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Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
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Mar 06, 2012

really liked it

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz is a memoir about Levi's:
good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.
Levi refuses to offer his readers a sugarcoating of what life in a concentration camp was like.

Consequently, there is little action or pacing in this book. Some readers are annoyed that Levi, who is quite clearly a talented writer, doesn't seem to have a stronger command of plot. The book can be quite monotonous in the way that it shares the day-to-day details of life in a concentration camp. Time for the prisoners stretches out and eventually loses meaning, and the action of the work at times follows suit. This is a book about the mundane details of genocide. How unfortunate for readers that it is not a little more thrilling.

At times, however, these mundane details are fascinating, and I was surprised to read about how much the prisoners could tell about each other by the numbers tattooed on their arms. The posters in bathrooms that encouraged the prisoners to bathe and warned against a lack of hygiene also surprised me. At one point, Levi writes that "no one can boast of understanding the Germans."

Regardless, Survival in Auschwitz is not a Hollywood or Randian narrative about the triumph of the human spirit. It might sound ridiculous to expect such a narrative from a memoir about one prisoner's experiences in Auschwitz. Yet this expectation is suggested by the title "Survival in Auschwitz." The original title of this book was If This Is A Man, which in my opinion more accurately introduces a work in which Levi regularly refers to himself and the other prisoners as "broken" men. The title was changed to the more upbeat Survival in Auschwitz for American readers. I can't help but wonder what motivated this decision.

When Levi first arrives in Auschwitz, many of the older prisoners try to help Levi realize what Auschwitz is. They say things like "it’s not a Serchio bathing-party" and they repeatedly point out that "the only way out is through the chimney." When Levi tries to get water from an icicle, a guard knocks it from his hand. When Levi asks why, the guard replies "there is no why here." At another point, an older prisoner points to the number tattooed on Levi's arm, 174517, and asks where all of the other prisoners are. Levi speculates that they might have been transferred to other camps, which the older prisoner scoffs at. Before long, Levi witnesses the "selections" and begins to see the camp for what it is. Considering how pivotal this struggle to see the true nature of the camp is to the book, I couldn't help thinking that a title like "Survival in Auschwitz" undermines the work.

Readers looking for an inspirational story of survival should look elsewhere, perhaps to a movie like Hart's War, which reveals to us the indomitable will of American POWs in a camp, or perhaps to Defiance, a movie about refugees that hid in the forest, fought back, and were able to band together to survive the Holocaust. Levi's memoir is a contemplative reflection on the day to day details of genocide, an atrocity that was committed against Primo Levi and millions of others. It's not a Hollywood bathing party.
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Mark Schneider I would probably strike "good fortune".


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