To tell of his eleven months in a Nazi concentration camp, Levi draws heavily on the Inferno book of Dante’s La divine commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). His allusions to and quotations from Dante show the hellish nature of what Levi calls the Lager (the German word for camp), but they also serve another function. The Italian title of Levi’s book and the title of the original English translation pose the question of what it means to be human. Survival in Auschwitz deals not only, or indeed primarily, with physical survival but also with preserving one’s humanity.
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Levi succeeded in surviving in large part through luck, as he repeatedly notes. Captured in Italy by the German army in December, 1943, he arrived in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in February, 1944. By that time the Nazis were running low on slave labor and so were allowing their Jewish prisoners to live longer than had been the case earlier in the war. Levi also was fortunate in finding Lorenzo, a compassionate civilian worker who gave extra food to the starving prisoners. Levi’s training in chemistry — the field in which he had received a bachelor’s degree in 1941 — secured him a post in the Chemical Kommando that eventually sheltered him from the cold and the hard manual labor that killed so many others. In addition, he fell ill just as the Germans abandoned the camp, so he was left behind when the healthier prisoners were forced to march away.
Those people would die or be killed en route.
Just as the pilgrim Dante is saved by the poet Vergil in The Divine Comedy, so Levi was also saved by Dante and the Western culture he represents. In language the more chilling for its scientific detachment, Levi shows that the Nazis sought to destroy the Jews not only physically but also spiritually. Arriving at the Lager, they were stripped of their possessions, their clothes, their hair, even their names. What the Germans could not remove was the culture Levi brought with him. In the central chapter of Survival in Auschwitz, The Canto of Ulysses, Levi recites canto 26 of The Inferno to another prisoner as they go to fetch the midday soup. Levi concentrates on the speech Ulysses makes to his mariners: Fatti non foste a viver come bruti/ ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza (You were not born to live like beasts but to pursue worthy deeds and knowledge). In the kitchen, Dante’s poetry yields to the announcement that the day’s soup is Kraut und Rüben (cabbage and turnips). The chapter ends with the final words of Ulysses, infin che ’l mar fu sovra noi richiuso (until the ocean closed over us). Italian humanism is drowned by German barbarism — but Dante has the last word nonetheless.
Throughout his book, Levi emphasizes the importance of refusing to live like beasts. Within a week of his imprisonment, Levi has stopped washing himself. Steinlauf, an Austrian prisoner, teaches him the importance of maintaining a semblance of humanity in such an inhuman place. One must wash even with dirty water, dry oneself with one’s dirty shirt, and polish one’s wooden clogs that will be filthy again by the end of the day. Lorenzo sustains Levi not only with food but also with evidence that kindness still exists. When Levi passes the exam that secures him a place in the camp’s chemistry lab, he gains more than physical comfort. He recognizes that he is not just prisoner 174517 but also the Primo Levi who graduated from the University of Turin summa cum laude.
The alternative to this spiritual survival is to become like the prisoner known as Null Achtzehn (zero eighteen) from the last three numbers of his tattoo. This man’s only identity is his number, one symbolizing his fate. The numerical values of the two letters of the word for life in Hebrew, chai, add up to eighteen. The Lager has negated Null Achtzehn’s life. Others live on, such as the cunning, heartless Henri and the brutal Elias Lindzin, but they, too, are among those Levi calls the drowned.
Survival in Auschwitz ends with a diary of the ten days between the German abandonment of the Lager and the arrival of the liberating Russian army. The form of this section is crucial because it demonstrates the end of the mentality of the Lager. Levi says that in the Lager history had stopped. The phrase for never was tomorrow morning. Although Survival in Auschwitz proceeds chronologically, time passes unmarked. Levi wonders, How many months have gone by since we entered the camp? How many since the day I was dismissed from Ka-Be [the infirmary]? Now the prisoners have reentered history. The diary also records the changes in the behavior of the inmates once the Germans leave. Before, the rule had been to eat all one’s own food and try to get others’ rations as well. Now the prisoners offer Levi and two others extra food in exchange for their foraging. These men have reasserted their humanity.
Se questo è un uomo was rejected by the prestigious Italian publisher Einaudi in 1947 because consulting editor Natalia Ginzburg believed that the public would not want to read Levi’s account. She was right. Published by Franco Antonicelli in an edition of twenty-five hundred copies, it sold only nineteen hundred, although it received favorable reviews. A decade later, Einaudi reversed its decision, and the book has remained in print ever since. It has become widely used in schools, has been translated into various languages, and has been the subject of many scholarly studies as a landmark among writings about the Holocaust.