How can you connect Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Kluger as Holocaust survivors?

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In any analysis of the works of these three authors, we need to begin with their personal stories and how their particular experiences during the Holocaust shaped their writings.

Both Wiesel and Kluger were still children when they were deported to Auschwitz, while Levi was twenty-four. The difference in age...

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In any analysis of the works of these three authors, we need to begin with their personal stories and how their particular experiences during the Holocaust shaped their writings.

Both Wiesel and Kluger were still children when they were deported to Auschwitz, while Levi was twenty-four. The difference in age may partly account for the fact that Levi's narrative, Survival in Auschwitz, is written in a starker tone. There is not the same degree of shock or surprise in his description of events as in Wiesel's and Kluger's books. The issue at the heart of Survival in Auschwitz is perhaps best revealed in the original title in Italian, Se questo è un uomo—If this is a Man. Implicit in the overall tone of his account is this question: how can all these things have been perpetrated by human beings against other humans? Did the Nazis really believe their victims were Untermenschen ("sub-human") and thus rationalized their actions? Were these SS men even human themselves? A relatively small incident is hugely instructive in its way. When the men in the barracks are told to undress, Levi comments that he "had never seen older men naked before." One man is wearing a truss and asks if he may be allowed to keep it on. The SS officer, with a straight face, has the translator answer that, "He must take it off, but later he can wear Mr. Cohen's." Levi does not know if this is intended as a kind of Nazi joke, for the SS man's expression reveals nothing. It's symbolic of the inscrutability of the Nazis, of the blankness, like a black hole, at the heart of their actions and their thought. What, Levi seems to ask, could these men have possibly been thinking that caused them to act as they did?

Elie Wiesel was fourteen and Ruth Kluger was twelve at the time they were sent to Auschwitz. Of the three authors, Wiesel was the only one who came from a religious background, so much of his story describes his shock at how a just God can allow these things to happen. His book is written in simpler language than that of either Kluger or Levi. Though Kluger was a child when the Holocaust occurred, she wrote Still Alive much later, when she was close to seventy. Much of her book contextualizes the genocide of the Jews within the overall history of the twentieth century and examines the attitudes of people in the decades since the war—particularly the attitudes of German, both young and old. Wiesel's and Levi's accounts are much more exclusively focused on the specific events that occurred during the Holocaust. As Wiesel is with his father in Auschwitz, Kluger is with her mother, but the difference is that her mother survives with her. Wiesel's narrative is the only one in which the author must deal with his own guilt over the fact that a parent has in effect become a burden to him, and that upon the death of his father, he experiences relief and liberation. His reaction implies that in these circumstances, people have been reduced to a condition in which selflessness and compassion are in fact impediments to their own survival.

Since Kluger is a woman, her story also brings up gender issues which male authors wouldn't be expected to deal with. She observes that xenophobia seems to be a normal factor in the thinking of men, even when it is not taken to the level of the atrocities the Nazis carried out. Another significant point differentiating her from Levi and Wiesel is that Kluger was from Vienna, spoke perfect German, and thus, as both a child and later as an adult, sees the horrible irony of the fact that Germans considered her and all like her as the enemy. On the other hand, Levi was Italian and Wiesel Hungarian; they felt no identification with the Germanic culture. It is interesting that even after coming to the United States, Kluger became an academic specializing in German literature, and thus continued in some sense to identify with the culture that had victimized the Jews on a massive scale.

In spite of these differences, many elements of the three authors's narratives are strikingly similar, as one might expect. The nightmare deportation on the trains in which people are jammed like cattle, the cruelty and ruthless physical violence of the perpetrators, and the conditions in which people are forced to lose their sense of modesty and shame are recounted by all three authors in the same honest, lucid detail. The truism of man's inhumanity to man has hardly been illuminated more fully than in the works of Levi, Wiesel, and Kluger.

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I think that each of their experiences differ, but there is a need for each of them to bear witness.  The memories of the Holocaust, or revulsion, are strong and dominant enough in their own minds whereby they feel a need to express themselves and bear witness to what they experienced.  For Levi, the question of dehumanization and the level to which human beings dehumanize another become vitally important in his writing.  Levi explores how the battle for humanity must face its adversary with equal magnitude and intensity.  Kluger feels the need to write about her experiences as far back as 1945.  Yet, being able to develop the vocabulary and the psychological frame of reference becomes vital for her to speak her experiences.  For Wiesel, both the need to speak about his experiences as well as articulate the condition of dehumanization from a moral and ethical point of view is what drives his writing.  For all three of them, the connection I see is the need to explore their own subjective experiences and bear witness to what was experienced by all victims.  In this, their subjectivities can operate as possible objective experiences in a time period where all absolutes seemed to be absent.

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