On Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz is a truly eye-opening piece that layers themes of physical and mental confinement, race, suffering, and perseverance. The most complex aspect of his depictions, to me, is the role of the victims in this a gray zone of the just and unjust. While those in concentration camps are the people physically confined, reading the account urged me contemplate how each person in the deranged system of the camps is mentally corrupted and forced into a system of dehumanizing survival that functions through self-interest. A system in which compassion, generally, has a limited though potentially powerful place.

One of the most eye-opening examples of the toxic nature of the concentration camps is highlighted in chapter eight when Levi discusses the bargain of goods between prisoners that ultimately creates a corrupt system of exchanges. While most processes of exchange are against the rules of Auschwitz, as even the gold tooth fillings of prisoners are property of the German captors, the prisoners use this as a sort of survival mechanism. This culture of bargaining, however, leads to a grayed arena of fairness and dishonesty. Prisoners scheme and cheat to attain the most of a bargain because that is the only means to survive. Everyone must do what is needed to survive. Levi writes, “We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words “good” and “evil,” “just” and “unjust”; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire” (chapter 8). What is especially prominent about this quote to me is the last part when Levi asks how much of the moral world could survive in this system. Readers may look down on the moral subversion promoted by the exchange market, but Levi asks them to consider a vital question: without this self-degradation, how was anyone to survive? By thinking laterally about prisoners’ actions, the reader is advised to withhold judgment and contemplate the way by which desperation breeds the corruption.

        The second largest takeaway from Levi’s account for me is the level of dehumanization that the prisoners faced. Constant cruelty diminishes victims of the Lagers to a level of sub-humanity that usually leads prisoners to either physical or mental death. Or in many cases, both. Levi notes, “Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves…he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself” (chapter 2). Through this excerpt, Levi encapsulates the core cause, the core justification even, of suffering and desensitization. When a man has lost all, what remains left of him but a “hollow” shell? Prisoners revert to basic instincts of survival, solely searching to exist through basic needs like food. Yet unlike primitive beings that lead fairly neutral lives, these victims are lessened to suffering that largely leads them to shut down any mechanism to feel this anguish and turn instead to self-interest, depicted through the measures they are willing to take to ensure survival (i.e. picking on the stronger, newer victims and failing to disclose learned cautions to them). Hence, de-humanization takes its role to strip prisoners of what makes them human: dignity, the state of being and feeling worthy of life which the victims lose through the process of becoming the branded number on their body, and restraint, the ability to be kept in control of oneself that the victims lose through the forced orders of the Nazi regime (even in regards to following particularly absurd rules such as having five buttons on a shirt).

While Levi helps us understand the prisoners’ loss of self, defined in part through the human ability to evoke compassion, he still emphasizes the importance of resilience to fight against the regime’s enslavement. For him, this resilience does indeed take the form of compassion and manifests itself through cooperation. Despite the fact that many prisoners survive (as long as they could) based off self-interest and pragmatism, for Levi, care for others takes a key role in his survival. This is especially evident in his depiction of Lorenzo with whose aid he accredits much of his survival through the system. When many of the prisoners are beaten down and desensitized to the dangers around them, such as the air raids in chapter 12, Levi sees good in the world through Lorenzo, who unlike most civilians does not necessarily view the prisoners as “thieves and untrustworthy” and judge them “worthy of [their] abasement” (chapter 12). This is an especially powerful relationship in my view because it provides a contrast to the majority of people characterized in the text: the prisoners who lose all faith in the power of compassion and the civilians who so readily swoop into the propagandized perceptions of those prisoners by the Nazis (i.e. that Jews are a subhuman race, “worthy” of their treatment and their punishment). I believe this translates onto Levi’s characterization of the victims further by providing the reader insight into how the public’s views of prisoners could enforce the sub-humanizing aspects of the system; with nearly every aspect of society telling victims that they are not worthy of existence, how could they themselves not believe that? And thus, what is to stop them from their eventual moral degradation?

        The perpetrators also play into this gray zone, but in my eyes, the part of Levi’s recounts that really stand out to me are his characterizations of the victims that demonstrate the dichotomies of thoughts of people’s minds and how they cope with these mental conflicts through emotional dissonance. As readers, it is incredibly easy to judge somebody based on their actions. We imagine the prisoners to be innocent victims, yet when we hear of corruption in the camps, we may believe that this corruption strips a victim of his/her innocence in a crime. Levi forces the reader to back away from that perception and instead consider the reasons behind these actions. He powerfully enables us to envision how a system converts each member of its demented networks into molding into nothing but a shell of existence, for anything more than a shell is too easily destroyed.


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