Chapters 1-2 Summary
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 often remind the newly arrived of the nature of Auschwitz. They tell Levi “it’s not a Serchio bathing-party” and that the only way out is “through the chimney.” There are many rules, and when Levi is punished for eating an icicle, he asks why. The guard explains that “there is no why here.” Everything, it seems, is forbidden, which means that everything is useful in Auschwitz. And everything can be stolen. Perhaps the most important thing a prisoner can do to survive is acquire a...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Chapters 3-4 Summary
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
because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.
Levi is not the only prisoner to be motivated by the dream of telling others what the Germans have done.
Nevertheless, the work required of the...
(The entire section is 727 words.)
Chapters 5-6 Summary
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. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word.
When he wakes, Levi is filled with anguish. Then he remembers that he has dreamt this same dream many times before. The other prisoners around him can be heard moving their jaws as they dream of eating food. Levi knows...
(The entire section is 875 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
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 group of foreigners is kept in its own Lager. There is a Lager of English prisoners-of-war and a Lager of French volunteers and others that the prisoners do not know about. Levi recalls that “we are the slaves of the slaves, whom all can give orders to, and our name is the number which we carry tattooed on our arm and sewn on our jacket.” Still, Levi notes, “today is a good day. We look around like blind people who have recovered their sigh, and we look at each other. We have never seen...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
Chapters 9-10 Summary
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 habits and instincts are reduced to silence.”
Further, it seems that there are two categories of people. Levi rejects common opposites, such as “good and bad” or “wise and foolish.” Instead, he proposes that there are “the saved and the drowned.” Outside of the camp, it is not so common to see these categories because “it rarely happens that a man loses himself.” Levi suggests that “in history and in life one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: ‘to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away’.” No one in the Lager wants to become a person that “has not.” Everyone instead wants to become a person “that has,” because “he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival.” He notes that the only way to survive is to become an "Organisator," "Kombinator," or "Prominent," and Levi cannot help but notice the “savage eloquence of those words.” The prisoners that remain working in the Kommandos, that do not manage to obtain special treatment and do not receive extra rations of bread, do not survive.
Levi introduces Henri, who survived in the Lager and who is “eminently civilized and sane.” Henri concluded that there were three ways for a man to “escape extermination” without giving up his humanity. A man must attempt to excel at organization, pity, or theft. Henri, Levi notes, employed all three tactics. Henri, in particular, had the ability to earn people’s sympathy; he would study a person and then approach them. This was particularly useful for him since he was able to earn the sympathy of the doctors and escape “selections” and the “periods of the most...
(The entire section is 557 words.)
Chapters 11-12 Summary
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 bowls and for keeping record of the working hours of the Kommando.” Everyone likes Jean, who speaks both French and German.
Jean asks Levi to help him retrieve the day’s soup. It is a good job because although it takes two men to carry the soup—and it is a difficult task—they get to walk to the kitchens and do not have to carry anything on the way there. Along the way, Jean expresses an interest in learning to speak Italian. Levi begins to share the canto of Ulysses with Jean, though he can only recite the few lines that remain in his memory. He gains new insights into his life as he recites certain lines, but he is unable to explain them all to Jean by the time they arrive at the kitchens. Levi writes:
I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today…
They enter the soup queue. The last line from the canto that Levi recalls is “and over our heads the hollow seas closed up.”
Hungarians arrive throughout the spring of August, 1944, Hungarian has become the second most common language spoken in the Lager. Change is unwelcome, and Levi recalls a “proverb” of the camp: “when things change, they change for the worse.” Levi realizes that he, who arrived five months before, is now among...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
Chapters 13-14 Summary
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 recalls the:
arbiter of our fate, an SS subaltern. On his right is the Blockältester, on his left, the quartermaster of the hut. Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum into the cold October air, has to run the few steps between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory door. The SS man, in the fraction of a second between two successive crossings, with a glance at one’s back and front, judges everyone’s fate, and in turn gives the card to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us. In three or four minutes a hut of two hundred men is "done," as is the whole camp of twelve thousand men in the course of the afternoon.
The prisoners are allowed to dress themselves again after they return to their hut. Everyone decides that their card moving to the quartermaster on the left means their death. Levi notices that another man's card, René’s, was sent left while his was sent right. René was more fit, and it is not unlikely that there could have been a mistake given that “the examination is too quick and summary, and in any case, the important thing for the Lager is not that the most useless prisoners be eliminated, but that free posts be quickly created, according to a certain percentage previously fixed.” In the hut, one man, Kuhn, prays to God in gratitude that he will survive. Levi notices another man, who will soon die in the gas chamber, and thinks “if I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”
When winter ends, the rains of November begin. The ground is turned to mud so that every step is a burden on the prisoners, who are forced to march in a line....
(The entire section is 537 words.)
Chapters 15-16 Summary
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 work they do is not manual labor, and it allows them opportunities to steal goods from the Laboratory that they can sell outside for bread and clothing. There are women in the Laboratory, though they cannot mask the disgust that they feel when they look at the Jewish prisoners. The three prisoners
know what we look like: we see each other and sometimes we happen to see our reflection in a clean window. We are ridiculous and repugnant. Our cranium is bald on Monday, and covered by a short brownish mould by Saturday. We have a swollen and yellow face, marked permanently by the cuts made by the hasty barber, and often by bruises and numbed sores; our neck is long and knobbly, like that of plucked chickens. Our clothes are incredibly dirty, stained by mud, grease and blood … we are full of flees, and we often scratch ourselves shamelessly; we have to ask permission to go to the latrines with humiliating frequency. Our wooden shoes are insupportably noisy and plastered with alternate layers of mud and regulation grease. Besides which, we are accustomed to our smell, but the girls are not and never miss a chance of showing it. It is not the generic smell of the badly washed, but the small of the Häftling.
Though the women in the Laboratory refuse to talk to the prisoners, Levi considers that he should feel contented. After all, others are still doing manual labor in the winter wind. However, there is still “the pain of remembering, the old ferocious suffering of feeling myself a man again, which attacks me like a dog the moment my conscience comes out of the gloom. Then I take my pencil and notebook and write what I would never dare tell anyone.”...
(The entire section is 638 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
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 to shave him, Levi asks if anything is new. The barber winks, indicating that armies are advancing on the Germans. Levi does not feel any “direct emotion.” He explains that “already for many months I had no longer felt any pain, joy or fear, except in that detached and distant manner characteristic of the Lager.” Further, he and Alberto have already “foreseen the dangers which would accompany the evacuation of the camp and the liberation.” With the army approaching, "all prisoners able to walk would be given shoes and clothes and would leave the following day with the healthy ones on a twelve mile march. The others would remain in the Ka-Be with assistants to be chosen from the patients least ill.” Alberto comes to say goodbye before he leaves. The healthy prisoners leave at night on the 18th of January 1945. Levi estimates that there must have been twenty thousand prisoners from all of the camps.
The bombardment begins the next day. Before long, nearby huts are burning and prisoners are looking for shelter. Levi describes how:
dozens of patients arrived, naked and wretched, from a hut threatened by fire: they asked for shelter. It was impossible to take them in. They insisted, begging and threatening in many languages. We had to barricade the door. They dragged themselves elsewhere, lit up by the flames, barefoot in the melting snow. Many trailed behind them streaming bandages.
The next day, there is no water or food left, and prisoners have soiled the snow. Though there are no longer Germans in the towers, ruins smoke and smoulder everywhere.
Levi is able to start a fire in a stove with others and begin to boil potatoes. He...
(The entire section is 732 words.)