Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz”, originally titled more evocatively as “If This is a Man,” documents the experience of the author as a prisoner in a Nazi war camp during World War II. Mr. Levi has chosen to tell his story in the form of memoir—meaning these events are simply as he remembers them, not meant to be a definitive listing of events as history remembers them—where he could have easily written a historical non-fiction account by citing sources, included various statistics, and speaking to others who experienced similar cruelties under Fascist hand. Such a book might have been viewed as more objective and comprehensive than Levi’s memoir, especially if he also included the thoughts and opinions of his leaders in the camp, or those sympathetic with the Third Reich. Instead, he has written a short, subjective account of events, permeated with his personal thoughts and opinions. He does not even include the number of Jews (or any other group) that were killed during the war; there are no wartime percentages.
|Levi as a young man.|
Perhaps as important as what the choice of memoir is able to show is what it does not show. Levi does not include the opinions of others, except as they where expressed to him, or as he assumed them to be. He does not describe in-depth his life before capture, and the book ends quite abruptly with the Soviet liberation. Thus, the book is explicitly the account of one man’s struggle in Auschwitz.
Written in a lucid and powerful prose style, "Survival" is designed to show you the awful journey of just one man, the idea being that once the reader understands the ordeal of just one man enduring the camps he or she can apply that better understood suffering to the unimaginable number of millions of human beings who were murdered through the course of the war.
One of the most horrific aspects of the Nazi movement in particular was the mass killing of Jewish individuals. In order to help the reader understand this influx in a way that numbers cannot, Levi portrays the constantly interchanging masses—the musslemen, as they are known by their fellow prisoners—who come into the camp, then are replaced by a seemingly identical influx of men as they disappear to the ovens, die of dehydration or exhaustion, or (much less rarely) are shot or beaten to death. This creates a feeling of waste. There are always more prisoners coming in, no one leaves through the front gate.
Every day Levi recounts about the camp we understand that more and more people are effectively thrown away like so much garbage. The fact that Levi cannot keep track of the days himself only adds to the impotent feelings of inevitable death for the majority of the men who come through camp. In addition to this, it is interesting to note that the gas chambers where much of the murder takes place are never described in much detail. Instead, the prisoners refer to it as “the selection” or the “going to the chimney.” They may very well imagine what it would be like to go to the chambers themselves; the reader is never shown this. It is the book’s opinion that this is a lonely journey, almost sacred, and belongs alone to those souls who had to make it. It is interesting to note that there were no survivors of gas chambers once the gas had been released; therefore there is no record of what it must have been like.
|Years after the ordeal, Levi wrote his experiences down.|
Like so many survivors of the Holocaust, he dealt with serious
depression the rest of his life.
Time is one of the many uncertainties of Levi's daily life. There are seasons, certainly, for these things affect comfort and the likelihood of survival, but there are not "days" as you and I know them. The days bleed together, repeating themselves over and over. On one page Mr. Levi has one bedmate, on the next he has another; these transitions are not clearly defined, mimicking the lack of purpose and control that Levi himself must have felt.
In contrast, some events which might seem minor—a conversation with an old man before a selection, a chat in the bathroom about washing, someone helping someone else lifting a heavy workload—are explained in explicit detail, showing how certain events would stick in the Levi’s mind. This is very different from what the reader would see in a diary, documenting the day’s events based on their perceived importance at the time. Levi chose to present his book this way because it is his sad tale. It is not a number, or a statistic. It is not the journey of every man and woman in the camps. It is his, and it enlightens the world to the fact that there are millions of such stories, each tragically unique.
I recommend this shortish memoir without reservation to those who have not yet had the chance to read it, and would like to remind those who have that it exists.