‘You were made men’: Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

In a recent post about choosing The Road as one of the texts for my Introduction to Literature class next year, I mentioned that I’m also assigning Eli Wiesel’s Night. In the comments, Dorian said that he considered Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz “the more compelling text, both formally and conceptually.” As I said to him then, I’ve known for a while that I should read Levi, and his remark  was just the instigation I needed to make it a priority.

I finished reading Survival in Auschwitz this afternoon, so it’s too soon for me to say whether I think it is better or greater than Night. It is certainly a very different book, and as I work up my notes on Night again in the fall I know I’ll be thinking a lot about the contrasts. My first impression is that it is a much less overtly literary book than NightNight is heavily symbolic, organized around motifs and vignettes and characterized (at least in the translation I’m familiar with) by striking images and words freighted with significance. Levi’s approach is more indirect, his vignettes or episodes more elusive or ambiguous. In some ways, I think Night is more artful, but also, as a result, it feels more artificial. There’s a raw quality to Levi’s book: it’s not sleek, he’s honest about things he forgets, there are awkward but heartfelt gestures towards people he remembers. The book is unified in a different way than Night  is–not emotionally or symbolically but associatively, conceptually, a section at a time. It does not conclude but ends, again awkwardly, without flourish. Though both books immerse us in the horror of Auschwitz, Levi’s account seems somehow less visceral, more appalled than angry, more inquisitive than despairing. It is not any less devastating. It is, perhaps, more morally challenging: where Wiesel deals in searing absolutes, Levi puzzles us, as he was puzzled: “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.”

The differences between the books are not superficial, but at the same time I don’t think they are fundamental: both books are ultimately preoccupied with the loss or preservation of humanity under conditions that deliberately seek to exterminate it, conditions so psychically brutalizing that physical death seems little more than a bureaucratic afterthought. The original English title of Survival in Auschwitz was If This Is a Man, which is a direct translation of the Italian title. The current title seems apt to the book’s attention to literal survival: a lot of Levi’s attention is given to the complex economy of the camp, driven by desperation but also fueled by people’s endless ingenuity: spoons, shoes, bowls, bread–the things that mean, for just a little longer, endurance. The title has another dimension, though, more consonant with the Italian title, which is the survival of the person: memories, dreams, knowledge. For Levi, his knowledge of chemistry, which helps define him, to himself, as a man (“Yet I am he, the B. Sc. of Turin, in fact, at this particular moment it is impossible to doubt my identity with him”) also contributes to his physical survival, as his job in the laboratory protects him from a second winter of hard labor. But one of the most profound and moving sections of the book for me was section 11, “The Canto of Ulysses,” in which Levi tries to teach a fellow prisoner Italian by reciting and translating some of the Divine Comedy:

Here, listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake:

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.’

As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.

Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.

Levi’s urgency increases as their time runs out and he can’t remember the lines, can’t bridge the gaps in his memory, can’t explain, can’t hold on. The poetry is unbearable because it awakens what the camp refuses–what you too must refuse to survive the camp (“oh, Pikolo, Pikolo, say something, speak, do not let me think of my mountains which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin”). But the loss of the poetry is also unbearable, because it is the negation of the camp. It is the antidote, not to the regimented brutality, the beatings and murders, the starvation, but to what Levi calls early in the book “the demolition of a man.”

5 thoughts on “‘You were made men’: Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

  1. Mike April 15, 2012 / 2:31 pm

    A really powerful book that I think illustrates a lot of Levi’s ideas about what one does to survive in a concentration camp is Borowski’s “This Way to the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen,” which is a collection of semi-fictional, but mostly autobiographical stories about Auschwitz and Dachau. Borowski was, as the title story makes clear, a prisoner responsible for guiding Jews and others to the gas chambers. It’s a harrowing read, and I would hesitate to assign it alongside Wiesel or Levi for fear of ruining my students’ ability to get out of bed, but it’s an understudied work (well, that may not be true, I’m no expert, but it’s certainly not as famous) that deserves more attention.

    Again, I think it would be really interesting to read the works in conjunction with one another, but it might ruin some students.


  2. Rohan April 15, 2012 / 10:14 pm

    Mike, thanks for the suggestion — I guess! I looked up Borowski’s book and it looks remarkable, but I’m afraid as much for my own inability to carry on as for my students’. This is such a difficult kind of reading to do, and it can seem so inappropriate to read something like Survival in Auschwitz just as you would any other book (picking it up and putting it down, having a snack, taking an e-mail break, writing in the margins, whatever). But it also seems wrong not to do this reading, given the importance of knowing, and also the importance for these writers of bearing witness. I only dabble in this material: I have a colleague who specializes in it and I know for her it is sometimes overwhelming. Anyway, I’ll probably read This Way to the Gas myself: everything else I read helps me think about how to work with Night in the classroom.


  3. Mike April 16, 2012 / 11:32 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying. After reading a section of The Drowned and The Saved (also by Levi, also harrowing) in a moral philosophy class, I asked my professor how he managed to teach a whole course on the subject–and how he managed to get a whole class through–and he could only say that you just had to work through it.


  4. Dorian Stuber April 18, 2012 / 12:06 am

    I agree with Mike about “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” I used to teach most of the book, but I’ve pared it down to the title story, which I teach right after Levi and Wiesel. It’s always a key moment in the course–we need one class to process our reactions to the text (how can it be both horrifying, and, in its way funny?–this juxtaposition only furthers the horror) and then one to consider the merits of the story more specifically. Borowski really deserves a wider readership.

    At any rate, I’m so glad you finally read Levi, Rohan, and I very much enjoyed your thoughtful comments on the text. I confess (it won’t come as much of a surprise) that I’ve seldom had much time for Wiesel, though I will say that teaching Night regularly, and working with students reactions to it (many like it a lot initially and then cool to it), has made me appreciate it more.

    I’ve taught my course on the Holocaust each year now for four years–far more frequently than I teach anything else. (People can’t get enough Holocaust.) There’s always a moment when I think “There’s no way I can keep teaching this stuff” but perversely I always find the course enlivening and rewarding–and, weirdly enough, lots of *fun*. (Partly it’s because the course seems to attract particularly talented students, but partly it’s something in the material–not the triumph of the human, but maybe the bracing and demanding qualities of the texts.)

    The Drowned and the Saved, especially the chapter “Shame” is really essential reading. It confirms some of the things Levi says in Survival but also refines and complicates that text. (I find it more despairing, ultimately.)

    Things we always end up focusing on when I teach Survival: the Canto of Ulysses (so instructive to compare it to Juliek and his violin and his Beethoven sonata in Night); the peculiar metaphor of the drowned running like water to the sea (are they *meant* to die?); and the preface in which Levi says that the text is meant as documentation to furnish a quiet study of the mind *and* that it is a product of his desperation, and therefore unfinished, broken etc–that tension between detachment and immersion is one of the things I most like about it.


  5. Rohan April 18, 2012 / 6:42 pm

    Very interesting, Dorian. I wonder if the sense that it’s “enlivening” comes from knowing it’s very important. I know Wiesel is a bit of a controversial figure and Night has been criticized for inaccuracies or misrepresentation (my expert colleague tells me that she can’t quite get past the difference in some details between Night and another of his books–the specifics of his injuries during the death march, I think, vary). In some ways, these problems actually help class discussion, I think: they undo any impulse to a kind of reverence towards the text that might come from its subject and its being by a survivor. Anyway, I passed by the King’s library yesterday and got both The Drowned and the Saved and This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.


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