Student Reader

Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz

I began reading Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz on December 31, 2009. I bought a used copy of the book for $4.50 from Eutopia Books, 1627 Jefferson Ave, Miami, Florida 33139. It was the only book that I bought from there, despite having looked about for hours. It is an indescribably precious piece -- a whole -- that fortunately is of past events. Yet people remain in the present, meaning that each person described in the text is undoubtedly like a person alive today, and perhaps more than a little like the reader. And to think that a person could be like the countless deceased mentioned, or perhaps be the few survivors -- and that this thought can be pondered from a warm, comfortable bed with a plate of food at one's side and plenty more to eat in the kitchen.

As will be told, the Buna factory, on which the Germans were busy for four years and for which countless of us suffered and died, never produced a pound of synthetic rubber. (Levi, p 73)
Fur human nature is such that grief and pain -- even simultaneously suffered -- do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective. It is providential and is our means of surviving the camp. And this is et reason why so often in free life one hears it said that man is never content. IN fact is is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another lies behind; and in reality a whole series of other. (Levi, p 73)
So that as soon as the cold, which throughout the winter had seemed our only enemy, had ceased, we became aware of our hunger; and repeating the same error, we now say: 'If it was not for the hunger!…' (Levi, p 73-74)
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; and the majority affirm justly that, in the end, one's stomach is the securest safe against thefts and extortions. (Levi, p 75)
The step was short from being judged powerful to effectively becoming so, and that everywhere, and especially in the midst of the general levelling [sic] of the Lager, a respectable appearance is the best guarantee of being respected. He took every care not to be confused with the mass; he worked with stubborn duty ... [and took] the first ration, notoriously the most liquid, every day, so as to be noticed by the Blockältester for his discipline. To complete the separation, he always behaved in his relations with his comrades with the maximum courtesy compatible with his egotism, which was absolute. ... I feel it is quite probably that he managed to escape death, and today is still living his cold life of the determined and joyless dominator. (Levi, p 94-95)
Do we not see individuals living without purpose, lacking all forms of self-control and conscience, who live not in spite of these defects, but like Elias precisely because of them? ... But one thing we would like to add: Elias, as far as we could judge from outside, and as far as the phrase can have meaning, was probably a happy person. (Levi, p 98)
Henri has cut off every tie of affection; he has closed himself up, as if in armour, and fights to live without distraction with all the resources that he can derive from his quick intellect and his refined education. According to Henri's theory, there are three methods open to man to escape extermination which still allow him to retain the name of man: organization, pity and theft. (Levi, p 98)
To speak with Henri is useful and pleasant: one sometimes also feels him warm and near; communication, even affection seems possible. One seems to glimpse, behind his uncommon personality, a human soul, sorrowful and aware of itself. But the next moment his sad smile freezes into a cold grimace which seems studied at the mirror; Henri politely excuses himself ... and here he is again, intent on his hunt and his struggle; hard and distant, enclosed in armour, the enemy of all, inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the Serpent in Genesis. (Levi, p 100)

What an odd simile, considering which part was innocent in the story of the Serpent; and which parties are innocent in the story of Henri. Perhaps Levi meant solely that Henri was cunning and incomprehensible -- although Henri indeed did know how to make himself comprehended in a most advantageous manner.

From all my talks with Henri, even the most cordial, I have always left with a slight taste of defeat; of also having been, somehow inadvertently, not a man to him, but an instrument in his hands. ... I know that Henri is living today. I would give much to know his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again. (Levi, p 100)
He will certainly smell our odour, to which we are by now accustomed, but which persecuted us during the first few days, the odour of turnips and cabbages, raw, cooked and digested. (Levi, p 103)
The reputation of being a seducer, of being 'organized', excites at once envy, scorn, contempt and admiration. Whoever allows himself to be seen eating 'organized' food is judged quite severely; he shows a serious lack of modesty and tact, besides an open stupidity. (Levi, p 120)

Despite all the words in this book that I had to look up in the dictionary, it is the familiar word organized that leaves me the most unsure. Perhaps I will never be able to quite understand what Levi means by organized, except in a brief moment I may come across someday where life and death are at stake, where "we are wholly devoid of free will, as our every action is, in time and place, the only conceivable one" (Levi, p 98).

Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say 'hunger', we say 'tiredness', 'fear', 'pain', we say 'winter' and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers ahd lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer. (Levi, p 123)

I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?

If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer. (Levi, p 129-130)

They construct shelters and trenches, they repair he damage, they build, they fight, they command, they organize and they kill. What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen. They could not act differently: if you wound the body of a dying man, the wound will begin to heal, even if he whole body dies within a day. (Levi, p 141)

The pretext for this statement is about the nearness of the Russians -- only fifty miles -- and the constant trembling of their bombardment. The last sentence statement befuddled me until I did a Google search and found an explanation, "one will continue to persist, whether consciously or unconsciously, even in hopeless situations" (Auschwitz Dennis).

In the whole camp there are only a few Greeks who have a menaschka larger than ours. Besides the material advantages, it carries with it a perceptible improvement in our social standing. A menaschka like ours is a diploma of nobility, a heraldic emblem ... as for Elias, he is perpetually at our side ... he spies on us with tenacity to discover the secret of our 'organisacja' (Levi, p 145)

I just finished the book, and am to sleep now. Perhaps I will speak to my father beforehand. No -- it is too late. The same can be said of my aunt. It is eleven in the evening for them and they are likely already asleep. It is two in the morning here and I feel no victory in having finished the book. Rather, I just think that I would likely have died, as did the countless others, perhaps as just the thud of a corpse falling to the ground in the evening. Or perhaps as a slave sent to the gas chambers. So many deaths, so many people who would have otherwise been in a bed, with food and warmth -- but instead were condemned to death at the hands of the state.

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