Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. First published in Italian in 1958. Published in English with an afterword: Primo Levi and Philip Roth in Conversation, 1986


"By the early 1980's the literary establishments of the West realized that Primo Levi, an industrial chemist from Turin, was also one of the great European writers of the 20th century." From a book review by Anthony Grafton in the New York Times

Primo Levi’s memoir, first published in English with the title If This is a Man (an accurate, but not immediately revealing translation of its original title in Italian), has reached the status of a classic. Levi, at the age of 24 was rounded up along with other partisans by the Fascists at the end of 1943 in the mountains outside of Turin, Italy, and was sent to a detention camp and then transported to Auschwitz where he remained eleven months until the camp was liberated by the Soviets. He spent his time in the section of Auschwitz called Monowitz-Buna which was a slave labor camp.

Levi, trained as a chemist, is also a gifted writer. He is a moral philosopher in his discussions of what went on in the camps between human beings reduced to their bestial nature. These included acts of unspeakable brutality on the part of the oppressors and acts of self-interest by prisoners who were propelled by their will to survive.

His powers of observation help us to see what he describes: the strategizing that took place if a prisoner wanted to survive - who to seek out, who to avoid, how to do your work, how to avoid as best you could back-breaking work that would kill you. He describes the selection process, the power structure in the camp, the underground economy that flourished amongst the prisoners, their guards, and civilians. This economy included trading for bread, soup, spoons, clothing, shoes.

This is not a family story. Levi was the only one of his immediate family to spend time in a concentration camp. His mother and sister remained in hiding during the war. It is interesting to compare this memoir to Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (a separate post). Wiesel was also in the Monowitz-Buna section of Auschwitz, but was with his father. At the end of the war Wiesel and his father, who left the infirmary to leave the camp, were part of the grueling death march the Germans forced on the prisoners. At the time of the death march Levi was in the infirmary with scarlet fever where he remained. The story of Levi’s last ten days after the Germans abandoned the camp but before the Soviets liberated it is the fascinating subject of the last chapter of this memoir where he dramatizes the desperation of the patients to survive and what they did to try to hold on.

To listen to a BBC interview with Primo Levi, click here.

If you would like to read a scholarly article about British Prisoners of War and their reaction to the Jewish inmates at Auschwitz published in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide, click here.

To read a 2/18/11 New York Times article on current thoughts about the need for new kinds of exhibitions at Auschwitz written by Michael Kimmelman, click here.

To read about the Primo Levi Centre at the Museum of Jewish History in New York City, founded to study "the history and culture of Italian Jewry" click here.


People
The following were prisoners Levi mentions:
Gattegno and family, Aldo Levi and daughter Emilia, Flesch, Bergmann, Wachsmann, Resnyk, Templer, Elias Lindzin, Iss Clausner, Wertheimer, Sattler, Schenck, Alcalai, Kuhn, Gounan, Kraus Pali, Brackier, Kandel, Silberlust, Towarowski, Lakmaker, Piero Sonnino (See the post on This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz by Piera Sonnino, who is not directly linked to Piero Sonnino in her memoir, but there is mostly likely a family connection.)

Places
Turin, Italy
Auschwitz
Monowitz-Buna

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