If This Is a Man

by Primo Levi

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

If This Is a Man (Italian: Se questo è un uomo) is a 1947 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 during World War II.

The book’s first English translation, by Stuart Woolf, 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 World War II ever written. Levi composed the book over the course of about a year in 1946, with Lucia Morpurgo, his future wife, providing feedback during the revision process.

Levi introduces his memoir with a poem in which he encourages all of the readers to take what he is about to say to 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 an honest, raw, and authentic narrative, unapologetically writing about all of the struggles and sufferings he and the Jewish people endured during World War II and choosing to focus on the horrific events that took place in Auschwitz.

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

What is interesting about Levi’s prose is the fact that Levi writes without anger or resentment. He avoids being overly sentimental and emotional and simply retells his memories, choosing to be calm, factual, descriptive, and direct but also 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 and that must never be allowed to happen again.

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