Last Updated on October 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606
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 wrote his story shortly after the war, he has clearly thought deeply about the experience and what it means in larger, more philosophical terms. Levi 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 Nazis. 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 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 toward the end, too, because he and his fellow prisoners 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. Levi also radiates a soberness and gravitas beyond his years because he has come face to face with radical evil.
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 is the twenty-four-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 other prisoners 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 to go with him 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 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 that Lorenzo was a reminder that there was a world of decent humanity beyond the lager, a “just world” that contained a person still “pure and whole.”