Primo Levi was a twenty-four-year-old Italian Jew when the Fascist Militia captured him on December 13, 1943. He explains that he would later learn at Auschwitz that “a man must pursue his own ends by all possible means, while he who errs but once pays dearly.” When he is captured, he tells the authorities that he is an “Italian citizen of Jewish race,” thinking that confessing he was a political rebel would result in torture and death. In the preface, Levi explains that:
it was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.
Levi, along with the other captured Italian Jews, was sent to Auschwitz by train.
At Auschwitz, the Italian Jews feel thirst for the first time. Although there is a water faucet, a sign above it warns the prisoners, or “Häftling,” against drinking it. Levi and the others soon learn that no one should drink the water to quench thirst. Instead, the prisoners rely on the water in the soup and the coffee substitute they are given. Learning these things is by no means easy. Some of the prisoners trick the newly arrived prisoners into making bad decisions, such as trading a spoon for three rations of bread. The prisoners are able to tell a lot about each other based on the numbers tattooed into their arms. A few Jews, numbers 30,000 to 80,000, were taken from the Polish ghettos and they still survive after years. They are treated with great respect. Levi’s number is 174517. The prisoners have to show their number to get bread and soup.
Levi discusses how he learned to survive and how he came to realize that he was “on the bottom.” The prisoners...
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Levi has just been assigned to Block 30. He is ordered to be quiet, but he cannot stop asking questions about the camp. Where will he eat? How can he get a spoon? The people around him speak many languages, and Levi says that “one is surrounded by a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before, and woe betide whoever fails to grasp the meaning.” The new arrivals are always especially cautious, lest they be beaten. Each morning, the prisoners rush to the latrines and to get their ration of bread, which Levi describes as a “holy grey slab which seems gigantic in your neighbour’s hand, and in your own hand so small as to make you cry.”
The washrooms are “far from attractive.” The light is bad, they offer little protection from the wind, and the water is, as always, undrinkable. Curiously, the walls are covered by
didactic frescoes: for example, there is the good Häftling, portrayed stripped to the waist, about to diligently soap his sheared and rosy cranium, and the bad Häftling, with a strong Semitic nose and a greenish colour, bundled up in his ostentatiously stained clothes with a beret on his head, who cautiously dips a finger into the water of the washbasin.
The lesson of the poster advises inmates to stay clean, but to what end? Other posters admonish the prisoners that lice can lead to death and that they should wash their hands after using the latrine. Levi admits that he at first took these warnings as “pure examples of the Teutonic sense of humour.” However, he would later come to realize that cleanliness and health were “most important as a symptom of remaining vitality, and necessary as an instrument of moral survival.” Levi quickly finds himself so demoralized by the work required of him that he sees no point in bathing. However, his colleague Steinlauf explains that
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Levi is discharged from the Ka-Be, but he does not return to the same life he had before entering. He is assigned new shoes, a new Block, and a new Kommando. The prisoners are brutalized for not understanding commands from their Kommando, so Levi’s discharge poses real danger. Everyone on the Block is a stranger to him once again, which means that Levi will have to be careful to protect his belongings. He will have to acquire a spoon again. Levi concludes that:
the man who leaves the Ka-Be, naked and almost always insufficiently cured, feels himself ejected into the dark and cold of sidereal space. His trousers fall down, his shoes hurt him, his shirt has no buttons. He searches for a human contact and only finds backs turned on him. He is as helpless and vulnerable as a new-born baby, but the following morning he will still have to march to work.
Levi’s only good fortune is that his best friend, Alberto, has also been assigned to Block 45.
At night, he is assigned a new bunkmate, not Alberto. Because Levi is short, he is assigned a tall bunkmate whose name he does not know. Levi’s new bunkmate forces him to the edge of the bunk and Levi recalls that he seems "to be sleeping on the tracks of a railroad."
However, Levi is exhausted enough from the day’s work that he nevertheless falls asleep immediately. He dreams of being at home with his family and his sister and
they are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling: the whistle of three notes, the hard bed, my neighbour whom I would like to move, but whom I am afraid to wake as he is stronger than me. I also speak diffusely of our hunger and of the lice-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash myself asI was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there....
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Levi describes a good day. He opens with the assertion that “the conviction that life has a purpose is rooted in every fibre of man, it is a property of the human substance. Free men give many names to this purpose, and think and talk a lot about its nature. But for us the question is simpler.” The only purpose for the prisoners is to reach a spring. The prisoners have begun to notice that the days are getting warmer. Levi describes how:
today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud. It is a Polish sun, cold, white and distant, and only warms the skin, but when it dissolved the last mists a murmur ran through our colourless numbers, and when even I felt its luke warmth through my clothes I understood how men can worship the sun.
By midday, the prisoners can see the mountains, the “steeple of Auschwitz,” and the smoke from the sub-camp, Buna. Levi explains how “our hearts tighten because we all know that Birkenau is there, that our women finished there, and that soon we too will finish there; but we are not used to seeing it.” The sun allows the green of the meadows to be seen.
The Buna, however, has no color. Levi explains that it is
desperately and essentially opaque and grey. This huge entanglement of iron, concrete, mud and smoke is the negation of beauty. Its roads and buildings are named like us, by numbers or letters, not by weird and sinister names. Within its bounds not a blade of grass grows, and the soil is impregnated with the poisonous saps of coal and petroleum, and the only things alive are machines and slaves – and the former are more alive than the latter.
Levi explains that the Buna is like a city. There are managers and German technicians there, but also forty thousand foreigners work there. Levi suggests that fifteen to twenty languages are spoken there and that each...
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Levi anticipates that some will ask whether it is necessary or good to remember what happened at Auschwitz. He responds that:
to this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world we are describing. We would also like to consider that the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment.
Levi rejects the notion that people are fundamentally brutal. Instead, he suggests that “in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social...
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Levi describes a day when he and five other prisoners are scraping an underground petrol tank. The men consider this a luxurious job because it is unsupervised. Though it is cold, damp, and dirty, they can at least take periodic breaks. They return to work when they hear footsteps coming, but it turns out to be Jean, their Kommando’s "Pikolo," which Levi describes as "a quite high rank in the hierarchy of the Prominents." The Pikolo is usually a teenager, does not do manual work, and gets to stay near the stove for heat. The Pikolo also often stays near the Kapo, which can be an opportunity to earn favor. The Pikolo is a messenger-clerk “responsible for the cleaning of the hut, for the distribution of tools, for the washing of...
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It is October; winter is arriving. Many of the prisoners have been staying under a tent. However, with the onset of cold weather and new prisoners, it is clear to all that a new round of selections will soon begin. The prisoners reassure each other that they will not be selected. Over time, these reassurances take on a new dimension as “the young tell the young that all the old ones will be chosen. The healthy tell the healthy that only the ill will be chosen. Specialists will be excluded. German Jews will be excluded. Low numbers will be excluded. You will be chosen. I will be excluded.” Each day, the prisoners are counted and recounted.
Finally, the day of selection arrives; it is announced with a bell. Levi...
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Levi recalls a time when he would lose track of time. He notes he arrived with ninety-five others. Only twenty-nine remained in October, and the selections took eight more lives. Winter has only begun. How many will remain come spring? As luck would have it, Levi is one of three prisoners chosen to work in the Laboratory, a job that will allow him to escape the cold and the sicknesses that comes with it. It means that “Häftling 174517 has been promoted as a specialist and has the right to a new shirt and underpants and has to be shaved every Wednesday. No one can boast of understanding the Germans.”
The job is good not only because it allows the three prisoners to escape the winter. It also means that the...
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The prisoners have heard about the advance of the Russians for months. On the 11th of January 1945, Levi is admitted once more into the Ka-Be, this time with scarlet fever. He is placed in a room with others suffering from diseases like scarlet fever, typhus, and diphtheria. However, the room is clean, and Levi gets a bunk to himself. Levi is given the right to forty days of rest, and he feels healthy enough to survive both the disease and selections. He is now an experienced prisoner, and has managed to sneak into the Ka-Be a variety of things, including flints he has stolen from the Laboratory. He reshapes them into flints that would work in a lighter, which he can sell for six or seven rations of bread. When the barber arrives...
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