Primo Levi: If This is a Man or Survival in Auschwitz – Se questo è un uomo (1947) Literature and War Readalong June 2011

Survival in Auschwitz is a mostly straightforward narrative, beginning with Primo Levi’s deportation from Turin, Italy, to the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland in 1943. Levi, then a 25-year-old chemist, spent 10 months in the camp. Even Levi’s most graphic descriptions of the horrors he witnessed and endured there are marked by a restraint and wit that not only gives readers access to his experience, but confronts them with it in stark ethical and emotional terms.

Survival in Auschwitz or If This is a Man was difficult to read and the images it created will haunt me for a long time. Additionally I watched Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard – Night and Fog which intensified the reading experience.

Primo Levi was part of the Italian resistance when he was captured by Fascist militia in the winter of 1943. After hearing that he is Jewish, the militia hand him over to the Nazis and he is deported to Auschwitz. It’s towards the end of the war and despite Auschwitz being an extermination camp, as they needed many people to work there, they didn’t kill as many as before which is one of the reasons why Levi survived.

Stepping off the train, the people who have been captured, are divided, sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes depending on their strength and fitness. Those who are sent to another direction than Primo Levi will take a shower and we all know what that means. The others who are kept alive, have to strip, wait in the cold for hours and are finally shaved, tattooed and stripped of their old identity. 174517 is the number that is tattooed into Primo Levi’s arm. The numbers, that are like a bar code, tell the other prisoners a lot. They can deduce where the people come from, how long they have been at the Lager. Some numbers are famous, for example the lower numbers of the first ones to arrive from Polish Ghettos. Three years after their arrival some are still alive.

Levi describes their arrival in great detail. He also tells in great detail how everything ends, how after long days of bombardment, and when it becomes obvious that the Russians are not far, the Germans abandon the camp. They leave the weakest and the sick people, like Primo Levi, behind, the others are taken along and probably shot on the way. What a struggle it was for those left behind to survive. There was no more heating and it was icy cold outside, they had no more food, no more blankets, just dirt, debris, corpses and sick and dying people.

Flanked by these two long chapters – the arrival and the end – we get to read a succession of shorter chapters that describe every aspect of the life in a concentration camp. How they are fed, always just a little bit to keep them alive, but never enough to stop the hunger. How they sleep, two men on a small bed of 70cm together. They wake all night because their bladders are weak and the others wake them, it is cold, they have nightmares. He describes what clothes they wear, how dirty and torn they are, the work they do, which is mostly forced labour of the most strenuous kind. They are always cold, hungry and extremely tired. The only time they can recuperate a little bit is when they fall ill. But falling ill is dangerous as well, should they fall too ill, they will be exterminated.

What we read is horrible and shocking but what disturbed me the most is what he wrote about the increasing inhumanity of the prisoners. People turned into monsters under these conditions. They had hardly anything and tried to take advantage, they stole and cheated and did everything for the sake of a tiny little piece of bread, some small advantage over others. Give a man a few privileges under the condition to supervise, punish and abuse others and he will do it. This trait of human nature was cunningly exploited by the Nazi’s. Levi picks a few examples and describes them in more detail than others. It’s amazing what people would do to save themselves.

There are a few men who are kind or manage to stay kind but they are not numerous at all. Levi is lucky, there is one Italian a non-Jewish prisoner, better off than he is, who helps him.

Survival in Auschwitz is impressive for many reasons. It is one of the most precious and detailed testimonies and so well written. One can really understand what it must have been like.

I have written in the introductory post that my edition is French. At the end of the book is an annex of 25 pages in which Primo Levi answers eight questions. These are questions he was often asked when he presented the book, in schools or elsewhere. Some of these questions were on my mind as well while I was reading.

I’m just going to pick those that interested me personally the most.

Did Primo Levi go back to Auschwitz after the war? Yes, he did. In the 60s but it left him surprisingly unfazed as most of the barracks he had been in did not exist anymore and large portions of the rest were transformed into a museum. It was very hard for him to see Birkenau, where the crematorium was although he wasn’t there during the war. That part was like he remembered the Lager, mud, dirt, debris.

Why was there no uprising? Levi tried to answer the question as good as he could. When they arrived, they could have done it but as they didn’t know what was going on they didn’t try. Later there were uprisings but always by political prisoners, not by Jews, which is understandable. The Jews were treated far more badly and therefore much weaker and most were not political people, they had no idea how to resist.

Was there a difference between Soviet Gulags and the German Lager? Yes, the Soviets didn’t want to exterminate the prisoners and although they were awful too – forced labour, bad conditions – it wasn’t as brutal.

The last question was by far the most fascinating. Someone asked Levi, who he would be if he hadn’t been in Auschwitz. Of course, he stated, this was a philosophical question and he added, that the only thing he knew for sure was, that without Auschwitz he wouldn’t have become a writer. The experience in the Lager triggered the urge to write. He started to write in Auschwitz and as soon as he was back, wrote this book pretty much in one go. Without Auschwitz he would have stayed a simple chemist.

This last question and some passages in the book seem to indicate how it was possible that Primo Levi survived, why he had the mental force that was needed. He wrote that he always had an interest in human psychology and that he was fascinated to watch the people and what happened around him. This also helped him to still recognize those around him as humans, although they had been stripped of everything.

It’s a difficult and depressing book but I was touched by Levi’s humanity and his voice and I know I will read more of him. A while back I watched Francesco Rosi’s movie La Tregua aka The Truce based on Primo Levi’s novel. It tells the story of his odyssey back home from the Lager to Italy. Primo Levi’s part is played by John Turturro. If you want to get a good feeling for the man Levi, this is a great starting point. It manages to convey how he became a writer. I will certainly read the book.

I’m interested to know what others thought about this book. Was it too hard to read? Did you also think that he managed incredibly well to make us feel and understand what he went through?

Other reviews

Introduction by Danielle (A Work in Progress)


Survival in Auschwitz was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima mon Amour. Discussion starts on Friday July 29, 2011 .