Survival in Auschwitz
Alberto and Lorenzo: Redeemers and Saviors
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.
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.
The Survival of Hope in Auschwitz
In his memoir, Survival In Auschwitz, Primo Levi defines hope and expresses its significance as a key feature of our humanity through the use of style, characterization and tone.Levi poignantly defines his personal definition of hope through the use of authorial style. For one who may not know what it is to live without hope, he paints a physical picture. With words such as ‘bleak’ (39), ‘muddy (40)’, and ‘small’ (32), along with a lack of colour, vibrancy, excitement, and light, (135) Levi creates a lack of visual appeal. This creates a feeling of loss and emptiness in the reader’s interpretation of the setting, as well as the mood within the camp. The ‘dark and cold of sidereal space’ (56), and the shades of grey (37) that he uses as descriptive adjectives are intended to discourage, and bring about deep feelings of resentment, lethargy and weakness. Levi also employs imagery as a means to manipulate emotions; forging a connection to the victim within the scene. He utilizes suspense by recounting the story in a particular order. Some events in the story are recounted in chronological order, but most of his story is told in an order in relation to its relevance to the tale. In terms of intention and point of view, the author controls the flow of the information, dictating the facts that are available to the reader, which creates an interesting parallel to the guards who controlled the lives of the prisoners within the camp itself. The lack of warmth (40) is a strong evocation of emotions for an experience of mental depression and a cold, lonely place within the mind. It reflects the desolation of the camp environment. Levi also sets up no hope of a future for the prisoners, and avoids the subject of times to come, living and surviving only in the moment. He discusses a word within the camp slang which means never (133). The literal translation of this word is ‘tomorrow morning’ (133), directly linking the lack of hope in with the language and culture of the camp. Levi uses imagery in an attempt to convey the incomprehensible environment within the camp, and the total despair, and absence of hope. He also demonstrates this through account of the actions and reactions of the humans within the camp; how they treat each other, and how they express their need for hope. Though Levi clearly expresses the pain that he experiences within the camp (45), he also speaks of what it feels like to be freed, and to have hope again (71). On ‘a good day’, Levi shines the light of good fortune through his imagery, and shares the excitement of the change in mood (71). When referring to his experiences after the camp’s release, and on days when he demonstrates hope, Levi speaks about the ‘horizon’, show his focus and reliance on the future, and of ‘bright[ness]’, clarity and sun. The sun has a healing power of warmth, and new life (71). The warmth encompasses regeneration, and comfort, while the light from the sun chases away the clouds of the figurative storm. (168) This brings hope, not only for him, but for the reader along for the ride as well (73).Building upon the imagery, the tone of the memoir further enhances the comprehension of hope, as well as influencing a reaction to what is written. This is calculated to convey a specific judgment on the humanity within the camp. Because the tone is so detached, the story is open to interpretation. The fact that the story is told from the prisoner’s point of view is powerful in that the story remains one man’s personal experience and the strenuous weight of the realities of the consequences of this experience. However, Levi also uses the power of observation, and takes a witness’ account of things to make himself a more reliable narrator, who is more likely to create sympathy within the reader. Alongside the use of this device, Levi does not play up, or draw attention to himself as the poor, targeted prisoner that he is, therefore the reader is more likely to take his humility in stride, and feel more sympathetic towards him. The tone which is utilized by the author is also helpful in making the reading less emotional; guarding from distraction (123). It helps to demonstrate some of the psychological effects that the camp had on Levi, that is, the lack of hope, and the apathy, which ties into our understanding of humanity and behavioral psychology; Because the prisoners were treated inhumanely, and the they were not expected to act as such, they fulfilled the expectations of their captors, and acted with a lack of what makes them distinctly human, their humanity. Once he touches upon humanity, Levi explores the relationship between hope and humanity (129). Throughout the memoir, where there is a lack of hope, comes a lack of humanity. For example, when Levi and his friend Alberto felt in an utterly hopeless and broken position, they no longer even understood what it would be like to have the strength to fight for humanity. (150) There is no rebellion, or sense of injustice evoked within them, and they were depicted in the apathetic complacency of their hopeless situation.Levi outlines his comments on hope and humanity through his characterization, and how he chooses to tell his story. He achieves this through the use of realistic opinions and descriptions of the characters who surround him, the main character in the memoir. He shows us that characters who have hope within them and how they show their humanity in some small ways: for example, the man who made the effort to keep himself clean while the rest of the camp resigned themselves to the ever present dirt and grime of the camp. The actions that he took towards preserving this portion of his humanity were indicative of the hope he still had in the outside world, and the importance he placed on this hope, and his own humanity. However, those whose ‘souls are dead’ (51) consistently showed that their lack of hope contributed to their lack of humanity. As Levi comments; it is “for he who loses all often easily loses himself.” For the character of Levi himself, he demonstrates a lack of humanity while he has no hope, but this attitude changes after he is freed and he begins to care for others. He shows this through being kinder and joyful, and comes to the conclusion that “the conviction that life has a purpose is rooted in every fibre of a man, it is a property of the human” (71). It is through this that he shows how he believes in humanity, but relies on hope to bring it to life. His characterization further shows a cultural perspective from within the camp. It demonstrates how people saw each other, and how their worth was measured. Levi uses animal metaphors and similes to comment on humanity and how it appears when stripped down to its roots. It shows human priorities and basic instincts when reduced down to the level of a survivor. Throughout the story, Levi sometimes shows he had trouble with some of the ways other people see things, particularly the fact that some can find some hope in the situation, while he cannot (130, 155). Levi was frustrated and jealous, because of his own lack of hope, shown through his observations and descriptions of others. (122)The fact that this story took place, and that there really was a correlation between hope and humanity within the camp, creates an emotional connection between the reader and author. The reader is allowed to see things from the point of view of the character (131) and prisoner, which is especially maintained through the imagery, the tone and the characterization. In this story, hope is reliant on humanity, and it is the presence of hope and a striving towards a better future that gives man the incentive and the strength to live (173).
Primo Levi: The Two-Part Victim
The victimization of Primo Levi must be addressed in two parts: the victimization of his body and the victimization of his humanity. The distinction, as menial as it may appear, is essential in placing blame for the horrors of his experiences in the concentration camp. With regard to his physical victimization, internment and forced physical labor, it can be seen that the Nazi efforts, in addition to the forced ineffectiveness of his pre-incarceration activities, are responsible for his suffering. At the same time, though, it is his personal choices and attitude that allow his humanity to be sacrificed. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew from Turin. Trained as a chemist, he found himself in an anti-Fascist movement that was missing “contacts, arms, money and the experience needed to acquire them” (Levi 13). The fledgling group further suffered from a lack of men fit for fighting and an inundation of refugees searching for “protection, a hiding place, a fire, a pair of shoes”. When on December 13th, 1943, the three fascist militia companies swept into the mountain camp, Levi was taken prisoner “as a suspect person” only to later be deported to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland (Levi 13). The nature with which Levi was captured demonstrates what is to be blamed for his victimization. Taken while attempting to resist, trying to hide, Levi was not a victim of his own choice. Others “had given themselves up spontaneously…because they lacked the means to survive, or to avoid separation from a captured relation, or even – absurdly- ‘to be in conformity with the law'” (Levi 14). Thus, unlike those who chose to be imprisoned, he cannot be blamed for his capture. His diction emphasizes the point. Levi becomes disdainful when he refers to those that willingly gave themselves up to follow Fascist legislation. The tone of the passage is semi-patronizing through the use of quotation marks, implying that he himself cannot even take responsibility for the language of such an excuse. Also, the use of the adverb “absurdly” demonstrates that he does not believe this to be a righteous reason (Levi 14). It is these Jews to whom perpetuate “a commonplace still prevailing in Italy: a Jew is a mild person…unwarlike, humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever fighting back”; the same stereotype Levi attempts to vanquish through his book (Levi 186-187). It is the rebellious activities prior to his incarceration, conditions of his arrest, and disdainful attitude toward those that forsook their freedom that best demonstrate Levi’s helplessness regarding his imprisonment. His victimization develops further with his physical suffering at Auschwitz. Upon reaching the camp, half of the group, comprised of women, children and old men, were “swallowed” up by the night, “pure and simply,” while Levi’s grouping “had been judged capable…of working usefully for the Reich” (Levi 20). Levi is taken to Monowitz-Buna where the intense security measures, decreased food and regimented work forces him into an insufferable situation. The idea of escape is impossible: The camp is “surrounded by two fences of barbed wire, the inner one carrying a high tension current…(and) the prohibitions (which) are innumerable” (Levi 31-33). Alongside forced servitude, the prisoners’ diets further debilitate them to “obscene torment and an indelible shame” where the soup that is eaten “in order to satisfy (their) hunger… swells (their) ankles” (Levi 61). Hard labor, of course, tortures the prisoners further. One chemist must carry 175 pound wooden sleepers “more or less at the limits of (his) strength” while barely being able to survive (Levi 67). This sort of suffering cannot be blamed on its victims; it is the product of the system as seen in Levi’s attitude toward such work. Levi uses every excuse to avoid suffering. When the load threatens to crush him he finds his bedmate who “seems a good worker and being taller will support the greater part of the weight” (Levi 67). He visits the latrine, luckily located a great distance away from his worksite, in order to stall the strain on his body (Levi 67). He searches the fields for the lighter loads (Levi 69). Levi even goes as far as risking his status as able-bodied by going to Ka-Be, the infirmary, to have a wound checked out, resulting in bed rest (Levi 47). “The life of Ka-Be is limbo,” he writes, but so are all of his attempts to fight the system from within (Levi 50). He is playing every angle in the system to survive, the attribute of someone victimized by the system and not by himself. It is through his actions that the reader understands that he is not to blame for his physical suffering; that is to be placed upon the shoulders of the Fascist system that incarcerates him and forces him into the labor that he continues to fight against on a daily basis. Yet it is in Levi’s mindset that the reader begins to find the victimization he forces upon himself. Levi adopts the mindset that it is the system that has made him “forgetful of dignity and restraint”. He becomes the number on his arm, 174517 (Levi 27). The same man who, upon arriving, found the compassion in himself to tell a fellow sufferer with a wife and daughter that the women must be well off, despite his certain convictions that they are to be killed, begins to play the games of telling the “freshman” that he “can leave his bowl of soup ‘in your custody'” and “sending him to the most ferocious of the Kapos to ask him if it is true that his is the… ‘Potato Peeling Command'” (Levi 24-28). Levi uses those around him to lessen his own burden. The effects upon his mentality and morality are evident when his compassion upon arriving is compared to the question of whether or not he must tell Sattler who “does not understand German” that the shirt that he is mending “will be of no more use” (Levi 129). By the end of his term he has began to question the same ethics that gave him his compassion–and his humanity–before his internment. When given a surplus of soup he resorts to “fressen, the way of eating of animals” (Levi 76). He allows Resnyk to carry the majority of the load in order to lighten his own burden with no mention of Resnyk’s sacrifice (Levi 67). Yet the moral corruption that he exhibits is not necessary for camp survival. This is demonstrated by his good friend Alberto for whom he holds reverence “for this virtue of his” that “he himself did not become corrupt” (Levi 57). The attitude that once drove Levi to fight in resistance, as futile as it may have been, has been crushed. His new attitude is that “all are enemies or rivals” (Levi 42). For this change in mentality and for this compromise of morality, Primo Levi is guilty. For even if “the Lager was a great machine to reduce (them) to beasts” he himself admits that “we must not become beasts” (Levi 41). Perhaps he writes it as a warning to others, or perhaps it is in regret for confessing that “after only one week of prison, the instinct for cleanliness disappeared in (him)” (Levi 40). Yet the same instinct, stated the very sentence before, was “necessary as an instrument of moral survival” (Levi 40). Dragged away fighting, therefore, Levi is a victim of a Fascist army. Forced to play a system of brutal incarceration, intense physical labor and debilitating daily conditions, Levi is a victim of a Fascist imprisonment and forced servitude. Yet, found taking advantage of his other prisoners and corrupting his own moral principles, Primo Levi is guilty of his own victimization.
Fleeting Trusts and Moldy Crusts
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.
In Memory of Auschwitz
Survival in Auschwitz is a memoir written by Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who was sent to and worked in the Auschwitz-Monowitz labor camp during the later years of World War II. Levi’s memoir is significant for its contributions to the historical record of the Holocaust, as well as providing a profound personal account through his memories of life in Auschwitz. While the memoir is successful in documenting part of the Holocaust’s history and Levi’s memories, it is evident that Levi’s memoir tells us more about the memory of the Holocaust due to the gaps within the memoir’s historical contribution, memory’s effect on Levi’s writing process, as well as the memoir’s impact on memory communities.
When attempting to reconstruct the past, there are two means through which this can be achieved: History and memory. The former refers to structured learning about the past by using facts and evidence-supported documentation, most commonly through primary sources which are written or produced by people who were present at the time of the historical event in question. Conversely, memory refers to reliving or understanding historical events by means of others’ recollections and personal experiences, which are passed down and transmitted through memory communities into collective memory. This is acknowledged by Eviatar Zerubavel in “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past”. As memory is shared within various social groups known as “mnemonic communities” (Zerubavel 289) and stored within physical and virtual locations known as “social sites of memory” (Zerubavel 291), our memory would thus extend much further than what we personally have experienced, allowing us to learn more about history through the memories of others. Examples of this, in terms of learning about the events of the Holocaust, are historical poetry such as Levi’s “Epitaph” (Levi 11) and testimonies from survivors from what Annette Wieviorka calls “the era of the witness” (Wieviorka XV). This includes the works of Elie Wiesel, who writes because he believes he “owes the dead [his] memory” (Wiesel 16), and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.
With regards to the memoir’s historical contribution, it is undeniable that Levi’s accounts provide an in-depth view of life as both a prisoner and labor camp worker in Auschwitz. Every chapter explains a different aspect of how he eventually managed to survive living in camp Monowitz, ranging from his deportation and arrival to living under the prison hierarchy, the inner workings of the black market, as well as surviving selection multiple times, before finally getting liberated by the Soviet Army. All of such are experiences unique to him, but still serve as first-hand documentation for the historical record of the Holocaust. As Doris Bergen mentions in War & Genocide, Levi’s testimonies on the Holocaust were “some of the most insightful reflections on that event ever written” (Bergen 180). This is true based on how Levi’s words match up with the factual evidence of occurrences during the final years of World War II, such as how he had begun his memoir by describing his “good fortune” (Levi 9) to have been deported to Auschwitz in 1944, and Bergen states in War & Genocide that the Germans had personally deported the Italian Jewish population “beginning in 1943” (Bergen 180).
However, Bergen then follows up with the fact that “most of the Italian Jews murdered in the Holocaust died in 1944 or early 1945” (Bergen 180). This already shows a gap within Levi’s accounts as he clearly was not part of the majority who died, whether it was in the gas chambers or otherwise, like the “women … children … old men” (Levi 20) from the freight trains whom he never saw again. In addition to this, Levi’s experiences in relation to the Holocaust as documented through his memoir do not begin until 1944, while anti-Jewish aggression from the Reich Government takes place long before Levi is deported and involves experiences other than being sent to concentration camps, like the various pogroms that occur across Eastern Europe and the ghettoization of Polish Jews from “late 1939 to early 1949” (Bergen 111). Despite its historical accuracy and detailed accounts of life in Auschwitz, Levi’s experiences are not representative of the fate that most Holocaust victims faced, as such victims faced a wide range of outcomes that did not necessarily result in being sent to Auschwitz, let alone surviving life there. Thus, his memoir leaves more gaps than it fills in terms of our historical knowledge of the Holocaust, and is therefore comparably more telling of his memory of it than its history.
Similarly, Survival in Auschwitz can be viewed as more memory-based due to the impact of Levi’s memory on the writing of his memoir. Having been part of the surviving minority of Holocaust prisoners and having written this memoir “following his return to Italy in the autumn of 1945” (Thomson 142), Levi is fully aware of the outcome of World War II and feels “oppressed by shame” (Levi 150) and guilt for having survived. As opposed to other similarly autobiographical primary sources that may have been produced by other concentration camp prisoners, Levi uses his memoir to relive his experiences in Auschwitz, equipped with the knowledge that he survives the entire ordeal and lives to tell the tale. Content-wise, his memoir would then be vastly different from an account that was written as the events of the Holocaust were unfolding, thus altering how he would have viewed and reflected on his experiences rather than capturing his immediate, unknowing responses. Wieviorka also explains in the introductory chapter of The Era of the Witness that historians treat testimonies “with considerable mistrust” (Wieviorka XIII), only very occasionally using them to build a historical narrative as such accounts are rarely unbiased or impartial (Wieviorka XIV). With this in mind, in addition to Levi’s awareness of the outcome of World War II and feelings of remorse towards his own fate, Survival in Auschwitz hence cannot be used as factual historical evidence, as it primarily documents Levi’s memories of Auschwitz and lacks neutrality or objectivity in the expressed opinions.
Furthermore, Levi’s motivations for writing his memoir discredit it as a historical source as well. Wiesel, also a Holocaust survivor who feels guilty for having lived on, writes to honor the dead, because “he owes nothing to the living, but everything to the dead” (Wiesel 16). His shame towards being able to enjoy a post-Holocaust future while many innocent people—old and young—perished is echoed by Levi, who chose to write for the sake of his “interior liberation” (Levi 9) in a near-therapeutic approach to coping with his experiences. What’s more is his acknowledgement that his memoir “adds nothing” (Levi 9) to what readers already know about the Holocaust’s history, its purpose is to formulate a study of the human mind instead from a sociological perspective. Though Levi raises an astute comparison between the Lager and “a gigantic biological and social experiment” (Levi 87), documenting history relies on facts, rather than aiming at understanding it from other social aspects, or “having fun in writing and at amusing [his] prospective readers” (Roth 183).
Another way in which memory impacted Levi’s writing process is his decision to “write his book backwards” (Thomson 147), “in order of urgency” (Levi 10). By deciding to write whichever chapter he considered more or most important, Levi is able to develop more careful, proselike descriptions and turn his memoir into a “teeming, intensely literary work of great complexity” (Thomson 148), which is another feature rarely found in other historical sources. Within the fragmented order in which Survival in Auschwitz was written, Levi also makes a number of allusions to famous works of Italian literature, namely the chapter entitled “The Canto of Ulysses” in which he attempts to recite from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. This reference to Inferno and Dante’s journey through Hell eventually becomes representative of Levi’s own journey in Auschwitz, showing how he viewed his experiences through a literary scope. Therefore, Survival in Auschwitz tells us more about the memory of the Holocaust based on Levi’s unique takes on the psychological significance of this historical event, none of which aid historians in rebuilding its historical narrative.
Finally, the impact of Levi’s memoir on the collective memory of the Holocaust plays an immense role in Holocaust remembrance. As he brings up in the Chapter 5 dream sequence of Survival in Auschwitz, his sister and her friend are just two of the numerous listeners who have gathered to listen to the story he’s telling, this dream that is also his friend Alberto’s “and the dream of many others, perhaps of everyone” (Levi 60). This shows his intent to share his story to those beyond the sphere of other survivors, allowing him to tell his story first to strangers on the Milan-Turin express train, then to his sister, before finally reaching the general public (Thomson 144-45), successfully expanding the collective memory with his words alone. While his storytelling skills were applauded by his listeners, he did not encounter such warm reactions when he put his words to print. In his search for a publisher, he faced multiple rejections from both American and Italian publishing houses (Thomson 155-57), halting his hopes of reaching a wider international audience with his memoir. He was even rejected by a Jewish-Protestant publishing business as “the moment was not right” (Thomson 157). During his interview with Daniel Toaff on Italian State TV, Levi recalls speaking with a Polish lawyer who translated his answers for the passers-by around them. Levi’s answer regarding his identity was altered, so he was a newly-freed political prisoner instead of being an Italian Jew. When asked, the lawyer reasoned that “ it [was] best for [him]; Poland is a sad country” (Back to Auschwitz).
From this, it is clear that Levi’s prepublished story was capable of contributing to collective memory on a small scale, only reaching a global scale once it was officially published. However, even so, the memoir’s original title of If This Is a Man was changed to Survival in Auschwitz for the American release (Roth 181), so as to promote a new message of strength and survival rather than maintain its psychological implications. Subsequently, Levi became a “national monument” (Thomson 141) in Italy, a member in the public eye who received opportunities for both written (Roth; Thomson) and televised (Back to Auschwitz) interviews, valued for the experiences he had and shared. Hence, despite the challenges Levi faced and the compromises he had to go through in order to bring his story to the public eye, the great influence of Survival in Auschwitz is still highly evident and allowed more people worldwide to share in his memories of the Holocaust.
In conclusion, Levi’s interpretation of the Holocaust implies a deeper meaning behind its events, one that’s more rooted in the recesses of the human mind. As Thompson points out, “no other work conveys the unique horror of the Nazy genocide more directly and profoundly, or interrogates our recent moral history so incisively” (Thompson 142). Rather than simply looking at his experiences in Auschwitz from a shallower, more literal point of view, Levi suggests studying it with a basis of psychology and morality, and to take it “as a sinister alarm-signal” (Levi 9). Thus, he would disagree with Wiesel’s statement that the Holocaust cannot be understood and to write about it is to “warn the reader that he will not understand either” (Wiesel 18), taking on the opposite viewpoint instead. Chapters 8 and 9 in Levi’s memoir, in which he discusses the Lager’s black market and the two main categories of men—the drowned and the saved, are indicative of his “intense wish to understand” (Roth 180) and his view that the Holocaust was a social experiment conducted to determine “how much of our ordinary moral world could survive” (Levi 86) in the face of dehumanization and the struggle to stay alive. “Auschwitz was the catalyst that turned Levi into a writer” (Thomson 159), and it is because of this that Levi wrote a memoir as potent as Survival in Auschwitz and, while he could not provide all the answers to this question on the strength and longevity of human morality, it is through his memories that he invites us to form our own psychological judgement of this event and develop our own memory of the Holocaust as well.