Walking with an Alsatian student, Jean, to retrieve the noonday ration for his Kommando (his squad), Levi thinks of the canto of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320) and begins to recite it for his companion. Although Levi cannot recall the entire passage, much remains vivid, including the final line: “And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.”
As he does throughout his chronicle, Levi lets the reader draw his own conclusion from the narrative. The parallel between Ulysses and the inmates of Auschwitz is sufficiently obvious to need no explication; Levi’s account, no less than Dante’s, presents a journey into hell. Over the gates of the concentration camp the Germans might well have placed the inscription that Dante reads as he enters the Inferno, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” for there seems to be only one path of escape—up the chimney of the crematorium.
Within the camp are combined all the horrors that Homer, Vergil, and Dante imagined of the underworld. The hunger that maddens Ugolino and Tantalus finds its equivalent in the scanty rations the prisoners receive, insufficient to keep one alive for even three months. The cold Polish winter, like Satan’s breath over the icy lake in the lowest rung of the Inferno, penetrates the thin, torn clothes that one is forbidden to insulate with even scraps of paper. In the summer the heat is equally merciless. Like the winds that drive Paulo and Francesca, the Kapos who supervise the work details allow no one to rest during the day, and at night the watery soup consumed at mealtime repeatedly chases the tired men from their beds to relieve themselves.
This inferno is rectangular rather than circular, but it too has its layers. There is Block 7 for the aristocracy of the prisoners. Germans guilty of political crimes live in Block 47. The Kapos reside in Block 49, and in the worst blocks the Jews are confined, some 250 people crammed into a building with 150 beds. Even a place of limbo has been established—the Ka-Be, or Krankenbau, the infirmary, where one lives temporarily apart from the camp. Here one waits to get better and so return to the inferno or fails to improve, either dying or being killed in one of the “selections” that round up and execute those who can no longer work.
Work is the ostensible purpose of the camp; the motto the Nazis placed above the gates of the hells they built across Poland read “Arbeit macht frei,” works make free. Yet like everything else about these camps, this language is corrupt. The notion of work assumes purpose, but labor at Auschwitz had none, unless it was the enslavement, not the enfranchisement, of those engaged in it. Levi’s section of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, was supposedly built to produce synthetic rubber, but in its four years of operation none was made. Toward the end of 1944 a chemical unit was created with twelve volunteers, seven of them chemists. The five who had joined because they thought that the work would be less demanding soon admitted their lack of expertise; they were allowed to remain. The seven with training, though, had to pass a test. Then, after proving their competence, they were assigned the task of carrying (not making) chemicals that were heavier than the construction materials the other Kommandos were transporting. Iss Clausner summarizes this world well when he carves into the bottom of his bowl, “Ne pas chercher a comprendre” (do not seek to understand). So, too, does the Nazi officer who grabs away an icicle Levi has broken off to...
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slake his thirst after traveling for four days and nights without food or water. When Levi asks him why he has taken away the ice, the officer answers, “Hier ist kein warum” (here there is no why).
For Levi and the other inmates there are no explanations, only the pointless, hopeless labor of Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus, too, they seem condemned to it for eternity. Time loses all meaning; past and future are swallowed up in the present. To remember the past is to suffer the sorrows of Paulo and Francesca, who tell Dante that it is painful to remember former happiness in times of misery. Moreover, the past is dead, old identities lost. The Nazis have taken away everything from that former world—clothes, hair, possessions, language, even names. The only identity that remains is the one tattooed on the left forearm, just above the wrist. Levi is prisoner 174517; a coworker is called “Zero Eighteen” for the last three digits of his tattoo, because he has been in the camp so long that he has forgotten any other name. Streets and buildings also have only numbers, so that each person becomes a number living in a number with hundreds of other numbers.
The past no longer exists; the future may never come. In the camp the phrase for “never” is “tomorrow morning,” so distant does the next day seem. One cannot be certain of the next hour. A selection is always possible, and while those who are young and healthy theoretically need not fear, here as everywhere else logic does not prevail. In the hasty sweeps through the barracks guards may place the wrong number on the fatal list, or they may arbitrarily choose to execute a robust twenty-year-old and spare a debilitated old man. Even if one survives a selection, another is not far off, and those other killers constantly stalk the blocks: hunger, thirst, fatigue, injury. To consider the future, then, is too painful. One would soon throw oneself on the high-voltage barbed wire that rings the camp and offers the only consolation to the inmates.
Few lived through the experience; according to Levi, fewer still survived as human beings. The chapter “The Drowned and the Saved” describes four people who typify the ways that the inmates tried to cope with the insane world in which they found themselves. There is Schepschel, who regards himself “as a sack which needs periodic refilling.” To that end no debasement is beneath him. He will sing and dance before Slovak workers for the remnants of their lunches or betray a friend in the vain hope of getting a better job in the camp. Alfred L. cuts himself off from his colleagues to secure a less demanding position, Elias Lindzin goes mad, and Henri stays alive through a mixture of ruthlessness and theft.
Levi does not condemn these men, for he realizes that in the camp “survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world—apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune—was conceded only to very few superior individuals, the stuff of martyrs and saints.” The Nazis sought to destroy the inmates spiritually as well as physically, and they pursued their goal as they did everything, systematically and efficiently. Toward the end of the book Levi describes the hanging of a prisoner who had helped blow up a crematorium. Just before his execution, the man shouts, “Kamaraden, ich bin der Letzte!” (comrades, I am the last one). Whatever he may have meant, Levi interprets the statement as signifying that he, the rebel, is the last true man in the camp. All that remain are “the slaves, the worn-out,” the docile, the acquiescent.
Levi believes that he himself survived not because he is one of the superior individuals but because of the intervention of fortune. He entered the camp healthy and remained so until the German evacuation, when he was lucky enough to fall ill of scarlet fever. As a result of his sickness he was left behind; of the twenty thousand prisoners who were well enough to leave, virtually all perished on the subsequent forced march. Levi also was fortunate in understanding German, and his knowledge of chemistry finally secured for him an easy job indoors as winter approached in late 1944.
He was also fortunate in having two guides, a Vergil and a Beatrice, to offer intellectual and spiritual guidance. Fittingly, he meets his Vergil first, about a week after entering the camp. Already yielding to despair, Levi has stopped washing or caring for himself. What is the point of expending any effort in trying to keep clean? Even if he could wash himself without soap, half an hour of work would undo the results. Steinlauf explains that one must nevertheless preserve the semblance of civilization; one must preserve one’s dignity in order to stay alive, and one must remain alive to bear witness.
His other savior is Lorenzo, who played so important a role in Levi’s survival that the author named his son for this man. An Italian citizen conscripted by the Germans to work at the camp, every day for six months he brought to Levi an extra bit of food. He also gave Levi a vest, wrote a postcard for him, and brought the reply. Physically this aid was important, but even more significant was its symbolic value. Lorenzo thus reminded Levi that beyond Auschwitz humanity still existed, that a world still existed that was worth surviving for.
Levi survived, too, because he himself resembled Dante. He was able to detach himself from his experience, to be within and without the inferno at the same time, to preserve a degree of objectivity. The account’s lack of emotion mirrors Levi’s ability to abstract himself just as a scientist stands apart from the experiment he is conducting. Without this ability he might well have become one of the drowned instead of one of the saved.