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 .

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

  1. What you write is exactly what I remember of the book. It haunted me too. It’s one of the rare books I had to stop reading to pick it up later because I was too overwhelmed to read. It’s the book that comes to my mind when I think of a difficult book to read.

    What he describes is awful. How can you have faith in human nature after reading that or living through that ? And that tatoo. They couldn’t forget and couldn’t hide it to the world.

    As you probably heard, Jorge Semprun died recently. There was a radio show about him last week on France Inter. It was very interesting and they talked about Literature or Life, the book about his experience in the camps. You can probably still podcast it on their web site. After the camp, he couldn’t write something not related to this experience. And as he didn’t want to tell about it, he stopped writing.

    Have you read La Douleur by Marguerite Duras? It’s a beautiful – and difficult – book about her life when her husband came back from the camps.

    • I would like to read La Douleur and Semprun’s book but I’m not capable right now. Did you watch Nuit et Brouillard ? It made me really sick. I agree, this is difficult reading. I didn’t expect it to affect me that much. I had a feeling I was living there while I was reading it. I tried to finish it quite fast, to be able to leave it behind and felt a bit ashamed about it knowing that all those poor people didn’t have a chance to rush through the experience and just leave it behind.
      The Lager is really the illustration of Sartre’s saying “L’enfer c’est les autres”. I don’t know how you can go on living after something like this. And even less after having been one of the guards. In the afterword Levi says there were two attitudes. Some managed to “forget” all about it, never ever spoke about it anymore and others, like himself had it in mind always. He also felt responsible to tell the world, to make sure it wouldn’t be forgotten. Remembering might help preventing that it happens again. I will try to find that radio show, I think I saw a link when I read about his death.

      • I understand you can’t read them now, it’s too much to take. When my friend lent me Literature of Life, I watched it several weeks on the shelf before starting to read it. I knew it would be difficult. And it was but not as much as Levi.

        Gary was haunted by the camps too. He wasn’t there but lost a lot of family there. For him, it was hard to reconcile the jigsaw of human nature after witnessing an extraordinary courage and brotherhood in the RAF (as he was a pilot) and then learning about the horror in the camps. He was haunted by this double face of human nature.

        PS: why did you read it in French and not in Italian?

        • I can imagine that hearing all about the camps while you did experience different things in the Resistnace or RAF would be confusing.
          Primo Levi underlines that you saw the worst from people who were not politically active before they got caught. But it is one thing to try to gain some advantage over others when you are scared to die than being a guard. Still it did upset me to read how each and everything was stolen the moment you didn’t pay attention.
          I can’t remember whether someone gave the French book too me or whether I just bought it when I was in a bookshop or even bought it for my father… I had it for at least 10 years. And Italian is the same as Spanish it is difficult to find books in those languages here and because Switzerland isn’t part of the EU ordering a book from Italy or Spain would cost additional 15-40 Euro for delivery. Germany and France is different due to amazon…

  2. I do think it is important to read about the atrocities committed in the middle of a civilized world. Difficult to believe and sickening as they are, they serve as a reminder that what we consider normal human behavior can be perverted with relative ease. At one time, I read a number of nonfiction books about the Nazi regime and the stories of the survivors of the camps.

    I may look for this one, but I hope it doesn’t discuss Mengele in any detail.

    • Levi says that he wanted to describe what he saw and only what he saw that is why many aspects are not covered. We don’t read anything about Mengele, about the crematorium or the showers only what the prioners spoke. That’s what makes this such an incredible account, each and very little detail is experienced. And he is a great writer. Still it is hard to stomach, really depressing. I agree, it is important to know about it and indeed humans can be perverted easily. One is thanful for every kind thing that Levi has experienced although it was far from balancing anything.

  3. This is such a difficult subject to read about. I remember back during my grad days I read and had to lead a discussion on the book “Night” by Wiesel. At points my voice was shaky and my students could tell that I was upset. But how can you not be moved by such horrible stories. During another class we watched “Night and Fog” and after the film the professor, who was crying, let us all go early since he could not lead a discussion. But people should read these works and watch these movies. It is hard but we shouldn’t forget.

    • I agree with you and I can not understand how one could not be moved. It’s amazing that a professor allows himself (or herself) to be moved like this. It’s important to be able to show such feelings. I think especially Levi’s book touches us on a very deep level. Night and Fog affected my stomach, I did feel sick, the book made me extremely sad and I can’t understand it, I still can’t understand that such an atrocity could happen and go on for so long.

  4. Excellent review. Excellent book. Thanks for “assigning” it. The best so far (because it’s non-fiction?). He writes well and in a “don’t scan” way. It is depressing, but I did not find it hard to read (psychoanalysis, anyone?). Great companion to “Night” and “Night and Fog”.

    Favorite lines:
    – on the arrival at the station “… the night swallowed up [the women, children, and old men], pure and simply”
    – on having an icycle taken away – the guard says “there is no why here”
    – to survive you must “save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization” e.g. washing
    – “man’s capacity to dig himself in, to secrete a shell, to build around oneself a tenuous barrier of defence, even in apparently desperate circumstances is astonishing”
    – “it is better to be beaten [than overwork] because one does not normally die of blows, but one does die of exhaustion, and badly, and when one grows aware of it, it is already too late.”
    – “We had bored our way through the minutes of the day, this very day which seemed invincible and eternal this mornig; now it lies dead and is immediately forgotten; already it is no longer a day, it has left no trace in anybody’s memory.”

    Things I learned:
    1. your feet are the most important determinants of survival
    2. never leave your stuff unattended
    3. their is a heirarchy among the prisoners; the “prominents” are in some ways harsher than the Germans because they don’t want to lose their privileged status
    4. there was a thriving black market
    5. going to the bath room at night could cost you your life
    6. treatment of the sick in the hospital was surprisingly good
    7. the camp is divided between “the saved and the drowned”
    The other stuff, I already knew.

    Thank you for the questions part of your review – the version I read did not have that.

    • Thanks Kevin and thanks for adding those quotes. Since I was reading a French translation I didn’t want to translate that into English but would have liked to add quotes.
      I don’t know why you didn’t find it hard to read, you handle depressing better at the moment than I do, I guess. I think he was still relatively merciful, I’m sure he could have added more gruesome facts but he didn’t want to create “easy” horror. Levi himself seesm a very gentle man, he isn’t very angry. One of the questions was whether he hated the Germans. He seesm to really hate the German language but not the German people.
      I think the question that might have interested you the most is whether the Germans knew about the Lager and his take on that. His answer is nuanced.
      I think your point 2 and 3 were what really upset me. I think I had heard about it but forgot.
      I also think it might have been the best book so far and I’m glad that I included a nonfiction book although I would say you can feel that it is a book written by a future novelist, it’s very well written, well constructed also.
      I haven’t read “Night” but will keep it in mind, since you and TBM recommend it.
      Reading it after Endo is interesting as you see, no matter how horrible a novel, it’s never like the horrors described in non-fiction.
      Isn’t it amazing that he could start to write about his experience so soon?

  5. As to the Germans, I think his attitude was summed up when he said something to the effect that they did what they did because they were Germans. That is an incredibly damning comment.

    As far as why it did not effect me that much, I will not say that it’s a gender thing. I have read a lot on the Holocaust and war. I am unfortunately well aware of man’s inhumanity towards man and being a pessimist, I expect the worst. To tell you the truth, although the narrative is intense, powerful, and depressing, Levi was not typical. He gets taken late in the war. His time before being captured could not compare to a Jew in Poland or Germany. He was much luckier than most in the camp. He survived which makes him atypical. I do not mean to take away from his experience. There are other sources if you want to find out what happened to the average victim. His story is important and stands out because it is so well written.

    You really need to watch “Night”. It is the gold standard and short. Popular as an assigned reading here in American schools.

    • That comment struck me as well but it is still possible that he didn’t hate the Germans but he dos indeed say that what happened could only happen they way it did because Germans did it.
      You are probably right that he didn’t get the worst possible deal and he also said that those arrested for resistance were in general better off. That he was a Jew made the conditions worse but his spirit was stronger. It is ver well written, yes and I also think he did tone it down a bit. He isn’t looking for being pitied, I think he is someone with a strong sense of dignity. being Italian certainly helped. He didn’t live in a ghetto and his family wasn’t deported.
      I will read Night but not just right now.

  6. I have to ditto Anna here–I am reading now. I started this early but the reading is slow going as I can only manage a few pages at a time. I have read a number of books about concentration camps, but coming hard on the heels of the Endo book and with such vivid writing I can’t seem to read this for long periods. I do want to read it all, however, as it is an important book. I realized after I started that there is another book–a companion story of his journey back after the war, which I would also like to read. Reading books like these certainly puts life in perspective!

    • I can understandthatt, for the same reason I read it fast. I mention the “sequel” in my post and also the movie that has been based on it, however the companion piece is a novel, not a memoir but based on his autobiography. The English edition I had in the introduction did contain both books but it seems hard to find. I want to read it, want to see what he has become as a writer. I saw the movie and liked it a lot, it’s not depressing.

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