Survival In Auschwitz Summary

Primo Levi

Survival In Auschwitz

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Survival In Auschwitz Summary

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Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz(1947) relates his harrowing survival in a Nazi prison camp. The Italian title, Se questo è unuomo,has also been translated as If This Is a Man. The work shows humanity at its absolute worst (Nazi transgressions) and at its best (Levi’s resolute survival). A trained chemist, Levi’s knowledge of science is reflected in his writing. Survival in Auschwitz relies on acute observations, sensitivity to language, and devotion to human feeling.Levi asks how to resist the totalitarian world of the Nazi camps and other authoritarian systems.

At twenty-four, Levi is captured by Fascist Italian forces for trying to join the larger resistance movement, “Justice and Liberty,” in December 1943. He is sent to a detention center along with American and English POWs and other Jewish people. A month later, the German SS announces that all Jewish people are moving to a new location; they threaten to kill ten people at random for every one person who is missing. Until they are locked in the train, the prisoners do not know that they are being sent to Nazi-occupied Poland, specifically to the notorious camp Auschwitz.

For days, he and hundreds of other Jews are crammed into a train like animals. They are denied food, water, or bathroom facilities. This is just the start of a series of dehumanizing gestures concocted by the Nazis.

Levi writes that he likely would have died in Auschwitz if sent there before 1944. As WWII came to an end, Germany stopped killing prisoners sporadically. It also increased the lifespan of prisoners because the supply had dropped and it needed steady human labor available.

At the prison, there is “drinking” water available, but all who drink it develop terrible illnesses. For water, the prisoners, instead,drink the water that comes with their weak soup and weaker coffee.

After hours of waiting in a shower room with two inches of freezing water covering their shoes, German soldiers appear to confiscate all of the men’s belongings. They also shave their heads.Later, Levi’s prison number — 174517 – is tattooed to his left arm. To receive food or drink, he must show this number to a guard.

In an environment where everyone is dehumanized, prisoners treat each other terribly. Some prisoners routinely take advantage of new arrivals, and encourage them to make bad deals. Levi soon realizes that he is at this very bottom of this new, unreal social order.

Levi’s bed in Block 30 is cold and unwelcome. He is surrounded by people who speak languages he cannot understand. The bathrooms have poor light and let the cold wind blow in. They also have curious wall paintings that demonstrate a good prisoner (a Häftling) who is keeping clean and a bad prisoner who has Jewish ethnic features. His new friend, Steinlauf, encourages him to wash; it will ensure his humanity and the best way to resist the Germans is to assert their humanity. Levi is distraught though, and has trouble believing that fighting back in small ways is worth the effort.

With a new commander, called Kommando,and ushered into a new block, Levi has to guard his belongings again. The only thing that possibly raises his spirits is to find his great friend, Alberto, also living in Block 45. Unfortunately, Levi gets a new, gruff bunkmate. The stronger man forces Levi to the edge of the bed so he is basically “sleeping on the tracks of a railroad.” He is so exhausted by the intense, manual labor assigned to him that he falls asleep instantly.

Levi ponders freedom: free people have a strong belief that their life has a purpose. But for prisoners, all they can focus on is surviving one more day, and hopefully a warm season.

As spring approaches, Levi has one good day when he can feel the sun’s heat through his tawdry clothing. On this clear day, Levi sees Buna, the largest sub-camp within Auschwitz(its name comes from the rubber it produces at the factory).There were around 10,000 prisoners in Buna, mostly, as Levi notes, women. In contrast to the green meadows, the Buna camp is all grey, and the air is thick with smog.

In the middle of this slender memoir, Levi wonders if any good can come from remembering the horrors of Auschwitz. He insists it is necessary because Auschwitz was a human-made enterprise. Levi does not see people as fundamentally evil, and the story of Auschwitz must be known and understood if future acts of mass violence and dehumanization are to be condemned.

In October, the prisoners are fearful that they will be killed to make room for new prisoners. Everyone believes that their own age, ethnicity, or nationality will be excluded from the mass murder. Selection day is announced with a bell. Levi is not selected for extermination, but others are not so lucky.

Because of his science background, Levi is one of three prisoners selected to work in a chemical lab. This is a lucky break because it keeps him out of the impending winter, which is brutal.

In January of 1945, rumor among the prisoners is that Russian forces (or “the Red Army”) are fast approaching.

Levi is taken to the hospital (Ka-Be) with scarlet fever. Because there are fewer prisoners at that time, Levi gets a bunk to himself, which allows him to recover more quickly without the influence of nearby diseases, such as typhus and diphtheria. Toward the end of January, the Germans gradually leave. They execute all able-bodied prisoners during a walk that they claimed was toward another camp. Levi, along with friends he meets in the hospital, and French political exiles Charles and Arthur survive until the Russians arrive.

Astonishingly gaunt yet liberated, Levi returns to his hometown of Turin.