Jennifer's Reviews > Survival in Auschwitz

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
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Jul 09, 2011

really liked it
Read in March, 2011

First published in 1958, Survival in Auschwitz documents Primo Levi’s life from December 1943 until January 1945 focusing on his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. In the work’s preface he suggests it “adds nothing to what is already known…on the disturbing question of the death camps.” (Levi 9) To explain his decision to write, Levi speaks poignantly of camp conditions. “The need to tell our story to ‘the rest’, to make ‘the rest’ participate in it, had taken on for us [the prisoners], the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” (9) Levi has a deeply personal intention for writing: telling his experiences provides an alternative to the interior destruction he feared would ensue if his story remained untold. The very structure of Survival in Auschwitz reflects this cathartic purpose. He explains that unlike most memoirs, which are written chronologically, his story was written “in order of urgency.” (10) With the personal forces of urgency as a guide, he composed a work that can be divided into three distinct sections. The three-part structure of Survival in Auschwitz makes the book difficult to categorize in a genre yet this challenge to classification is one of its strengths. After Auschwitz, where he was stripped of individuality, Levi’s work allows him to express his individuality through words and form, furthering his liberation from constricting structures.
The first section, the chapters “The Journey” through “This Side of Good and Evil,” unfolds chronologically. Levi writes of his capture in Italy, the journey to the camp, and he provides detailed descriptions of the camp. In an early discussion of the camp he describes the sign above the camp door that cruelly states “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The stories he will tell of the Lager challenge this claim of freedom. He labels the camp differently writing, “This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this.” (22) This Dantean description is jolting to a reader because Auschwitz is a real place. In the stories of this first section, Levi describes life in this hell with poor rations, insufficient medical care, and the quick stripping of inmates’ humanity. The section’s final chapter “This Side of Good and Evil” foreshadows the structural shift in the work. Levi addresses his readers directly and invites them “to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’.” (86) His purpose in the next section is to provide examples to facilitate these meditations.
From the chapters “The Drowned and the Saved” to “The Last One” Levi’s story is much more episodic than chronologic. Each chapter contains Levi’s musings on humanity interspersed with illustrative stories. On the first page of “The Drowned and the Saved,” immediately after asking his readers to consider the categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ he challenges these comfortable labels, suggesting that in the camp these categories are not relevant. Instead, the categories of “the saved” and “the drowned” are the only pertinent ones in Auschwitz. In this second section Levi forces the reader to consider new categories for evaluating individuals and the possible effects of casting aside morality. He recounts the story of four different men who were liberated from Auschwitz. The varying paths Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias, and Henri took to survive “show in how many ways it was possible to reach salvation.” (92) One especially striking example from these four is the story of Elias who stood barely five-feet tall and whom Levi describes as “naturally and innocently a thief.” (97) Despite this traditionally amoral behavior, Levi concludes that Elias is “in the first place… a survivor.” (97) Elias, governed by the drive to be saved and not drowned, survives.
However, after careful and repeated consideration, Levi eventually reveals his own uneasy position on the possibility of living only for survival and the relevant categories of saved and drowned. He details an episode where an older Jewish man thanks God because he is not going to the gas chambers and has been “saved.” Levi writes of his disgust at Kuhn’s prayers because Kuhn’s safety comes at the expense of another young man’s life and therefore cannot be a morally just event. Levi states, “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer,” (130) implying that there are times when the drive to survive is insufficient moral justification.
Although Levi began the second division of his work by explaining that the only relevant distinction in Auschwitz was “the saved” and “the drowned” he reveals that these stand outside the moral code he still holds even in the camp— he has not abandoned the ideas of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ and as he strives for them he stands in opposition to the Nazi atrocities and the prisoners, too, who operate under the code of “saved” and “drowned.”
The third section of the work is one chapter, “The Story of Ten Days,” written mainly in a diary form. Immediately before shifting to diary format Levi writes that these days were “the ten days outside both world and time.” (156) However, for the reader, his description of these ten days are those most strongly situated within a temporal space because they are dated. Levi has managed to retroactively situate his memories of his path toward freedom in the traditional chronological structures of human life — an act that demonstrates how writing was liberating.
Despite its many strengths, there are times when Levi’s work takes on an awkward didactic tone. Levi is most effective when he mixes his philosophical musings with concrete examples as support. Levi suggests as a universal truth that the certainty of death is an insurmountable obstacle for humans’ quest for true joy or happiness (17). This freestanding claim is out of place in the book, which, elsewhere, provides detailed proofs of Levi’s philosophical opinions by way of real examples from the Lager. Instances of unsupported philosophical views prove a shortcoming in a book otherwise filled with compelling stories illuminating Levi’s views on humanity.
Similarly, Levi’s attempts to illustrate general truths, rather than individual experience are a weak spot. When the train first arrives at the camp he writes, “…Everybody said farewell to life through his neighbor. We had no more fear.” (19) If Levi claimed he had no fear it would be more believable but his claim here is too grandiose and the stoicism seems a hollow façade. The power of Survival in Auschwitz lies in its innovation. The reader need not learn drastically new information about concentration camps to find value in the work. Levi’s work is moving when it tells of his own experience, and becomes powerful when he uses these experiences to challenge or support ideas on humanity. His admission in the preface that his work will add little to the understanding of concentration camps as a whole does not negate that various stories of individuals in the camps are as important as stories of the camps.
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