Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi

Survival in Auschwitz

Survival in Auschwitz is the first person account of concentration camp inmate Primo Levi from Italy.

Levi was there at a time when the camp—or at least the portion he was in—functioned more as a slave labor camp than an extermination camp. People around him were still being taken off to be killed periodically, but they weren’t brought there solely for that purpose and dispatched as quickly and efficiently as possible.

So it reminds me as much or more of accounts of Soviet labor camps in Siberia such as Journey Into the Whirlwind as of accounts of Nazi death camps.

None of Levi’s grim story is surprising if you have any background knowledge at all of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but that doesn’t stop it from being emotionally affecting.

I’ll mention just a few of the things that stood out to me about the camp.

There are many pointless rules, at least pointless in the sense of directly affecting work efficiency or anything like that. Instead they seem solely for the purpose of humiliation, or exhibiting power and control. So it’s a matter of forcing people to jump through countless stupid hoops just to show that you can.

The camp was run as one where prisoners are in a hierarchy, with the actual hands-on discipline mostly being administered by other prisoners rather than the authorities—a “trusty” kind of system. Most of the prisoners put in position to abuse the other prisoners like that were Germans transferred in from regular prisons for criminals.

Levi believes not only that you can’t generalize from the cruelty of these trusties to attribute similar cruelty to typical German people, but also that imprisoned German criminals on the whole can’t have been like these people. He theorizes that the criminals put in charge of the prisoners must have been unusually sadistic relative to their peers, and were selected for just that reason.

Not that when Jews were put in charge of other Jews they behaved any better. Levi says if anything they were extra cruel. Being unable to exercise their hatred and rage on their oppressors, they directed it toward those in even worse circumstances than themselves.

Most of the slave labor was done outdoors or in or near the neighboring towns, rather than inside the camp. Some of the labor involved interacting with civilians. At one point Levi is fortunate enough to get an office job, working for a doctor. In one of the scenes that was most striking to me, he asks a question of a young woman in the office, a non-slave, regular German co-worker. She reacts with a look of utter shock and loathing, and instead of lowering herself to respond to Levi, rushes to the supervisor to express her outrage that one of those Jews had the gall to address her.

Levi is not particularly judgmental toward his fellow prisoners who exploit and steal from each other. He sees it as a situation where they’ve been placed against their will in a dog-eat-dog situation where if you’re not strong enough, and willing enough, to victimize the weak among your group you won’t survive. I note, though, that he doesn’t say much about his own behavior of that kind. He writes about defending himself from being victimized, but not really about ways he victimized others, even though by his own account such behavior was both necessary to survival and, thereby, excusable.

Aside from the blatant injustice of the camps—which is what makes such phenomena particularly heartbreaking—there’s the sheer physical suffering. If nothing else it makes you thankful for normality, or at least what’s normal for 21st century Americans who aren’t bitterly poor. The very fact that it’s normal makes you not typically conscious of it, but just be glad that you don’t have a life where every moment is utterly dominated by hunger, extreme cold, sleep deprivation, fending off fellow humans who have been reduced to a sub-animal level, etc.

Which leads me to one of the two main thoughts or questions I’m left with when I read about terrible things like this, which is why people bother even trying to survive when they have to suffer this much and mistreat each other this much. I just don’t have that kind of survival instinct. I think I would throw in the towel about 10%-20% of the way to this degree of suffering. I feel like I’m not all that far from suicide in ordinary life, like it’s a somewhat close call whether to continue to make the effort to stick around just on an ordinary day. But staying for this? I doubt it.

Levi says one reason it was so important for him to survive is so that he’d be able to write about the experience like he has here. I can certainly respect that, but I can’t imagine that or anything else would be enough for me to want to survive a concentration camp.

The other thing I think about in connection with a phenomenon like the Holocaust is how people react when brought face to face through a book like this with the reality of just how extraordinarily cruel and unjust human beings are capable of being.

It seems like there are two main categories of responses this could elicit in people. One—by far the most common one—is that anything you have to do, violent or otherwise, to defeat something this evil is justified, that in this extreme a case, the end justifies any means. Call it the Winston Smith position. In 1984, Smith is challenged as to whether there are limits to his commitment to the cause of overthrowing the Big Brother regime. He is asked if he would, for instance, throw acid in a child’s face if it were necessary to destabilize the regime, and he answers in the affirmative.

The other type of response to such extreme evil is to feel an even greater aversion to behaving like that oneself. Call that the pacifist response, the absolute refusal to throw acid in a child’s face even when opposing people who do things like throw acid in children’s faces.

I respond in the pacifist manner. Seeing horrible violence inflicted on people doesn’t make me want to loosen my inhibitions against using violence (against the perpetrators); it makes me all the more nonviolent.

I think a lot of people have trouble grasping that. They think one could only be a pacifist if one had some kind of naïve view of people as inherently good, and that something like Survival in Auschwitz should disabuse one of any such notion. They don’t understand that for some of us, examples like this show just what can happen when you convince yourself there are any circumstances in which you’re justified in imposing your will on others through violence and cruelty, and so turn us against it all the more.

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