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Analysis of the Theme of Survival in Auschwitz

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Survival in Auschwitz tells of the horrifying and inhuman conditions of life in the Auschwitz death camp as personally witnessed and experienced by the author, Primo Levi. Levi is an Italian Jew and chemist, who at the age of twenty-five, was arrested with an Italian resistance group and sent to the Nazi Auschwitz death camp in Poland in the end of 1943. For ten terrible months, Levi endured the cruel and inhuman death camp where men slaved away until it was time for them to die. Levi thoroughly presents the hopeless existence of the prisoners in Auschwitz, whose most basic human rights were stripped away, when in Chapter 2 he states, "Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself" (27). With Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi provides a stark examination of human survival in the dehumanized society of a Nazi death camp. Throughout the book, Levi reinforces the theme that the prisoners of the death camp are reduced to being no longer men, but instead animals that must struggle to survive day by day or face certain death.

In Chapter 2, appropriately titled "On the Bottom", Levi discusses his experience of being processed as a prisoner into Auschwitz and the realization that they will not be treated with any human regard. He and all the prisoners who arrive with him are stripped of everything they own and are shaved, disinfected, and tagged like they were livestock. Once the prisoners have been processed and they see what they have become, Levi describes the supreme indignation of their treatment as "the demolition of a man" and all realize that "It is not possible to sink lower than this, no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so" (26-27). All the Jewish prisoners of the camp have absolutely no rights and no possessions. Levi states, "Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand" (27). Indeed most of the prisoners speak little or no German, which makes it almost impossible to communicate with their Nazi masters. When each prisoner has a number tattooed on his arm, Levi realizes that the Nazis will even try to take away from him his former identity. For him to keep his name, he will need to find the strength to remember it, "to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were remains" (27). The initiation procedure into the camp removes all pretenses of hope and it is soon clear that they will only leave the camp through the crematorium chimney. As Levi states quite effectively, "We are slaves deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death..." (41).

Another element of life in the Lager, or death camp, that reinforced the dehumanizing aspect of camp life and the struggle for survival was the frequent and indiscriminate beatings the Jewish prisoners received. From the start of their journey to Auschwitz, Levi and the prisoners he accompanied received blows from the SS men, who struck them without any apparent anger, to Levi's amazement (16). Most violations of the innumerable camp rules are punished with beatings from the SS guards, Kapos, or prominents. No explanations need to be given since "in this place everything is forbidden...because the camp has been created for that purpose" (29). The new arrivals to the camp know nothing of the rules and codes of conduct of camp life and are especially likely to be beaten. When Levi arrived at the camp he understood little of what people said and no one would explain anything to him. He illustrates this confused state of new arrivals when he says, "No one has time here, no one has patience, no one listens to you; we latest arrivals instinctively collect in the corners, against the walls afraid of being beaten" (38). Anyone with authority or social standing has the right to beat the "racially inferior" Jewish prisoners. In Chapter 6, Levi tells how Kapos, "beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses" (67).

A further aspect of Survival in Auschwitz that reinforces the dehumanizing effect of the death camp on the Jewish prisoners is the constant presence of hunger and starvation among the prisoners. Food and its acquisition and consumption are a constant topic that Primo Levi discusses because it constantly occupied the minds of most prisoners. Levi states, "We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose the crumbs" (33). Bread and soup are the only things prisoners in the camp receive and whether you are served soup from the top or the bottom is of great importance. The prisoners would try to get soup from the bottom half of the vat because soup from the upper portion is mostly watery broth whereas soup from the bottom portion contains more vegetables pieces (33). The insatiable desire for food would lead prisoners to act in very animalistic ways. Upon waking up in the morning, prisoners would quickly make their beds and then run to the latrines urinating "while they run to save time, because within five minutes begins the distribution of bread" (39). Food was difficult to save because theft in the Lager was always likely as the law of the camp was "eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbors" (160). Levi illustrates with the constant discussion of hunger that even the prisoner's most basic of human needs are not met in the hellish prison camp.

The threat of selection for the gas chambers and crematorium is another element of Survival in Auschwitz that shows how the prisoners are no longer men, but mere animals in the death camp. In October of 1944, with the arrival of winter in Poland, the Germans sought to relieve the overcrowding of the camp huts through an atrocious process of selection (124). The method of selection was little more than survival of the fittest, as the Nazis would arbitrarily decide in a very quick review of the naked Jewish prisoners who was still useful and who would be executed (128). As each prisoner made two crossing in front of an SS soldier, his card was handed to one of two aids on either side of the SS man (128). If a prisoner's card went to the left he died, to the right he lived. Through this method the Nazis judged each prisoner like a rancher would cattle being sent to slaughter.



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