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.
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