Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is a text occupying several categories. On a literal level, it is an autobiographical account of Levi’s experiences as an Italian Jew during World War II, including his time at Auschwitz. More than a historical narrative, this memoir bears witness to the dehumanizing work of the Nazis. Stripped of nearly everything, Levi seeks to identify what remains of the human when all the recognizable scaffolding is taken. Levi also uses his meditation as a counterpoint to Dante’s Inferno, a fictional account of a similar journey that bears witness to dehumanization.
Levi begins this dark journey with an opening poem:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
This appeal to common humanity challenges the reader to enter the text with a compassion that, like Dante demands, insists on an experiential recognition rather than a merely observatory one.
Of the 650 people with whom Levi was arrested in Italy, only three made it back after the war. Written shortly after his return, the work does not attempt to portray a story of heroism. Rather, Levi suggests that the days in the camp are governed by grinding suffering and chance. The Germans devise a series of demeaning activities and contexts in which to destroy the spirit of the prisoners whose bodies miraculously do not succumb to famine or disease or hard labor. For the prisoners, the distinction is not only life or death, but human or dehumanized. The keenness of the distinction between prisoner and guard or townspeople is also felt as a reality outside the moral universe. To live might be to confront the amount of one’s customary humanity one had abandoned in order to stay alive. Concepts of good and evil take on a merely theoretical and abstract quality in this context, replaced more often by chance or luck.
Throughout the chapters, Levi alludes to or quotes from Dante, drawing parallels between the Holocaust and Dante’s allegorical journey through hell, also a story that bears witness to the dehumanizing effects of sin and suffering. At one point, Levi attempts to teach a French prisoner about the Divine Comedy by reciting the Inferno’s canto about Ulysses. Dante’s work is a repository of cultural memory, invoking memory as a muse and creating a memory palace within the poem. It is a way not just to use the past within the present but to keep the past present. In the same way, Levi insists that his text bears witness not only for those who died but also to them.
If This Is a Man is organized chronologically but also thematically, based on a progression of themes paralleling Dante’s journey, in which Levi and others become increasingly alienated from their individual sense of identity. The last five chapters especially present Levi’s movement toward almost certain death and the chance events that enable him to continue living. In the end, Levi contracts scarlet fever and is in the camp infirmary when the guards evacuate with the prisoners, nearly all of whom die on the march. Levi survives through the opportune arrival of the Russian Army.
Rather than indicting the Nazis, celebrating the tenacity of the survivors, or calling on God for blessings, Levi’s account is a stylistically subdued text that merely witnesses the horrific events of the camps and implores the reader to answer the question “if this is a man.”