Primo Levi's 1947 memoir of life in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the most notorious of a large network of such camps dedicated to the decimation of an entire category of people, is predictably disturbing in its depiction of the depths to which prisoners of Nazi Germany were forced to descend in order to survive. Levi's account of his year in the concentration camp, Survival at Auschwitz, is a straightforward history of his experiences, which inevitably included participation in activities to which he never imagined having to undertake as a prerequisite for survival. He was, however, determined to survive. As he states in one particularly stirring passage:
"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. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last --the power to refuse our consent."
This is a powerful message, and one Levi admirably conveys. At the heart of his story of survival, though, is a detailed description of those depths to which he had to descend in order to survive. The day-to-day existence of a concentration camp prisoner was one of the barest of necessities, subsisting on meager rations of rotten food while being worked literally to death and beaten mercilessly for an perceived infraction. The only way to endure, Levi demonstrates, was to numb oneself to the constant horrors to which he was subjected. The scale of human suffering and total indifference to the plight of his fellow prisoners on the part of the camp guards and commander made the hardening of oneself an essential instrument of survival.
As Levi has pointed out, the whole point of the treatment of prisoners by the camp guards was to dehumanize those being marked for extermination. In response to an interviewer's question regarding whether it is "possible to abolish man's humanity," Levi responds "Unfortunately, yes; and that is really the characteristic of the Nazi lager. . .It's to abolish man's personality, inside and outside: not only of the prisoner, but also of the jailer." In Survival at Auschwitz, he expands philosophically on this phenomenon:
"Sooner or later in life, everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition, which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day."
Primo Levi maintained a degree of humanity in the same manner that others did under the same or similar circumstances. Personal survival trumped group survival, as the there was no way to envision the latter, and the realities of life in Auschwitz allowed for no greater ambition than one's own survival. Some of the "routine" practices that formed a part of that struggle to survive involved a certain degree of camaraderie, for example, the secretive sessions in which goods were bartered, but and large daily existence was all wrapped up in the effort to simply continue breathing. From time to time, however, glimmers of humanity emerged that reminded Levi of the good that existed, and the innocence that he hoped would survive. His encounter with the child "Schlome," for instance, remained etched in his memory:
"I have never seen Schlome since, but I have not forgotten his serious and gentle face of a child, which welcomed me on the threshold of the house of death."
These brief glimpses of innocence helped Levi to retain his humanity at the same time he had to emotionally insulate himself against the scale of suffering to which he was witness, and from which he survived.