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, due to have fallen behind, those who could no longer continue, illnesses, or even some Jews’ unsuccessful attempts to hide. After much delay, the SS conveyed around 3,000 Blechhammer prisoners from Gross-Rosen to be at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army bombarded Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz, liberating more than 6,000 prisoners, most of which were ill and or dying.
Alberto and Lorenzo: True Men that Resist Dehumanization
Within Survival in Auschwitz, author Primo Levi endured a struggle with resisting dehumanization. He had been put in a place where no man is considered human anymore and where within this place, if a man wants to survive whether mentally or physically, it is up to that man to resist the dehumanizing torture by the Nazis When looking into Levi’s struggle to survive, there are people who reconnect Levi to his humanity. Primo Levi’s survival was because of two important minor characters who may be seen as Saviors to Levi and who were a part of his guide to survival. Lorenzo and Alberto were two people who had hopes for Levi and whom Levi trusted throughout his journey. They were the ones who saved Levi from being completely dehumanized like Null Achtzehn or “the drowned” characters that Levi discusses in his work. When looking deeper into Levi’s survival, one can see how Levi’s survival in the end was mostly due to the strengths and encouragements of both Lorenzo and Alberto giving Levi his ultimate hope to survival.
Alberto was Levi’s best friend since they both were captured and shipped to the camps. From the start of the journey, Alberto had been a determined man who “entered the Lager with his head high” (57). He is brave and resistant to reluctantly becoming dehumanized. Alberto knew the consequences of the camp, but he also knew that he had “entered the battle from the beginning” (57) and that life as he knows it “is war” (57) Alberto has been resistant of becoming so comfortable in the camp so that he will not be stripped of his humanity. He is intelligent in a way that he sees logic and reason as his prime reason to anything and he knows the consequence of being subjected to becoming what the Nazi’s want the prisoners to become.
Both Alberto and Levi were in the Lager together to support and help each other through any obstacles that they faced within the camps. Alberto was the second main character within the work and his role within the book was being Levi’s support and hope. Although both Levi and Alberto were placed in the Lager together, it would seem as if Alberto went into the Lager for Levi. Alberto is the one person that Levi trust and the only one who knows Levi personally. Alberto helps Levi in a way in which he guides Levi through the prisons rules and regulations. Alberto knows that he must do as he is told in order to survive. Alberto knows the key ways to survive within the camp, “he ‘knows’ whom to corrupt, whom to avoid, whose compassion to arouse, whom to resist” (57). Levi may be new to the ways of surviving, but Alberto is used to it and is prepared to live on the camp. This is why Alberto himself never became corrupt or scathed.
Within communicating in the camp, Unlike Levi, Alberto is able to communicate in different languages, so Alberto’s intelligence in multiple languages helps him to be able to respond to mostly anyone giving him a command. Alberto’s guidance to Levi comes within language. Alberto is able to understand these commands being presented to him, and he can either translate to Levi, or teach Levi what he does not know. Levi’s poor German and poor French stands in the way of him receiving a blow to the head or being mistreated, but with Alberto’s help, he can follow his path and be safe from any of that.
Alberto is a supportive friend to Levi who does not discourage him because Levi has benefits that Alberto himself did not get. Instead, Alberto is happy for his friend and gives encouragement and When Levi was chosen as one of the top three to work in the Chemistry Lab, people around him had envied him and wished that it were them instead, but Alberto on the other hand was supportive and congratulated Levi. Alberto understood why Levi was chosen, and instead of being an envies friend who spat on Levi and gave him mean looks, Alberto instead supported Levi and hoped the best for him. This is why Levi has so much trust in Alberto.
Alberto has been there for Levi throughout Levi’s entire journey within the work and although Alberto does die in the end, he was able to help Levi from dying mentally and physically. He gave Levi hope, support, and a good state of mind on how to survive. His behavior and attitude was an encouraging example to Levi, to show Levi how to keep his sanity or humanity.
Lorenzo has also been a person who has gave Levi hope. Although Lorenzo was not speaking of much, Lorenzo in some ways was like Alberto. He was supportive to Levi and he himself was “pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror” (121) he knew the struggle of being inside the Lager and knew that whatever he could possibly do for Levi it would help in the end.
All of the civilian workers do in some way help the prisoners when it comes to starvation. They hate to see the starving looks of the prisoners and share any soup portion that was leftover or bread that they do not want. The Italian civilian worker Lorenzo came to Levi on a normal working day, and began to offer Levi the remainder of his bread for several months. He also clothed Levi by giving him his vest that was filled with many pockets, pockets to store much needed survival supplies. He also “wrote a postcard on [Levi’s] behalf to Italy and brought [Levi] the reply” (119). Lorenzo did all of these things for Levi, out of the goodness of his heart. He was an honest man who supported Levi and understood the rough situation that Levi was placed into. Even though some civilian workers do throw bread at the prisoners just out of curiosity to see how the prisoners will behave, Lorenzo was not one of them. He fed Levi out of the kindness of his heart and the sake of him knowing that Levi and many of the other prisoners were not beast, and were still humans like the rest of them.
Levi says that Lorenzo not only saved him physically by giving him food, but he more so saves him mentally and helps him to remain humane. This may be so because of the encouragement Lorenzo gives Levi and the support he gives him. Levi specifically says that it was due to Lorenzo that he is alive after the torture within the camp. The one thing about Lorenzo, is that he is a, in some way, random man, who helps Levi for the good of his heart. He asks for nothing in return because he was a good man who “did not think that one did good for a reward” (119) and this is why Levi sees Lorenzo as the reason for his survival, because he was a good man, a pure man, and an honest man. Lorenzo gave Levi hope that there were still good people in the world, and someone who was on his side. “Lorenzo was a man” (122) and because of Lorenzo, Levi was always able to look back and remember that he himself is a man and he will not stand to be treated no less.
Both Alberto and Lorenzo give Levi much needed support throughout Levi’s journey. They both are non-corrupt and are real men who will not deprive themselves or others of their humanity. They resist all attempts of dehumanization whether it is them personally or someone else, and they both are Levi’s encouragement to survive and they are also one of his hopes to a better life. They are the saviors of this work and are the encouraging factors to Levi’s survival. Although Alberto does not make it to the end, and Lorenzo only was with Levi for 6 months, these two minor characters may be the most important to Levi throughout his work because they both were seen as a true man and not a beast.
Surviving the Camp
There’s a plethora of adjectives one could apply to the survivors of Hitler’s nightmarish concentration camps during the later years of the second world war; lucky, miraculous, strong-willed, and many more. However, what one must begin to consider as they ponder what the futures for these survivors was like after liberation from the camps. Many, if not all of these poor souls were left scarred for the rest of their lives, having to live every day with the images of crematoriums, skeleton-esque human beings, and the countless other atrocities that have been burned into their minds. To have emerged from the camps alive by the war’s end surely resulted on numerous factors, some of which aren’t even in one’s control. The story of Primo Levi and his tale of having survived one of the most terrifying eras for Jewish people in perhaps all of history reveals just what some of these factors were. From holding on to any sliver of dignity/humanity they had left in the camps to using cunning and wit to increase chances of survival, Primo prevailed against all odds. Having known that “man is bound to pursue his own ends by all possible means, while he who errs but once pays dearly” (1.3), the persistence and desire to make it out alive fueled the determination of a man trapped in a land of fleeting trusts and moldy crusts.
Perhaps the most important contributor to the explanation how Primo survived when so many others around him did not entails holding on to the very thing the Nazi’s sought to destroy within the barbed wire fences of the camps: humanity. If there’s anything Hitler’s concentration camps did better than extinguishing the lives of all those unfortunate enough to be imprisoned in one, it was robbing the prisoners of their humanity. Primo became keen to the inner workings and motives of these camps fairly early on in his journey, realizing that “if we want to keep [our names], we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains” (2.21). Before it was too late, Primo began clinging on to every shred of his past life that he could, utilizing skills and actions done before his imprisonment that reminded him of his humanity. The prisoners began trading and bargaining with their portions of bread, something that somewhat resembled the structure of a makeshift economy in the camps. Bread became the coin of the land in place of the paper/coin currency obviously absent in that environment. One individual in particular, an ex-sergeant of the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, served to be one of the earliest assets contributing to Primo clinging on to his humanity. Steinlauf spoke words of supreme wisdom to Primo that he’d remember so well that they’d go on to be included in his book years later. Steinlauf desperately wanted Primo to acknowledge that “[they] must polish [their] shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety” (3.41). The importance of maintaining routine order aside from the one enforced by the Nazi guards was key to keeping a level head in that hellish world. If one could clean themselves, dry off in their jackets, and even find the time to polish their shoes, then the declination of sanity would slow down drastically. While Primo is skeptical of this advice in the beginning, wondering whether or not it’d be better to simply recognize the futility of having personal rules, it’s without a doubt one of the sole reasons he escaped the war with any bit of his humanity left intact. Another fateful action Primo chose to perform was analyzing and befriending select prisoners during his time in the camp. From having reunited with his childhood friend, Alberto, to holding down his territory in the Ka-Be medical center with Charles and Arthur in the final days leading to their freedom, Primo almost certainly would’ve perished long ago if it weren’t for the interactions he had with all the people he met along the way. He deemed anyone who became completely deprived from everyone he loved as being “a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint” (2.26), therefore taking it upon himself to make sure he wouldn’t become stranded there without anyone to care for. Despite having lost Alberto to the Nazi death marches as the Russians grew closer to the Auschwitz, Primo came to think so fondly of Charles and Arthur that he even went as far to say that he exchanged letters with Charles after their liberation, “[hoping] to see him again one day” (17.22). Through the combination of tactics and friendly connection Primo developed as he adapted to life in the concentration camp, the Jewish chemist was able to keep what little humanity he had left from being viciously stripped away from him by the dehumanizing Nazi regime.
While he definitely gained a lot of the knowledge leading to his triumphant survival within the walls of his enclosure, it’d be ignorant to overlook Primo’s naturally admirable intelligence he had before arriving at Auschwitz. Aside from being a formally recognized chemist in the life he lived before the war, Primo was able to analytically observe his surroundings and those around him, which resulted in the discovery of ways he could go about his day while expending the least amount of energy possible. In one particular instance, Primo recruited the aid of a man named Resnyk to help him with a task requiring the heavy lifting of wooden beams weighing nearly 175 lbs each. Shortly after meeting the fellow prisoner, Primo wasted no time taking mental notes of the advantages to associating himself with him, labeling him as a “good worker [whose] being taller would support the greater part of the weight” (6.10). Levi’s natural ability to seek out the talents and usefulness that would come in handy should he need their assistance surely played an important role in his survival in Auschwitz. Touching back on his specialty in the field of chemistry as well, Primo’s choice to take the Chemical Examination put forward by German officers seeking out a Chemical Kommando for the camp gave him unparalleled legs-up over the other prisoners. Although it took awhile for the advantages of this action to finally become apparent, Primo found himself receiving better clothing at a more frequent rate, a warm workspace, and even the privilege of having a weekly shave once having secured the position (which was only earned by two other men). Using the strong mind gifted to him at birth to find ways to make his situation even just slightly more bearable undoubtedly gave Primo Levi the resources he needed to last until the Russians’ inevitable arrival at Auschwitz.
One can’t help but sit back and truly think to themselves for a minute just how incredible it is that any concentration camp prisoner made it out of Hitler’s mortifying Europe with their lives. There were a few viable reasons that could help better explain why Primo Levi survived when countless others perished mere feet away from him on a daily basis, but the most influential ones included having humanity, intelligence and even luck on his side. There’s no way Primo would’ve made it out of Auschwitz if it weren’t for a few extremely fateful events, like his meeting of a local, kind-hearted citizen named Lorenzo, who would often provide extra portions of food in secrecy to him during the periods of air raid bombings (as the prisoners were forced to wait outside the bomb shelters during the attacks). He credits Lorenzo and his generosity for being “one of the main reasons for [his] survival” (12.9) by the time he and the rest of the remaining prisoners were liberated in 1945. Nevertheless, no matter what the reasoning may be for Primo having survived one of the scariest examples of unrelenting anti-semitism in modern history, it goes without saying that this man deserved none of the horrible atrocities inflicted upon him during World War II. None of the victims of Hitler’s reign of terror did, and we can only hope that their spirits have found some degree of peace in the unknown world beyond the one riddled with hate, war and conflict that humanity continues to live in today.
Levi the Chemist and Levi the Writer: Survival in Auschwitz
When considering Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, one is immediately struck by his deadpan tone, emphasis on factual descriptions and blunt presentation of his content. Levi comments on the events he describes and offers his own insight, but never allows his perspective to interfere with his presentation of facts or detract from the objective manner in which he recalls the events of the Holocaust. Given Levi’s background as a chemist, the question arises as to how one should differentiate between Levi the author and Levi the scientist, or whether such a distinction is necessary. This essay will consider Levi’s identity and outlook, as well as both his motivation behind writing and method of communicating, in an effort to establish to what degree he writes like a chemist.
The first factor that one must consider is Levi’s own upbringing and personal context, since it was influential on his outlook on the Holocaust. He was educated at the Liceo Massimo d’Azeglio, a school renowned for its anti-Fascist sentiments, and studied chemistry at the Università degli Studi di Turino, although his classification as a Jew made it hard for him to graduate. From this education, he drew a positivist outlook by which he placed his trust in facts and reality, in contrast to Fascist racial dogma and idealism. Levi himself remarked that ‘chemistry and physics . . . were the antidote to Fascism’ (Il sistema periodico, Ferro), and since he leans on his scientific principles when examining Fascism, it is only natural that his careful, analytical realism should be reflected in his writing.
In addition to this, Levi was born in Turin and lived there both before and after his experience in Auschwitz, since he felt a strong connection with it as a home. This is significant when it is considered that Turin was an industrial, positivist city that remained notably anti-Fascist and was at odds with Mussolini’s idealistic Italy. For example, Antonio Sonnessa (Factory Cells and the Red Aid Movement: Factory and Neighbourhood Forms of Organisation and Resistance to Fascism in Turin, 1922-1926) notes ‘The recalcitrant opposition of the city’s labor movement and working class to fascism and capitalism between 1920 and 1922’ and thereby outlines a city with an ideological foundation that was strongly sceptical of Fascism and modern Italian politics. Whilst Levi should not be considered synonymous with predominant Turinese opinion, it is clear from his writing that he retained this scepticism and rejection of Fascism. In short, before he had any experience in a concentration camp, Levi was provided with the perspective of a secular, positivist chemist by his education, career and home town, and one would expect this perspective to influence his writing regardless of subject matter; he is not merely writing like a chemist, he is writing as a chemist.
Moreover, Levi’s style of writing and the reasoning behind it must also be considered; it is not enough to say that he writes like a chemist because he is one, given his careful treatment of the subject matter. While he maintains a matter-of-fact, deadpan register throughout, Levi adopts two manners of writing. The first of these styles is that of factual description that lacks any deliberate emotional resonance with the reader; if one does react to it, it is a personal reaction and nothing more. The other style is focused more on Levi’s own thoughts and reactions and therefore offers a more philosophical insight into content that is otherwise totally dry. The difference between these two styles is outlined effectively by two passages in which Levi describes Auschwitz: in the first (‘Auschwitz: un nome privo di dignificato, allora e per noi; ma doveva pur corrispondere a un luogo di questa terra’) he captures the sense of the unknown that gripped him and his fellow passengers on the train to the camp, as well as a sense of positivist relief at learning that they were headed to a real destination – he grants the reader a powerful emotional insight into the mind of a Jew travelling towards an uncertain doom. However, the second reference to Auschwitz (‘Noi siamo a Monowitz, vicino ad Auschwitz, in Alta Slesia: una regione abitata promiscuamente da tedeschi e polacchi…’ and so on) is a stream of information with nothing attached to it that might point the reader towards a specific reaction; Levi details the facts and leaves his reader to treat them as he/she will. Whilst these two approaches to writing are very different, they both resemble what one might expect to see in a lab report – the factual approach parallels to observations of what occurs during an experiment, and the philosophical approach parallels to the explanation and interpretation of data that one would expect a chemist to offer. This style is effective for writing about the Holocaust, since Levi’s facts are objective and faithful to the events whilst supplying the reader with an accessible means through which to view them. On the other hand, Levi’s personal insights are distinct enough from the bare facts to avoid the universal experience of the Holocaust being clouded by or confused with Levi’s experience as an individual, so they provide a compelling and thought-provoking perspective that doesn’t attempt to represent the suffering of others in itself.
Consideration of Levi as writing like a chemist takes on another level of significance when one contemplates the nature of Auschwitz and what concentration camps actually represented. One might consider the Lager as a laboratory examining the behaviour of humanity when pushed beyond the boundaries of humane living conditions. In I sommersi e i salvati, most notably the chapter La zona grigia, Levi considers how individuals had to compromise their own values in order to survive under the SS’ regime, the hierarchy of which permeated the society of the prisoners, especially in the context of how some prisoners were granted special privileges by the guards. As Levi says here, ‘Limitiamoci al Lager, che però…può ben servire da “laboratorio”: la classe ibrida dei prigionieri-funzionari ne costituisce l’ossatura, ed insieme il lineamento più inquietante.’ Having detailed the use of the Lager as a laboratory in which one could observe the reaction of its prisoners to its harsh environment, most notably in the case of those who became part of the system as ‘functionary prisoners.’ However, he also says that this specific class of prisoners were only the ‘ossatura’ and that the prisoners’ society was ‘una struttura interna inredibilmente complicata’ – as Levi writes in Se questo, ‘voremmo far considerare come il Lager sia stato…una gigantesca esperienza biologica e sociale,’ and he also expresses shock at the cold, indifferent approach of the guards, showing the sterile, mechanical way that the camp and its authorities operated. Therefore, if one takes the Lager as the framework for a huge social experiment, as Levi did, then in observing and attempting to understand it, one takes on the role of a scientist. Enrico Mattioda (Al di qua dal bene e del male) considers the how Levi’s perspective as a chemist makes him especially suitable for this observational, analytical role, since ‘La chimica ha insegnato a diffidare delle apparenze, a distinguere il simile dal dissimile, ed anche questo si rivela utile in Lager.’ Levi is not just a chemist in vocation, education and style of writing, but also as a writer and prisoner. It therefore follows that in writing an account of his experience as the latter, he must also do so as the former, thereby assuming the role of a scientist considering an experiment.
Levi’s scientific style of writing can be attributed not only to the content that he aims to capture with it, but also to his purpose behind writing. Levi’s is not only account, but also of hundreds of thousands of people who died in concentration camps before they had a chance to bear witness to their experiences – as Jonathon Drucker (Primo Levi and Humanism After Auschwitz (2009)) puts it, ‘Levi’s testimony shoulders the heavy responsibility of speaking for victims…who have no voice of their own.’ As such, it cannot be a wholly personal or subjective account as with some other testimony (for example, the diary of Anne Frank), since this would fail to do justice to those who did not survive – compelling as one might find it, the experience of Primo Levi does not count as the experience of thousands of other Holocaust victims. Therefore, in writing on behalf of others in a highly observational and analytical manner, Levi provides a convincing representation of what life might have been life for any of the prisoners (overlooking experiences specific to Levi, such as his work as a prisoner-chemist.) What Se questo lacks in personal value is made up for by its convincing insight into the mechanisms of Auschwitz as would apply to any of the victims on behalf of whom Levi is testifying.
However, Levi’s intention in writing is not just testimonial; Se questo certainly bears witness to the tragedy of Holocaust victims, but it also has a confrontational side. In I sommersi e i salvati, he wrote with regard to the perpetrators of the Holocaust that ‘before, they were oppressors or indifferent spectators, now they would be readers: I would corner them, tie them before a mirror.’ In this context, one might consider him as writing just as much like a jurist as like a chemist; both roles must present facts in a clear and unbiased way, but unlike the chemist, the jurist does to attain a certain reaction. In the words of Judith Woolf (The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, Chapter 3), ‘Justice with which Primo Levi was concerned was not the justice of Nuremburg…he wanted to understand his adversaries and to confront them by forcing them to confront themselves.’ Levi’s dry style displays the Holocaust through its own inhumane nature rather than through subjective embellishment, and therefore forces the reader the react to the events it describes. Whilst Se questo does resemble the writing of a chemist to a significant degree, it must be remembered that science does not concern itself with morality, unlike Levi as a writer in sense of some form of justice. Therefore, Levi’s manner of being analytical, observational and looking for patterns of understanding has significance beyond Levi’s experience as a chemist and the scientific nature of what he captures; it is also the most effective way of confronting the perpetrators.
While the parallel between Ulysses, the wandering hero who goes through great trials before returning home, and Levi might lead one to view Levi as a valorous protagonist as well, there is a crucial difference between them: Dante’s Ulysses (with whom Levi concerns himself primarily, as opposed to Homer’s) pushes the boundaries of what humanity can achieve, but Levi experiences the boundaries of what can humanity can endure. Therefore, Levi is not an explorer, but an observer of what is effectively a destructive experiment on humanity. His role as an author does not correspond fully to that of a chemist – his own moral perspective and search for ‘justice’ by forcing the perpetrators of the Holocaust to confront their own misdeeds transcend the confines of a scientific perspective. However, Levi’s education, positivist outlook and careful observational treatment of his content result in a testimonial account that has much in common with the writing of a chemist.