Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi's Most Important Essay

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Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi's most important observation was that staying alive depended not only on skill and cunning but also a large measure of good luck. In his case, one example of good fortune was being born in Italy, where the Jews were not deported until after the German occupation in 1943. Whatever the faults of the fascist Mussolini regime -- and they were many -- it refused to cooperate with the deportation of the Jews from any of its territory even though it deprived them of many basic civil rights. Had Levi lived in Germany, Holland, occupied Poland or the Baltic States his chances of survival would have been far lower. He was also fortunate in having a basic knowledge of chemistry that the Germans found useful, since the I.G. Farben Company controlled Auschwitz III (Monowitz) and required chemists and technicians for its laboratories. This allowed him access to extra food, a work environment without beatings and torture, and no heavy physical labor that would have drained his strength. As Levi noted, prisoners who failed to find some niche like this in Auschwitz would only survive for two or three months. At the very end, catching scarlet fever as the camp was being evacuated in 1945 was also a blessing in disguise since he was left behind instead of joining the forced-march back to Germany in winter conditions. Even if he had survived that he would have ended up spending five months in other concentration camps with no guarantee of finding a relatively safe and privileged position as he had in Auschwitz. This would have meant five more months in which he would have been at risk of dying from disease, overwork, hunger, beatings by guards or the last round of death marches at the end of the war. Although he nearly died in the Auschwitz 'hospital' before the Russians arrived, once he had survived those last ten days, he was safe from the Nazis and therefore able to return home at the end of the war.

Survival was all that could have been accomplished under the circumstances, and this was a major victory given that the entire system the Nazis had put in place was designed only to destroy the Jewish prisoners completely. Levi was lucky in many respects, but also skilled and cunning enough to realize early on that if he worked, obeyed the rules and ate only what the S.S. fed him, he would not remain alive for very long. Like most of the prisoners and even the S.S. staff, he had no real conception of Auschwitz before he arrived there because nothing quite like it had ever existed before in history. More than even a concentration camp or a death camp, it had evolved into a planned, industrial city for genocide. Levi had never heard of it when he was deported there in February 1944 and he had no way of knowing that the Nazis "owing to the growing shortage of labor" decided to temporarily lengthen the lives of some of their slave laborers instead of simply exterminating them all through work as originally planned (Levi 9). Naturally he had heard of the Nazi's ideas about the superiority of so-called 'Aryans' and their hostility toward the Jews, but he did not know that their racist ideology had been carried to its logical conclusion. As the prisoners were being put on the transports to Germany, with 650 people crowded in twelve boxcars, he received his first hint about how the Nazis really viewed this 'cargo'. When an officer asked a corporal what the roll-call count was, the term he used was "how many pieces?," as if they were some type of commodity or spare parts (Levi 16). This is when he began to realize that not only had the victims been totally dehumanized but many of the people charged with destroying them were actually bored by what they had come to regard as a routine task.

Once he had been processed into the camp, Levi soon learned the fate of those who had not been selected for temporary survival. Old people, children, the sick and disabled were not needed and the majority of Jews who arrived were gassed and cremated the same day. He was young and healthy enough to be considered useful for work and in Auschwitz those prisoners who did not fill some utilitarian purpose were not destined to survive very long. Levi learned to steal and to avoid being robbed, and described his existence as "I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind" (Levi 37). At first the Italian prisoners used to gather in one corner of the barracks and talk about home, but then gave it up because so many were dying. They became thinner and weaker by the day, so much so that they no longer recognized each other.

At first the new rules of this camp environment confused and disoriented him, as did the type of gruff, parade-ground German spoken by many of the guards and prisoners. In the beginning, he asked too many questions about what this place was and what was happening, so much so that he annoyed the other prisoners and heard "sleepy and angry shout at me: 'Ruhe, Ruhe!'" (Shut up). He observed that at Auschwitz "one is surrounded by a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before" (Levi 38). All these nationalities have been thrown together in one place, and their main concern is food and survival. Bread, soup, cigarettes and other commodities served as the currency of the camp, and those who did not learn to manipulate this system by stealing, procuring and 'organizing' had little chance of staying alive. Ethics and morality were thoroughly expedient and situational, since the S.S. would look the other way at theft from civilian worksites if they also profited from it, but would punish it severely in the camp -- unless they were also receiving a share of the loot.

Musselmen were starved, demoralized and disoriented prisoners who had lost the will to live, basically like zombies or the walking dead. Levi and others who managed to survive learned that "to sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp" (Levi 90). Those who played by these rules were as good as dead for the system was designed to kill them in about three months. In Auschwitz, the key to survival was to work as little as possible at the easiest possible jobs, preferably indoors, and to find ways to obtain extra food, either directly or with articles that could be traded. Few prisoners even bothered to speak to the Musselmen since "they have no distinguished acquaintances in the camp, they do not gain any extra rations" (Levi 89). Nothing could be done for them in any case and if they did not simply die off on their own the S.S. would 'select' them to be gassed.

Very few Jewish prisoners with tattoo numbers lower than 150,000 were still alive in Auschwitz by 1944, and most of them had jobs as kapos and block leaders, or doctors, tailors and cooks. They had to possess some skill that the S.S. found useful, and even then had to "plot and struggle" in order to become one of the camp Prominenten (Prominents). Those who were put in charge of other prisoners had to be naturally brutal or learn to become that way, but if they did not the Nazis would quickly replace them with others who showed the required harshness (Levi 91). Non-Jews had a better chance of becoming…[continue]

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