If This Is a Man Essay - Critical Essays

Primo Levi


Walking with an Alsatian student, Jean, to retrieve the noonday ration for his Kommando (his squad), Levi thinks of the canto of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320) and begins to recite it for his companion. Although Levi cannot recall the entire passage, much remains vivid, including the final line: “And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.”

As he does throughout his chronicle, Levi lets the reader draw his own conclusion from the narrative. The parallel between Ulysses and the inmates of Auschwitz is sufficiently obvious to need no explication; Levi’s account, no less than Dante’s, presents a journey into hell. Over the gates of the concentration camp the Germans might well have placed the inscription that Dante reads as he enters the Inferno, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” for there seems to be only one path of escape—up the chimney of the crematorium.

Within the camp are combined all the horrors that Homer, Vergil, and Dante imagined of the underworld. The hunger that maddens Ugolino and Tantalus finds its equivalent in the scanty rations the prisoners receive, insufficient to keep one alive for even three months. The cold Polish winter, like Satan’s breath over the icy lake in the lowest rung of the Inferno, penetrates the thin, torn clothes that one is forbidden to insulate with even scraps of paper. In the summer the heat is equally merciless. Like the winds that drive Paulo and Francesca, the Kapos who supervise the work details allow no one to rest during the day, and at night the watery soup consumed at mealtime repeatedly chases the tired men from their beds to relieve themselves.

This inferno is rectangular rather than circular, but it too has its layers. There is Block 7 for the aristocracy of the prisoners. Germans guilty of political crimes live in Block 47. The Kapos reside in Block 49, and in the worst blocks the Jews are confined, some 250 people crammed into a building with 150 beds. Even a place of limbo has been established—the Ka-Be, or Krankenbau, the infirmary, where one lives temporarily apart from the camp. Here one waits to get better and so return to the inferno or fails to improve, either dying or being killed in one of the “selections” that round up and execute those who can no longer work.

Work is the ostensible purpose of the camp; the motto the Nazis placed above the gates of the hells they built across Poland read “Arbeit macht frei,” works make free. Yet like everything else about these camps, this language is corrupt. The notion of work assumes purpose, but labor at Auschwitz had none, unless it was the enslavement, not the enfranchisement, of those engaged in it. Levi’s section of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, was supposedly built to produce synthetic rubber, but in its four years of operation none was made. Toward the end of 1944 a chemical unit was created with twelve volunteers, seven of them chemists. The five who had joined because they thought that the work would be less demanding soon admitted their lack of expertise; they were allowed to remain. The seven with training, though, had to pass a test. Then, after proving their competence, they were assigned the task of carrying (not making) chemicals that were heavier than the construction materials the other Kommandos were transporting. Iss Clausner summarizes this world well when he carves into the bottom of his bowl, “Ne pas chercher a comprendre” (do not seek to understand). So, too, does the Nazi officer who grabs away an icicle Levi has broken off to slake his thirst after traveling for four days and nights without food or water. When Levi asks him why he has taken away the ice, the officer answers, “Hier ist kein warum” (here there is no why).

For Levi and the other inmates there are no explanations, only the pointless, hopeless labor of Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus, too, they seem condemned to...

(The entire section is 1593 words.)