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 good pair of shoes since they are all forced to spend their days in manual labor. Eventually, Levi realizes what has happened to him, and he explains:
Here I am, then, on the bottom. One learns quickly enough to wipe out the past and the future when one is forced to. A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body. I have already learnt not to let myself be robbed, and in fact if I find a spoon lying around, a piece of string, a button which I can acquire without danger of punishment, I pocket them and consider them mine by right. On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal.
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 entire section is 6,293 words.)