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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

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If This Is a Man (Italian: Se questo è un uomo) is a 1947 nonfiction autobiographical memoir written by Italian-Jewish writer and chemist Primo Levi. It tells the story of the author’s imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp after he was arrested for supporting the Italian anti-fascist movement.

The book's first English translation was published in 1959, and the United States edition was published under the title Survival In Auschwitz. Levi carefully supervised all of the translations of his memoir and gave his own personal input. As it was published two years after the end of the Second World War, the memoir is considered to be one of the first eyewitness accounts of the mistreatment of the Jews during WWII ever written.

Levi introduces his memoir with a poem in which he encourages all of the readers to take what he is about to say at heart. He writes:

If This Is a Man . . .
. . . Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.

He presents a very honest, raw, and authentic narrative, unapologetically writing about all of the struggles and sufferings he and the Jewish people endured during WWII and choosing to focus on the unspeakable and horrible events that took place in Auschwitz.

He alludes to the fact that his story doesn’t have a main protagonist; there is no hero who can be awarded for his/her 'achievements' or ability to survive at the end. Neither Levi nor the other people who were arrested and taken into the various concentration camps around Europe went there willingly. They were all forcibly and brutally torn apart from their homes and families and brought to a place where they were literally forced to fight for survival. They battled hunger, thirst, discrimination, oppression, physical and psychological torture, and inhumane and barbaric treatment until they became merely a shadow of their past selves.

What’s interesting about Levi’s prose is the fact that he writes without anger or resentment. He avoids being overly sentimental and emotional and simply retells his memories, choosing to be very calm, factual, descriptive, and direct, but also very emphatic and humane. Essentially, he writes a story of survival, endurance, hope, and humanity. Levi also wrote a sequel to the memoir, titled The Truce (1963), which follows his liberation from the camp and his long journey back to Italy.

Levi was arrested in 1943 and transported to Auschwitz in February 1944, and he remained there until the camp was liberated on January 27th, 1945. During that time he and the other prisoners experienced unimaginable horrors, and his survival story stands as a reminder that the Holocaust is something that should never be forgotten but also something that must never happen again.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Beneath the Roman pavement are Jewish as well as Christian catacombs, for Jews have lived in Italy as long as anyone else. Primo Levi’s own family came to that country in 1500 and assimilated with their non-Jewish neighbors. Even Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws of 1938 changed little for Levi. Although he was legally barred from attending college, he took his degree in chemistry in 1941. Theoretically unemployable because of his “race,” he was working as a chemist in Milan in 1943 when Mussolini’s government fell and was succeeded by a Nazi-installed regime.

The twenty-four-year-old Levi then fled to the mountains, hoping to join a guerrilla force known as Giustizia e Liberta (justice and liberty) fighting against the Germans. He and the small group with him were instead betrayed and captured by three Fascist militia companies on December 13, 1943. If This Is a Man, the first volume in what proved to be a trilogy of autobiographical works, recounts what happened to Levi during the next thirteen months.

To explain his presence in the mountains, Levi thought it safer to claim that he was hiding because of his religion rather than because of his politics; had he been dealing with only his fellow Italians, his decision would have been correct. Only Denmark, which preserved all of its Jewish population, had a better record of protecting Jews from the Nazis; of the 36,000 Jews who lived in Nazi-occupied Italy, 80 percent survived, largely because of the aid of non-Jews. In the event, Levi’s confession proved a near-fatal mistake. He was turned over to the German Schutzstaffeln (SS) and sent by train, along with some six hundred of his coreligionists, to Auschwitz. Only about twenty of them survived the war.

The first chapter, “The Journey,” provides the prologue that brings Levi to the gates of the concentration camp. The next fifteen describe the life, or rather the death-in-life, within it. Although Levi’s memoir proceeds chronologically, it is not a journal or diary. Instead, each chapter focuses on a theme or particular event. Sometimes it will cover a month, sometimes a day, perhaps only an hour’s walk. Throughout, Levi interjects philosophical reflections. Only the final chapter, “The Story of Ten Days,” which recounts the German evacuation and Russian liberation of the camp, breaks this pattern, just as the pattern of camp life itself has been broken, to provide a daily account of events.

The book is short, the writing elegantly restrained. As The Times Literary Supplement of April 15, 1960, observed, “There are no horror stories” here, no tales of beatings or other tortures, no condemnation of the Germans—to indict a nation would be to become like the Nazis—no rancor, indeed, hardly any emotion at all. Such dispassion is the more surprising since Levi wrote the book shortly after returning to Italy and poured out his recollections as they came to him. Before submitting the manuscript for publication, though, he organized and revised his material, taking as his model the weekly report of a factory. As he told Philip Roth in an interview published in The New York Times Book Review (October 12, 1986), he wanted his account to be “precise, concise, and written in a language comprehensible to everybody.” One of his recurring nightmares was of telling his story and not being understood or believed; thus, he chose understatement and clinical detachment. Nor does he emphasize the uniquely Jewish aspect of his experience. The characters he introduces are simply people, for the tragedy he describes is universal.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Bailey, Paul. “Saving the Scaffolding,” in New Statesman. LXXXII (August 20, 1971), pp. 245-246.

Denby, David. “The Humanist and the Holocaust: The Poised Art of Primo Levi,” in The New Republic. CXCV (July 28, 1986), pp. 27-33.

Eberstadt, Fernanda. “Reading Primo Levi,” in Commentary. LXXX (October, 1985), pp. 41-47.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of Italian Jews, 1924-1974, 1983.

Motola, Gabriel. “Primo Levi: The Auschwitz Experience,” in Southwest Review. LXXII (Spring, 1987), pp. 258-269.

Sodi, Risa. “An Interview with Primo Levi,” in Partisan Review. LIV (Summer, 1987), pp. 355-366.

Sodi, Risa. “Primo Levi: A Last Talk,” in Present Tense. XV (May/June, 1988), p. 40.

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