The Books: Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi

Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:

Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is Survival In Auschwitz, by Primo Levi

Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, completed his memoir of his time in Auschwitz (he was there until the very end, even after the Germans had abandoned the camp) in 1946, only a year after the war ended. This fact strikes me: he did not wait for recovery or perspective. He must have begun it immediately upon his arrival home. It was originally published in Italy with the title If This Is a Man, and finally was translated into English and made available to the English-speaking world in the 1950s. It is a classic of Auschwitz literature, and stands alone in many respects. Primo Levi was a chemist from Turin, and with the rise of Mussolini he began to find his options becoming more and more limited. Levi and his mother went into hiding. He joined a resistance movement, which camped out in the mountains, but they were amateurs and were quickly captured by the Italian Fascist Militia. Levi admitted to them he was Jewish and was sent to an internment camp. The camp was run by Italians, not Germans, and Levi has said that they were treated well. It was only when the Germans took that camp that things got really bad. The Germans, by this point, had perfected their monstrous regime of inhumanity. This was 1944, after all. In February of 1944, the Jews of that camp were rounded up yet again and transported to Auschwitz. These were the final days. Levi was imprisoned there for 11 months until the camp was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. Life expectancy in the camps by that point was three months. 650 Jews rounded up from the Italian camp had been sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Including Levi, only 20 made it out alive. Levi had become very ill in Auschwitz, confined to the infirmary. When the death marches began (the last desperate attempt of the Germans to move everyone to camps further away from capture by the Allies or the Russians), those who were ill were left behind in the now-abandoned camp. Levi was one of them. His description of the 10 days left in that camp before the Red Army arrived is almost the most harrowing part of this book. The camps were abandoned, the Germans were gone. No food, nothing left. Corpses piled high. People still dying, skeletons wandering around in a state of total inhumanity. The Red Army arrived on January 27, 1945. The remaining prisoners were put into a Russian-run camp for survivors before releasing them altogether. Levi then started back for Turin. His circuitous journey (he walked much of the way) was the subject of another memoir called The Truce (or: The Reawakening), which was made into a movie with John Turturro.

He was a chemist for his entire life. The book for which he is most known is The Periodic Table – a must-read if you haven’t done so already. But Survival in Auschwitz (or This Is a Man) was the first.

My friend Ted writes eloquently of how Levi “narrowed his scope” in Survival in Auschwitz. He maintains a cold calculating eye as he describes how it all worked. Elie Wiesel’s Night is a scream of pain and rage. Survival in Auschwitz reads, at times, like a manual, or a horrifying travel guide. “Let’s talk about the lavatories now and how that all worked.” “Let’s move to the barracks. Let’s meet some of the people.” Ted writes:

it is the specific adoption of a circumscribed task that is supported by a mission, as well as the perseverance to write through it, whatever the feelings, that leaves us these valuable records of survival in the midst of systematic dehumanization.

Levi’s record is delivered with stoicism, as if he will not allow the Nazi’s the pleasure of derailing his mission by devolving into hysteria.

The suffering described is, of course, excruciating. But if one’s job is to “bear witness” to the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man then much must be left out. The book is a claustrophobic bell jar, the walls of the camp inhibiting even imagining a time when they might be broken down. Levi, of course, escaped, but he is interested in something else in this book. It is an important document of survival. One of his crucial points (which he elaborated on in other essays and other books) is that the rules of the camp were their own, and those who survived in the camps (survived, not just as in “lived”, but as in: survived with some sense of SELF intact) were often those you might least expect. A cock of the walk outside the camp walls might be crumbled into uncertainty and despair once subjected to the rules of the camp. Someone who considered themselves altruistic or good-hearted would be destroyed by the savage rules of the camp (not just from the Germans, but from their fellow prisoners). When you reduce a man to the bare bones of survival, when the surrounding context is only to crush the man into powder, a primal fight for life emerges, pre-civilized. Your fellow prisoners were not your friends. In such a ruthless world, if you turned your back for one second, a fellow prisoner would take your shoes, your bowl of soup, your clothes. There were those Jews who were so baffled and hurt by the imprisonment, so constitutionally unable to adjust to their new reduced circumstances, that the Germans barely had to do any work to destroy them. This is a brutal truth and something many do not want to discuss. But Survival in Auschwitz is relentless in its point-by-point evocation of the reality that normal rules did not apply in Auschwitz. The things you were congratulated for, praised, admired for outside Auschwitz were irrelevant in the camp. Those who adjusted quickly did better than those who couldn’t figure it out. People resist believing this, for obvious reasons. They want to think that goodness still matters, that character matters. Levi shows that character became something entirely other in the looking-glass world of Auschwitz. Those who had a bit of brutality, a bit of selfishness, a bit of “looking out for Number One” were more often than not the ones who survived. Talking about this in the most common sense way is one of Levi’s greatest contributions.

Survival in Auschwitz is not an easy read, of course. Its very relentlessness is what makes it such a challenge, because there is very little catharsis. Levi is too angry. But his anger has transformed itself into a clear and almost scientific need to describe how the social dynamic worked in the camp. You never forget that Levi was a scientist. He was imprisoned, he nearly died, he suffered the most extreme deprivation, and saw unimaginable horrors. But when he sat down to write, it was as though he was working on a lab report on a chemistry experiment. Aching for catharsis, then, becomes naive, when faced with the reality of life in Auschwitz.

There are so many extraordinary passages in the book but the chapter that made the most impression on me is the chapter called “The Drowned and the Saved”. This was Levi’s categorization of those who made it and those who didn’t. There were those who drowned, and those who were saved. Of course the killings in Auschwitz and the other camps were extensive and random. Mass murder, genocide. And yet … and yet … Levi is talking about something else: survival on the ground, survival of life IN the camp. Those who were saved had something … something indefinable … each one was different, each one had his own unique brand of survival technique … but it was this strange alchemy of qualities that allowed certain men to NOT drown. One man washed his own shirt twice a month, on his own accord, and with great danger to himself. He was always immaculate. It took great discipline and willpower. Because of this, other prisoners gave him respect, which then allowed him a small space of personal power. It can’t be that simple, right? 6 million Jews died. Levi, always aware of the numbers (the book is full of numbers), posits that this one man’s obsession with maintaining cleanliness helped him to survive. The other prisoners he describes (the other “saved” ones) are all individuals, these men have nothing in common with one another. Levi also wonders if the very thing that allowed these people to survive in Auschwitz would be appropriate in normal times. The rules of the camp are not the rules of the civilized world. Criminal behavior was normal in Auschwitz. Those who picked up on that fared better, at least in the day to day. Everything was a bargaining tool. Wily, selfish, criminally-motivated operators obviously have a difficult time in a normal world where normal rules apply. But in Auschwitz, they became star prisoners, the go-to guys, the ones afforded respect and deference.

So that’s the excerpt I have chosen today from Survival in Auschwitz, one of Levi’s brilliant portraits of a “saved” man.

Excerpt from Survival In Auschwitz

Elias Lindzin, 141565, one day rained into the Chemical Kommando. He was a dwarf, not more than five feet high, but I have never seen muscles like his. When he is naked you can see every muscle taut under his skin, like a poised animal; his body, enlarged without alteration of proportions, would serve as a good model for a Hercules: but you must not look at his head.

Under his scalp, the skull sutures stand out immoderately. The cranium is massive and gives the impression of being made of metal or stone; the limit of his shaven hair shows up barely a finger’s width above his eyebrows. The nose, the chin, the forehead, the cheekbones are hard and compact, the whole face looks like a battering ram, an instrument made for butting. A sense of bestial vigour emanates from his body.

To see Elias work is a disconcerting spectacle; the Polish Meister, even the Germans sometimes stop to admire Elias at work. Nothing seems impossible to him. While we barely carry one sack of cement, Elias carries two, then three, then four, keeping them balanced no one knows how, and while he hurries along on his short, squat legs, he makes faces under the loud, he laughs, curses, shouts and sings without pause, as if he had lungs made of bronze. Despite his wooden shoes Elias climbs like a monkey on to the scaffolding and runs safely on cross-beams poised over nothing: he carries six bricks at a time balanced on his head; he knows how to make a spoon from a piece of tin, and a knife from a scrap of steel; he finds dry paper, wood and coal everywhere and knows how to start a fire in a few moments even in the rain. He is a tailor, a carpenter, a cobbler, a barber; he can spit incredible distances; he sings, in a not unpleasant bass voice, Polish and Yiddish songs never heard before; he can ingest ten, fifteen, twenty pints of soup without vomiting and without having diarrhoea, and begin work again immediately after. He knows how to make a big hump come out between his shoulders, and goes around the hut, bow-legged and mimicking, shouting and declaiming incomprehensibly, to the joy of the Prominents of the camp. I saw him fight a Pole a whole head taller than him and knock him down with a blow of his cranium into the stomach, as powerful and accurate as a catapult. I never saw him rest, I never saw him quiet or still, I never saw him injured or ill.

Of his life as a free man, no one knows anything; and in any case, to imagine Elias as a free man requires a great effort of fantasy and induction; he only speaks Polish, and the surly and deformed Yiddish of Warsaw; besides it is impossible to keep him to a coherent conversation. He might be twenty or forty years old; he usually says that he is thirty-three, and that he has begot seventeen children – which is not unlikely. He talks continuously on the most varied of subjects; always in a resounding voice, in an oratorical manner, with the violent mimicry of the deranged; as if he was always talking to a dense crowd – and as is natural, he never lacks a public. Those who understand his language drink up his declamations, shaking with laughter; they pat him enthusiastically on the back – a back as hard as iron – inciting him to continue; while he, fierce and frowning, whirls around like a wild animal in the circle of his audience, apostrophizing now one, now another of them; he suddenly grabs hold of one by the chest with his small hooked paw, irresistibly drags him to himself, vomits into his face an incomprehensible invective, then throws him back like a piece of wood, and amidst the applause and laughter, with his arms reaching up to the heavens like some little prophetic monster, continues his raging and crazy speech.

His fame as an exceptional worker spread quite soon, and by the absurd law of the Lager, from then on he practically ceased to work. His help was requested directly by the Meister only for such work as required skill and special vigour. Apart from these services he insolently and violently supervised our daily, flat exhaustion, frequently disappearing on mysterious visits and adventures in who knows what recesses of the yard, from which he returned with large bulges in his pockets and often with his stomach visibly full.

Elias is naturally and innocently a thief: in this he shows the instinctive astuteness of wild animals. He is never caught in the act because he only steals when there is a good chance; but when this chance comes Elias steals as fatally and foreseeably as a stone drops. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to surprise him, it is obvious that it would be of no use punishing him for his thefts: to him they imply a vital act like breathing or sleeping.

We can now ask who is this man Elias. If he is a madman, incomprehensible and para-human, who ended in the Lager by chance. If he is an atavism, different from our modern world, and better adapted to the primordial conditions of camp life. Or if he is perhaps a product of the camp itself, what we will all become if we do not die in the camp, and if the camp itself does not end first.

There is some truth in all three suppositions. Elias has survived the destruction from outside, because he is physically indestructible; he has resisted the annihilation from within because he is insane. So, in the first place, he is a survivor: he is the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living.

If Elias regains his liberty he will be confined to the fringes of human society, in a prison or a lunatic asylum. But here in the Lager there are no criminals nor madmen; no criminals because there is no moral law to contravene, no madmen because we are wholly devoid of free will, as our every action is, in time and place, the only conceivable one.

In the Lager Elias prospers and is triumphant. He is a good worker and a good organizer, and for this double reason, he is safe from selections and respected by both leaders and comrades. For those who have no sound inner resources, for those who do not know how to draw from their own consciences sufficient force to cling to life, the only road to salvation leads to Elias: to insanity and to deceitful bestiality. All the other roads are dead-ends.

This said, one might perhaps be tempted to draw conclusions, and perhaps even rules for our daily life. Are there not all around us some Eliases, more or less in embryo? Do we not see individuals living without purpose, lacking all forms of self-control and conscience, who live not in spite of these defects, but like Elias precisely because of them?

The question is serious, but will not be further discussed as we want these to be stories of the Lager, while much has already been written on man outside the Lager. But one thing we would like to add: Elias, as far as we could judge from outside, and as far as the phrase can have meaning, was probably a happy person.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Books: Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi

  1. Cara Ellison says:

    That last line has been ringing in my ears for over an hour. I pray it eventually stops. I don’t want to carry it with me to my death.

  2. alli says:

    When the world goes crazy, only the crazy survive.

  3. ted says:

    I love reading both the similarity and differences in our takes. I always take away something new from your readings.

    • sheila says:

      You too! I love it when we overlap. It’s so interesting. Really want to hear your take on Wolf Hall (hint hint).

      I haven’t started my Kapuscinski biography yet – but that’s on the list!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.