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.
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