Primo Levi’s Reflection on Humanity in Crisis: Survival in Auschwitz


Primo Levi’s Reflection on Humanity in Crisis: Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, translated by Giulio Einaudi), depicts not only the author’s survival in the notorious Nazi concentration camp, but also the survival of his humanity after enduring such a grueling process of dehumanization. Published in 1947 under the Italian title If This is a Man (Se questo e un uomo), Levi doesn’t claim to offer new information about the Holocaust in this autobiographical book. Nor does he wish to level fresh accusations against the Nazis. Writing in an introspective manner, Levi sets out “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9).

Pensive and thought provoking, Survival in Auschwitz constitutes a reflection on the power—and limits—of forgiveness. In an interview published by the New Republic on February 16, 1986, Levi announces that he did not harbor any feelings of hatred towards the Germans. He explains: “I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans.” Levi views the Holocaust not as a reflection of the German nation, but rather as a broader crisis of humanity. Nation after nation fell under the spell of Fascism as countless individuals engaged in horrific acts of cruelty.

Does this mean that the author absolves the Nazis of moral responsibility for their actions? No. During the same interview, Levi qualifies: “All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” He explains that he can only forgive those who show–through actions, not just words–that they take responsibility and feel guilty for their crimes against humanity. He is speaking, above all, of the crimes perpetrated by ordinary men and women.

In Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes how inflicting harm upon others became a matter of routine during the Holocaust. Sometimes, even without harboring any particular hatred, many Nazi officers conducted the selection process and sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths in the gas chambers. Two of the main questions that continue to haunt Levi throughout his life are: how mass murder could have become so commonplace and how much did the German population know about the Holocaust.

In his 1986 interview with the New Republic, Levi offers lucid and reasonable answers. Because totalitarian regimes function very differently from democracies, he argues, it’s not possible to have a dissemination of truthful information and open criticism of despicable actions in totalitarian regimes that we have in democratic societies. Yet, by the same token, Levi remarks, “it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, that was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was one of the aims of Nazism.”

Perhaps one of the most astute observations in Survival in Auschwitz is the statement that just as absolute happiness is impossible, so is absolute unhappiness. Even in the hellish conditions of the Nazi concentration camps, prisoners gradually adapt to each phase of the process of dehumanization: starting with the isolation from the rest of the population in Jewish ghettos; to the order to gather by the train station to be transported in cattle trains to concentration camps; to the brutal conditions of the camps themselves. It is rarely a planned acquiescence to humiliation and abuse. Rather, at each phase of their oppression, victims tend to focus on the moment-to-moment struggle for survival. Heroism in such adverse conditions becomes almost impossible. By way of contrast, as Levi observes, “to sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp” (Survival in Auschwitz, 90). In such a context, the quest for survival assumes heroic dimensions itself, as does the ability to endure extreme hardship while remaining dignified and humane. Few are able to achieve this. Among them is Levi’s friend, Lorenzo, a man whom the author remembers fondly for the rest of his life.

When asked, in the New Republic interview, why a grander, more ambitious heroism didn’t occur in the camps—“How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?”—Levi reminds readers that in such closely monitored environments, “Escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The prisoners were debilitated, besides being demoralized, by hunger and ill treatment. Their heads were shaved, their striped clothing was immediately recognizable, and their wooden clogs made silent and rapid walking impossible.” Furthermore, most of the inmates found themselves imprisoned in foreign countries whose inhabitants spoke a different language. Many of the natives were hostile to Jews and most were indifferent to their plight. As for revolts, as Levi points out, they existed: in Treblinka, Sobibor and Birkenau. However, “They did not have much numerical weight. Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they represented, rather, examples of extraordinary moral force. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way, and consequently in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner.”

Although, philosophically speaking, Levi remained a humanist and rationalist throughout his life despite the severe trauma he endured at Auschwitz, he eventually succumbed to its effects. Depression and nightmares haunted him throughout his life. In April 1987, Levi died after falling from his third-story apartment in Turin, which many close to him considered a suicide. Yet he did not write, suffer and die in vain. Through his memoirs, books and interviews, Primo Levi left behind an invaluable intellectual legacy that helps us recall, commemorate and better comprehend the worst humanitarian crisis in history.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

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