Survival In Aushwitz: If This Is A Man, by Primo Levi
In this short but powerful book, the author describes his own survival in World War II and some stories of those who did not make it. The first part of what is considered the author’s Auschwitz trilogy, the third volume of which I had previously read (review forthcoming), this book demonstrates the author’s own perspective of the concentration camps from the inside, and the way that the dehumanization process of the camps worked on people, the various ways that people could hope with this process, and how this process could be reversed by being treated in a humane fashion. This book can be seen as part of the body of concentration camp memoirs (like Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and others) and a part of the larger body of memoirs about the 20th century’s prison camps, and this particular book names at least some names and provides a look at how the SS operated in Italy in the period after the German invasion of Italy in 1943 and give a somewhat scary look at how the politics of the camp itself operated and how people managed to acquire the privileges necessary to survive Nazi barbarity.
This particular book is a paperback with fairly large page sizes but a somewhat short length of around 120 pages. The formatting for the book is a bit inconsistent, with line breaks in the middle of sentences and paragraph breaks that are somewhat random. The author begins with his capture as a novice partisan in late 1943 and his experience in prison where his Jewish identity meant deportation to Auschwitz. He talks about life “on the bottom” as the arrivals and separation of party into those who would be immediately put to death and those who would be preserved alive because they still had some use to the Nazi regime as well as the initiation into the life of the lager and his experiences in Ka-Be after having a foot injury. He discusses sleeping arrangements and dreams and nightmares as well as the work that inmates did. He discusses what a “good day” looks like in a concentrate camp and what happens within the camp concerning theft and the black market. There is a discussion about what qualities were necessary to survive, the author’s experience in proving his chemical expertise, which allowed for survival, some of the events in camp and his comparison of Auschwitz to hell, the last days of Auschwitz before its liberation by Soviet soldiers, when starvation was a threat and those who had been abandoned by the retreating Germans struggled with disease and despair.
In this book the author demonstrates pretty clearly that he is and was a man, but he also demonstrates that people do not act like men or feel like men unless they are treated like men. The book indicates that the inhuman treatment dished out by the Germans and their proxies managed to dehumanize both themselves and those they abused, which is a notable and worthwhile achievement to the study of trauma, even outside of the specific context of the work itself. This is not a happy work, certainly not a carefree one, but it is a work of survival, and one can see Levi in these pages struggle to give honor to those who were decent who did not survive and to recount his memories and his experience in a way that conveys the truth of his story to those who were not there. In this book one can see as well that the author challenges the German public to wrestle with its own complicity in Nazi horrors and to note the social cohesion that some groups were able to maintain even in the face of the horrors of the concentration camps, an achievement that is worth celebrating. One can consider this book as part of the author’s payment of the debt the living owe to the dead in telling as much as possible about their stories.