Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi, also known as If This is a Man (1947, first English translation 1958)

1996 paperback reissue of Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi. First published in Italian as If This is a Man, 1947, and first translated into English in 1958.

The Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi, 1919-1987.
One of the best classes I took in college was an English class called “Literature of the Holocaust.” We read a variety of genres, mostly written by Holocaust survivors. Primo Levi was one of the writers who I was most struck by in that class. Levi was an Italian chemist from Turin who spent more than a year in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Levi’s first book about his experiences during the Holocaust was titled If This is a Man, and was published in Italian in 1947, making it one of the earliest books written by a Holocaust survivor. If This is a Man was published in English in 1958 as Survival in Auschwitz. Levi’s book slowly acquired a growing audience over the years, and in 1963 he published his second book, The Truce, known in the United States as The Reawakening, which chronicles Levi’s long journey home after the liberation of Auschwitz. Levi published several more books during his lifetime, retiring from his work as a chemist in 1977 to devote himself to writing full time. Levi died in 1987 due to injuries from a fall from his third-story apartment. There has been debate among Levi’s biographers as to whether his death should be considered a suicide or accidental.

In Auschwitz, Levi saw mankind at its worst, and in Survival in Auschwitz he presents us with an unvarnished look at the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. Levi summed up the entire experience of the Holocaust with this anecdote:

“Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.” (p.29)

“There is no why here” would have been a fitting motto for the gates of the death camps. Levi also writes of a fellow inmate who had written on the bottom of his soup bowl, “Ne pas chercher a comprendre,” French for “Do not try to understand.” (p.103)

Levi has some eloquent passages about how time moves in the camp. “When one waits time moves smoothly without need to intervene and drive it forward, while when one works, every minute moves painfully and has to be laboriously driven away.” (p.104) After finishing a day’s work, Levi writes, “We have bored our way through all the minutes of the day, this very day which seemed invincible and eternal this morning; now it lies dead and is immediately forgotten; already it is no longer a day, it has left no trace in anybody’s memory.” (p.133)

Levi knows that luck played a large role in why he survived Auschwitz and others did not. His training as a chemist helped him, as he was part of a small group selected to work in a laboratory that supplied labor for the German company IG Farben. This allowed Levi to work inside during the winter of 1944-1945. Levi’s tales of constantly having to repair parts of the factory after it had been bombed by the Allies make clear the Sisyphean nature of his labor. As Auschwitz was being evacuated by the Germans, Levi was in the camp hospital, which meant that he was not part of the brutal forced marches that killed many prisoners. The Germans simply left invalids like Levi behind, and he was able to survive until the camp was liberated by the Russians on January 27, 1945. 

Survival in Auschwitz is an essential book for anyone who wants to get an idea of what life inside Auschwitz was like, told by an astute observer of the human condition. The current edition of Survival in Auschwitz also features as an afterword a 1986 interview with Levi, conducted by Philip Roth. Roth’s interview reveals to the reader Primo Levi’s proud humanity.

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