Characters

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

Primo Levi: The character who looms over this memoir is Levi himself, a young, intelligent Italian Jewish resistance fighter who is captured by the Nazis, makes the mistake of admitting he is Jewish, and is sent to Auschwitz. Although he writes his story shortly after the war, he has clearly...

(The entire section contains 635 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Primo Levi: The character who looms over this memoir is Levi himself, a young, intelligent Italian Jewish resistance fighter who is captured by the Nazis, makes the mistake of admitting he is Jewish, and is sent to Auschwitz. Although he writes his story shortly after the war, he has clearly thought deeply about the experience and what it means in larger, more philosophical terms. Primo depicts himself as scrappy and determined to stay alive, which separates him from the Muselmann or living dead, who have already given up the fight. To survive, Levi trades a ration for lessons in German so he can understand the orders of the Germans. He enters into relationships in the limited ways possible. He learns to navigate the complicated prison trading underground to get the supplies he needs. He revels in a chance to be in the infirmary, where he can rest. He applies to work in the chemistry lab, based on his background, and when he gets a job there, recognizes that this salvation from backbreaking physical labor aids his survival.

Levi points to optimism and staying in the battle for life with keeping him alive, but beyond than that, he credits luck much more than any personal attributes. The lager is arbitrary: anyone can be chosen for death at any moment. He is lucky to get to Auschwitz later in the war, when the camp needed workers to survive longer and so fed them somewhat larger rations. He is lucky to have arrived towards the end, too, because he and his fellow slaves realize at a certain point that they will be liberated by the advancing troops.

Levi's personality—his intelligence, honesty, and unwavering humanity—animates this book. He also radiates a soberness and gravitas beyond his years because he has come face to face with radical evil.

In the book, Primo discusses some of the men who helped him stay alive, stressing that they did so by keeping him in touch his own humanity. They include:

Steinlauf: Levi learns early on from this ex-sergeant that because the German concentration camp system (the lager) is meant to reduce humans to beasts, they must fight back by walking erect, washing, and behaving like dignified humans as far as possible.

Jean: Jean is the 24-year-old Pikolo or messenger-clerk for the Nazi Kommando, a position of "quite high rank" in the hierarchy of the lower echelons of the lager. He doesn't have to do manual labor, he receives extra food and castoff clothing, and he can sit near the stove. Jean is exceptional because he is a good person who keeps up human relationships with the underlings and often saves them from abuse. He and Levi become friends and on a memorable occasion that takes up most of a chapter of the book, Levi is chosen by him to go with with to collect the lunch ration. En route, Jean asks him about Dante and The Divine Comedy. Levi is able, for a brief time, to regain his humanity talking to Jean with enthusiasm about the Canto of Ulysses in a work that is as much a part of the Italian psyche as the story of the Pilgrims is to Americans.

Lorenzo: Lorenzo is an Italian civilian worker who befriends Levi and brings him a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day, gives him an old vest, and mails a postcard for him, also bringing a reply. Levi states that it is largely due to Lorenzo that he is alive to tell his story. It was not just that Lorenzo gave him extra food that helped Levi survive: it was because Lorenzo was a reminder that there is a world of decent humanity beyond the lager, a "just world," that contains a person still "pure and whole."

Illustration of PDF document

Download If This Is a Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Themes

Next

Analysis