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Primo Levi portrait
Fundacion Memorial del Holocausto

"Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz:
A story of what it really means to be human

Book Essay on: Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz:
The Nazi Assault on Humanity

(New York: Touchstone, 1993 [1958]), 187 pages. UCSB: D805.P7 L4413 1993

by Kelly Cefalu
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$14 & searchable
at amazon

About Kelly Cefalu

I am a senior majoring in history with an emphasis in Latin American and Native American history. Although I have focused the majority of my studies on the Americas, I have had a great interest in the Holocaust after visiting both the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I always find it interesting to compare my life experiences and what is portrayed in media (film, books, essays, museums) with my own historical knowledge. This class provided a chance for me to gain a more thorough understanding of the Holocaust with which I might examine my own life and what is portrayed in the media.

Abstract (back to top)

In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi explores the Nazis’ systemic method of extermination and labor which at times stripped him of his humanity and sense of self. Yet, his experiences also gave rise to situations and helped him foster an attitude that gave him a sense of his humanity in the midst of the Nazis’ dehumanizing practices. Levi gives many examples of the moments of joy and opportunities for optimism he encountered and describes the way each moment could give him the strength to get through the next moment of horror or suffering which inevitably followed. He also details the combination of luck, skills, and connections that enabled him to physically survive his ten months at Auschwitz. The book is not strictly chronological but is structured around particular lessons or stories based on their importance to Levi’s ultimate goal of telling his story so that the memories and stories of the Holocaust live on.

Essay (back to top)

In December 1943 in northern Italy, a small anti-fascist, anti-Nazi resistance group with only 9 members, including a Jewish Italian named Primo Levi, was infiltrated by the Fascist Militia and its members were sent to a detention camp in Fossoli, Italy. Just two months after their capture, on February 21, 1944, all the Jews at Fossoli were shipped to Auschwitz where most of them would meet their death. This is where Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s memoir of the ten months he spent in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, begins. From this point onward Levi never goes farther than 400 yards outside the camp as he describes his experiences at the Lager (the German word for camp).

As a new prisoner to Auschwitz, Primo Levi had to learn the routine, the layout of the Lager, and the rules, spoken and unspoken, of camp life. He describes arriving at the Lager as hitting the bottom, being stripped completely of his manhood and everything and everyone he had known before. He was now Häftling (German for prisoner) number 174517, and the only way out, Levi quickly learned, was “by way of the chimney” (29). During the middle chapters of the book, Primo tells stories of occurrences and reflections, not necessarily chronologically, on certain aspects of the camp. These include the tale of his time in the Krankenbau, or infirmary, in addition to the day to day events that seemed life-giving such as remembering the lyrics to a poem, or the slight warmth of the sun as the winter cold subsided. He recounts the harshness of life and work in the Lager, which he could not escape, even in his dreams. Levi also gives reflections on the blurred moral lines and natural selection within the camp as he discusses the inherent and developed traits that allowed prisoners to survive.

For the later chapters of the book, however, Levi picks up a timeline and tells of the events, which he describes as lucky, that led to his survival. Primo shares his fortune to have the companionship of his best friend Alberto and the chance relationship with Lorenzo, an Italian civilian worker who slipped Primo food and marketable items, and more importantly, gave him a glimpse of humankind’s ability to be good. The friendship of Alberto and goodness of Lorenzo reminded Levi that there was something outside the hellish reality of Auschwitz worth living for. Later, Levi was one of three prisoners chosen to be a specialist in the laboratory, a result of his interview earlier in the year. The lab was clean, sheltered from the cold, and he was given a full ration of food, satisfying the physical needs that could keep prisoners alive longer. As the war neared its end, Primo had a final realization when a prisoner’s last words made him aware of his compliance with the camp system. However, the system soon collapsed and Auschwitz was bombed almost completely to the ground, deserted by the Germans, and its prisoners were evacuated, except those who were in the infirmary, including Levi, who had scarlet fever. This proved a fortunate circumstance because almost all the evacuated prisoners “vanished,” including Alberto (155). Levi’s final chapter recounts the last ten days during which he and his fellow sick prisoners searched for food and provisions in the empty Lager. It was in those last ten days that Primo felt like a man again, and on the eleventh day the Russians came and rescued him and the remaining few survivors.

Primo Levi was a shy, frail chemistry student from Turin, Italy who survived nearly a year in a Nazi concentration camp. Survival in Auschwitz is his memoir, and it answers the basic question posed in the title, how did he, and others, survive? What kept people from giving up and surrendering to death, that is, if it was not forced upon them? It also addresses another goal, one explicitly stated by Levi in his preface. He writes “…it should be able, rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9). The first part of this statement which is of importance is the word “documentation.” The book is Primo’s way of ensuring that the prisoners’ story is heard so that the memory of what happened in Auschwitz is not forgotten. Primo Levi describes this purpose as “The need to tell our story to ‘the rest’, to make ‘the rest’ participate in it…” (9). The book was also written “to study certain aspects of the human mind,” a goal perhaps more apparent in the original title of the book, If This Is a Man, or in Italian, Se questo è un uomo. This translates into the question: what made someone human and what happened when men and women were subject to dehumanization in the Lager? If Jews were less than human, what made a person, in Primo’s case, a man? Through his own experience, Primo Levi attempts to answer questions of survival and manhood and in doing so, he ensures that the reality of their experience (when describing features of the Lager and general experiences of prisoners, Levi writes in the plural) will not be forgotten. In the Lager, luck, the skills he brought with him, the skills he developed while in Auschwitz, and his companions in the camp enabled Levi to maintain a semblance of humanity and even to survive in the face of the Nazis’ dehumanizing system.

Levi’s memoir is certainly not a romantic version of life at Auschwitz and his tone throughout the book is one of brutal honesty, without sarcasm or humor. This tone accounts for the harsh reality of life as a prisoner at Auschwitz, which stripped its prisoners of anything that might remind them of their previous life or their human sensitivities. When Levi describes the night before he left for Auschwitz, he speaks as a man who knew he was going to die, as if death were synonymous with Lager. Of his initial experiences at the camp, Primo Levi writes these cold words: “It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name.” He continues, “Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man” (27). At Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s identity – that which he once defined himself by: his name, his appearance, his property, his family, and his education – was stripped of him and reduced to a number, a number tattooed on his arm so that he would never forget this. To have one’s self perception so shattered is to take away a central feature to being human: self awareness.

Levi also portrays the severe physical suffering endured by prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp. He tells of the freezing cold, for which they were left ill equipped to endure, the paralyzing hunger that never left, and the brutal labor they were forced to complete. Levi describes: “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” (67). The author gives endless details throughout the book of the intricate pains which they were forced to endure and which permeated every aspect of life. When one suffering passed, like the cold winter, they were instantly reminded of another, such as their hunger.

When the personal, mental loss of identity was combined with physical stress, a bleak creature emerges that was once fully human, and now retains only a fraction of its former self. The prisoners at the Lager whom Levi describes had lost their inclination toward intelligent thought or hope or memories of the past, those only led to sensitivity, which Levi realized were weaknesses. He explains their futility when he says: “Why worry oneself trying to read into the future when no action, no word of ours could have the minimum influence?” (116). The impossibility and helplessness of the prisoners’ situation made all breaks from the norm, all activity outside that which was necessary for survival, futile. Rather, Levi and his comrades complied with the demands of the guards, whose unquestionable authority loomed over them, reminding them of their place. The effect this had on Levi is evident in this statement: “I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself” (144). Thus, the Lager had completed its work of dehumanization.

The other strand throughout the book, however, follows Primo Levi’s opportunities for survival and the brief moments of joy that broke the monotony of despair. Levi recounts various moments during his ten months at Auschwitz that were at times luck, at times due to his own skill, which physically allowed him to survive. His talent for chemistry earned him one of three open positions as a specialist which put led him to be “the object of envy of all the ten thousand condemned” and to “suffer neither hunger nor cold this winter” (140). Levi knew this advantage would increase his chance for survival at least for a brief period of time, as did the food and scraps passed on to him from Lorenzo. To have such a relationship was a stroke of luck, much like his fortune to have contracted scarlet fever at the end of 1944. Because Primo was in the Krankenbau (hospital barrack) when Auschwitz collapsed, he was not among the majority who died shortly after being evacuated into the harsh winter weather. Primo Levi also developed survival skills while at the camp that increased his life-chances on a day to day basis. For example, his collection of belongings that consisted of small tools he used to fashion knick-knacks that could be traded for food or other necessities (151).

It was this luck, cleverness, and good circumstance that covered the physical bases for survival, but these were worth nothing without the necessary counterparts which could give the prisoners their spirit and some temporary relief. For example, Levi points out that being assigned a latrine farther away in the yard at work meant having a longer break. He even describes the latrine as “an oasis of peace,” certainly not a string of words one would expect to follow the word “latrine” (68). Also, if not thinking or not remembering was a cause of dehumanization, then to think or remember would bring back a sense of what it meant to be human. The simple act of recalling a poem was so life-giving that Levi goes so far as to say “I would give today’s soup to know how to connect ‘the like on any day’ to the last lines” (114). Levi is constantly mentioning the hunger he felt while in the Lager, so to make such statement demonstrates the value of that poem. For Primo it briefly brought back his love for knowledge, something, according to Carol Angier, that defined him as a boy and at the University of Turin.

Levi also had people in the Lager who gave him companionship, reminded him that life could be good again, and, in his final days at Auschwitz, helped him come back to life. First, he had Alberto, his best friend and fellow Italian prisoner whom he traveled with from Fossoli and who Primo would become inseparable from until the very end. As Levi reflects on their relationship he states they were “bound by a tight bond of alliance” and goes on to describe how they divided all their food and tradable assets between the two of them (138). As often as they could, the pair shared food, conversation, and friendship which helped keep them both alive, because friendship was not something seen often in the camp, it was something free people did, and to have that within the boundaries of the Lager was quite unique. There was also Lorenzo, whose gift was not only the tangible items he provided, but “his natural and plain manner of being good,” which reminded Levi that there was a “remote possibility of good… for which it was worth surviving” (121). During his last days in the Lager, Primo began to finally experience this goodness with one generous action. Towarowski, one of the eleven huddled in their small room in the infirmary, suggested that the men share food with those who had been working on getting heat for their small room. Levi describes “It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge to men again” (160).

So what does it mean to be a human being according to Primo Levi? It is to work in community, to do something good for someone, as Levi did with his eleven comrades during their finals days in the Lager. It is remembering, even if only to recall the rhymes of Homer’s Canto of Ulysses for a brief hour. It is acting like Lorenzo, “someone pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to the hatred and terror,” who stood in stark contrast to everyone else in the camp and who was “a man” (121, 122). While Levi’s memoir depicts a desolate place of inhumane treatment, it also portrays survival and small moments of life in the midst of lifelessness, and it was these moments that he believes truly saved him and reminded him that he too was “human being.”

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/24/08)

Book Reviews:

  1. Girelli-Carasi, Fabio. “The Anti-linguistic Nature of the Lager in the Language of Primo Levi's Se questo è un uomo.”
    Fabio Girelli-Carasi is a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Brooklyn College. His review examines Levi’s book through the framework of language and the way in which language fails to convey the scope and the reality of the Nazis’ Final Solution.
  2. Sachs, Dalya M. “The Language of Judgement: Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo.” MLN 110.4 (1995) 755-784.
    Sachs’ review focuses on Levi’s lack of anger toward the Germans in Se questo è un uomo and examines his motivations for writing with such a tone. Some of the motivations explored in the review include the incapacity of language to accurately portray the feelings and experiences of the Lager as well as Levi’s desire to present his story so that readers can judge for themselves the Nazis’ treatment of prisoners of the Lager.
  3. McDonald, Michael P. “A Matter of Writing Life and Death.” The National Interest 1 Dec. 2002.
    McDonald’s article reviews both Ian Thomson and Carol Angier’s biographies of Primo Levi and critiques the books, which were both published in 2002, for their writing styles and narrow portrayals of Levi’s life and death.

Web Sites:

  1. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/primo.htm
    A literature website in Finland, this link provides a biography of Primo Levi and some brief descriptions of his works. It also compiles an extensive list of selected works.
  2. http://everything2.com/index.pl?node=Survival%20in%20Auschwitz
    Everything2 is a website which allows users to post any writing they choose. The author of this selection wrote a brief biography of Levi, a short review of Survival in Auschwitz, and some fundamental principles which Levi describes in his book.
  3. http://www.themodernword.com/scriptorium/levi.html
    The Modern World is a website dedicated to twentieth century literature and has an extensive section on Primo Levi. The website features a bibliography and reviews of Levi’s most famous works, as well as links to other resources about Primo Levi.
  4. http://www.primolevi.asso.fr/en/index.html
    The Primo Levi Association was founded in 1995 and addresses three main issues: the care and treatment of victims of torture and political violence, social and legal accompaniment for these victims, and defense of human rights. The group took on the name of Primo Levi to commemorate his life and works which stand as a testament against the injustices practiced not only by the Nazis but also by other political groups today.

Books and Articles:

  1. Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.
    Angier’s hefty biography describes Levi as a reserved, rational man whose life was constantly caught in a double bind, one which was torn between contradicting tensions. She also concludes that Levi committed suicide because he was suffering from depression, a contested theory.
  2. Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi: A Life. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002.
    Thomson presents a more readable biography of Primo Levi than Angier’s often psycho-analytic descriptions as he recounts the events of Levi’s life which ended, like Angier concluded, in suicide. Thomson, however, postulates a multitude of factors leading to Levi’s suicide.
  3. Gambetta, Diego. “Primo Levi’s Last Moments: A new look at the Italian author’s tragic death twelve years ago.” Boston Review Spring 1999.
    Diego Gambetta challenges the commonly accepted idea, one which Angier and Thomson support, that Primo Levi committed suicide. Rather, Gambetta explores evidence from Levi’s own writings and his condition before he died that leads to an alternative theory that Levi’s death was accidental.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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