(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The passage of time, the context of history, and even a familiarity with the awful facts of the Holocaust cannot shield the reader from or lessen the impact of Levi’s incarceration in what he called Il buco neri—The Black Hole—of Auschwitz. As he told writer Philip Roth in a revealing interview the year before his death, he wrote If This Is a Man, “struggling to explain to others, and to myself, the events I had been involved in.”

The gripping, heartbreaking intensity of his re-creation of the human-fashioned hell that Levi, using a purposely paradoxical term, said he was “lucky” enough to enter, has the force of Walt Whitman’s proclamation about living through a world of degradation and death: “I was the man; I suffered; I was there.” Levi’s “luck” was part of the random process that enabled him to survive, not dependent on individual virtue or merit. “I have seen the survival of shrewd people and silly people, the brave and the cowardly, ’thinkers’ and madmen,” Levi maintained. In addition, he described his time in Auschwitz as “in technicolor,” the remainder of his life in “black and white,” declaring that “I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritness” as he strove to understand “an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.”

The title chosen by Collier Books, the American publisher, Survival in Auschwitz, was an understandably commercial attempt to reach an audience, but it completely missed the point of Levi’s choice. What he wanted to express was his naturalist’s curiosity about the human beings who had built the death camp, who operated it, and who lived and died there. When he arrived, Levi was stunned by the nightmare...

(The entire section is 727 words.)