Primo Levi and the teachings of Auschwitz

If This Is a Man is Primo Levi’s account of the time he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz. It is one of the best-known and most poignantly written testimonies of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Levi was an Italian Jew. He was arrested in 1944, when the German army had occupied the northern half of Italy – Mussolini’s fascists had never been ardent antisemites, and until the occupation Italian Jews had been relatively safe. Levi was transported to one of the labor camps in the vicinity of Auschwitz, and he managed to survive; through luck, and because he was a chemist, which allowed him to seek shelter in a position that made use of his education and protected him from backbreaking work.

There are several observations Levi made that distinguish his book. Levi notes the cynical mockery that formed the backdrop to the obvious brutality. It was not enough for the nazis to physically exterminate the Jewish prisoners. Even before they killed them, they wanted to utterly reduce them to nothingness. Upon arrival, the prisoners were robbed of their personal objects, separated from their families, shaven, showered, clothed in new clothes, a number was tattooed on their arm, and they were only addressed by their numbers, not their names. Many prisoners seemed to forget they had a name. Permanent hunger, exhaustion and the constant possibility of death reduced their horizon to the next meal, the next break, and made clear thinking impossible. Dreams, hopes and aims were unreasonable and irrational. Even before these prisoners were murdered in the gas chambers, they were already reduced to the lowest possible state of existence. Their death merely represented the conclusion of a process of dehumanization that began the instant the prisoners were shoved into cattle wagons and transported to the camps.

The aim of the humiliating, nonsensical procedures the prisoners were subjected to was to mock them and to break them. It is well-known that the gates of Auschwitz were lettered with the words: “Work makes you free”. Little rhymes in the bathrooms reminded the prisoners to maintain hygiene: “After using the toilet and before lunch, don’t forget to wash your hands” – in a camp that was designed to kill them, the prisoners were reminded of washing their hands. The nazis wanted to utterly destroy any hope that was left within the prisoners – essentially, they told them: “Look, we can do all these terrible things to you: we reduce you to nothingness, torture and murder you, make fun of you, and nobody stops us. Nobody will help you. You are lost. God does not exist. Justice does not exist. There is no hope for you.” This is pure sadism – if you can destroy the light of hope inside a person, you have absolute control over him/her, you are his/her god.

The highest manifestation of this sadism was the so-called “Sonderkommando” – “commando for special purposes”. The prisoners who formed this group had to guide newly arrived prisoners into the gas chambers, and subsequently clean the chambers and burn the remains. In return, they received better rations. While they were privileged and sometimes even treated with respect by the German guards, these prisoners were a problem, since they had seen the darkest secrets of the system. After a few months, new prisoners were selected for the “Sonderkommando”, and their first duty was to guide their predecessors into the gas chambers. Symbolically, the prisoners were made complicit in the destruction of their own people, they were made part of a system that would ultimately consume themselves as well.

Levi astutely observed the symbolic meaning of all that happened to him as a prisoner. He also noted how a new social structure emerged under the extreme conditions of the concentration camp. In the hierarchy of the camp, ordinary criminals were the most privileged, since they were neither politically suspect nor judged racially inferior. The German authorities selected the most brutal of them to be put in charge of the Jewish prisoners, who had the lowest status. In between stood the political prisoners. A complicated economy of trade, corruption and mutual favors emerged in this sociotope. Under the circumstances, only the best-adapted prisoners survived, ordinary prisoners fell prey to hunger and exhaustion after a few weeks or months. The extreme situation magnified differences in character that remain hidden in ordinary life; clever persuasiveness or primitive lack of sensitivity that may have comparably small consequences in ordinary life could make the difference between life and death in the concentration camps. Even small vices became magnified under the circumstances; all the more so pronounced inclinations towards violence. His descriptions of those few who managed to preserve their humanity and compassion shine all the more brightly against the backdrop of suffering and brutalization.

Some of the experiences Levi recounts are surreal, compared to ordinary life. An example is his exam with a German chemist, whose assessment decided whether Levi would be allowed to work in a privileged position (possible survival) or go back to the ordinary prisoners (certain death). The neatly dressed German chemist tested Levi’s chemistry knowledge; Levi stood before him, bald and emaciated, frantically trying to remember what he had learned during his studies in Turin, seemingly a lifetime ago. I couldn’t help but remember how much anxiety my exams at school and in university had caused me, and how little was at stake, in comparison.

Levi’s book remains relevant, not only to understand what happened in the past, but also to see clearly human nature, to see what humans can do to each other. We like to believe that we live in a civilized age, that we have transcended barbarity. But the truth is that the layer of civilization is thin, precariously held in place by the relative stability and wealth of our societies.

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