18. Survival in Auschwitz (or If This is a Man, it’s original title)

By Primo Levi

I am finally almost caught up on my book reviews!

Thanks, Walkerp, for recommending this one. What a remarkable account of this man’s survival during his ten-month imprisonment at the German death camp, Auschwitz. Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, was twenty-five when he was arrested by Italian fascists and transported to Auschwitz. His story is an extremely valuable document of the systematic cruelty and genocide engineered by Nazi Germany.

I can’t help but compare Levi’s accounts with that of Eli Weisel, having read them only a month apart. Both were at Auschwitz at the same time. In terms of fact, both tell the same story. But they are very different men. One thing that is remarkable about Levi’s account is the extent to which thinking contributed to his survival, the thinking of a practical, humane, scientific mind. Sure, like Weisel, Levi takes care to acknowledge biological strength and incredible luck, and the grace of many men who could have just as easily hoarded life for themselves. But it is his ability to think, to remain level-headed, that is key to remaining human, and ultimately to survival, in the chaos of random, unconscionable evil. His is a testimony of the indestructibility of the human spirit.

An example of Levi’s thinking (it’s a bit out of context, but…):

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both of these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief…

Thinking. He often felt he was thinking too much during those ten months, but the man who thinks too much is inseparable from the survivor.

Like so many survivors of genocide, Levi’s morality was challenged to the extreme. He argues that the ordinary world’s sense of morality (what’s right and wrong, or good and evil) don’t stand a chance at a place like Auschwitz. That sounds bleak… and yet some may survivors (and they weren’t many. Two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered) returned with a deeper sense of humanity and purpose. Put simply,

There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned.

His question, our question, is one of responsibility for all those people.

Among the things that have been bothering me as a read through Holocaust literature this year is that we have no equal account from the other side, from a Nazi who desired to come clean. It’s one thing to talk in near-hyperbole of the evil Nazi Germany, but what of the individual giving or taking orders at a place like Auschwitz? The cruelty. The insanity. How can that be explained?

Another aspect of morality that I find profound is the discovery of how impossible it is for these survivors (Levi and Weisel) to think that their God had anything to do with either the atrocity or their survival. They come out very different believers, much more human believers. Just after a “selection,” a routine event whereby prisoners are selected for slaughter, Levi and others who survived yet another close call, have a moment of reprieve:

Now everyone is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as not to waste the last drops of the soup; a confused, metallic clatter, signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow [he’s been selected] and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that the next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.


This is a must read for those wanting to understand the Holocaust. I also recommend it to pretty much everyone else.

1 comment:

Olman Feelyus said...

Great review. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I really need to re-read it. I was thinking about the power of spirituality in moments when ones world seems to be at its absolute worst. Perhaps because of the terribleness of the state, the ability to think, to hope and to pray, because it is the only thing you can do that is yours, becomes a godsend and you truly appreciate it. Just a thought.