Holocaust, and how Primo Levi survived his imprisonment in Auschwitz. Specifically, it will answer the questions: What perspective does Levi provide on day-to-day survival within Auschwitz? Is there order amidst the chaos of mass murder? Primo Levi's book, "Survival in Auschwitz" is a compelling look at the horrors of the most notorious Nazi prison camp, Auschwitz, but more so, it is a tale of the strength of human character - the very fiber that binds us together as humans. His book not only illustrates just how much the Jews endured in the prison camps during the Holocaust, it should be must reading for any student of the Holocaust who hopes to understand just a modicum of what was endured, and what it took to live through these unspeakable horrors.
Survival in Auschwitz
Primo Levi was one of the lucky few who survived the horrific prison camp of Auschwitz operated by the Nazis with the sole purpose of exterminating as many Jews as possible. Levi opens his book with the statement, "It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average life span of the prisoners destined for elimination" (Levi 9). Initially, this opening sentence in the Preface not only illustrates the strength of the man who the reader will come to know throughout the book, but his essential optimism, which is one of the many things that ultimately helped him survive his nine months in the world's most notorious Nazi prison camp. As the book unfolds, the traits necessary to survive become quite obvious, and Levi's trait of optimism even in the pit of despair is one of the things that helped pull him through, and helped many others survive, too.
The book is a living testament to the horrors the Jews faced, and just about every page seems to open up new horrors. Ultimately, the Nazis could bow and bend the Jews, and they could break many of them, but they could not break all of them. (Levi called this the concept of the "drowned and the saved"). They used every tactic imaginable to dehumanize these people, but probably the worst was what they took from them, as Levi notes early in the book. He writes, "Our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair.... They will next take away our name" (Levi 26-27). The Germans knew exactly how to demoralize the Jews - they separated them from their families, took away every item they owned, even took away their name and substituted it with a number permanently tattooed on their arms. Then they put them to work in factories where they created items for the German war machine until their services were no longer useful, and then they were quickly disposed of. That any Jews survived is truly a miracle, and that so many actually survived is more than a miracle, it is a testament to their resolution and their determination. The Nazis used every trick they could to demoralize the Jews, but ultimately, the Jews won.
As the book progresses, it becomes easier to see which of the prisoners will drown, and which will be saved, and that the drowned will certainly outnumber those who ultimately survive. Levi writes, "...the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer" (Levi 82). It is clear the saved rescue themselves by craftiness, sheer determination, and shutting themselves off emotionally from their fellow prisoners. Those who drown are weak, it is that simple. They are not necessarily weak in their bodies, (how could they not be, with the tiny amount of food they are given to survive?), but they are weak in their minds, in their attitude, and even in their facility for learning and adapting to their new way of life, no matter how horrifying it is.
For example, Alberto the Italian is one of the saved, and that is quite clear from his presentation in the book. Alberto is Levi's best friend, and in Auschwitz, he has quickly become the Block leader, so he has immediately learned how to stay alive, and keep out of the Nazis' way. (A Block is a unit where the prisoners live and sleep, and each Block has its own leader who attempts to keep order in the prisoners underneath him. Therefore, a Block leader has risen through the ranks of prisoners, and has gained some modicum of trust by the Nazis.) Levi writes of Alberto, "He understood before any of us that this life is war; he permitted himself no indulgences, he lost no time complaining and commiserating with himself and with others, but entered the battle from the beginning" (Levi 51). He is shrewd, but he is also compassionate, and so he teaches the others around him a little of his understanding, so they too can stay alive. He has learned about the hunger that persists because of the meager rations the camp residents receive. He tells Levi, "hunger and bread in one's pocket are terms of opposite sign which automatically cancel each other out and cannot exist in the same individual" (Levi 68).
Alberto is cunning, and this helps greatly in his survival. He has learned who will take bribes, the items that are the best to steal, and what Nazis he can trust to help him advance his place in the camp. He also has luck on his side, as Levi notes, "He had found a sturdy pair of leather shoes in a reasonable condition: he was one of those fellows who immediately find everything they need" (Levi 141). As he indoctrinates Levi into his system, they steal graph paper from one department and bribe another with it. By a simple bribe of paper, they gain favor with the section and the administrator, and so make themselves a better place to work. They have learned in effect how to "work the system," and because of this, they are almost assured they will survive. His perspective here on day-to-day survival is quite simple. It is a question of the fittest surviving, and again, that is not in body, but in mind. Alberto and Levi have learned how to work the system and done it quickly, and they have a better chance at survival than those who have not learned.
Another important factor in day-to-day survival also pops up quite early in the book, when Levi says he has "learned" many things by his second or third day in the camp. He has learned what the other survivors already know, that in this new and alien world, it is "dog eat dog," and everything is up for grabs when it comes to saving your own life. That is why he must keep his clothing and belongings with him at all times, because someone else will steal them if he does not. Lorenzo, another prisoner, is the exception to this rule, because he shares his rations with Levi as they become friends, and this is a sign of weakness in anyone else. Lorenzo maintains his compassion in a terrible situation, but he is not the norm.
On the other hand, Null Achtzehn seems to be drowned from the start. No one wants to work with him, and no one even knows his real name, Levi thinks Null himself has forgotten it. "He is not called anything except that, Zero Eighteen, the last three figures of his entry number; as if everyone was aware that only man is worthy of a name, and that Null Achtzehn is no longer a man" (Levi 37). He is also very young, which Levi calls "grave danger." "Not only because boys support exhaustion and fasting worse than adults, but even more because a long training is needed to survive here in the struggle of each one against all, a training which young people rarely have" (Levi 38).
A good example of a "drowning" victim is Null Achtzehn. Null seems to have given up, because he is totally apathetic in everything he does. He simply goes through the motions of his life, which is a sign he has already given up and submitted to the Nazi demolition of the Jews. The reader does not discover what happens to Null, but it is not difficult to believe he will die an indifferent death. Null is a walking drowned man, because he has no savvy will to survive - the Germans have beaten him.
However, Null is an excellent example of what it takes to survive in the camps on a day-to-day basis, because he does not give in to the selfish traits of his neighbors, and he does not…