Review: Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi

I read Survival in Auschwitz (though it’s original title is If This Is a Man, and I have no idea why they changed it) in college, but after visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps just outside of Kraków, Poland a few weekends ago, I felt (morbidly) compelled to revisit the book. Good decision. It’s splendidly written, naturally heartbreaking, and it’s less a full account of the ten months the author spent at Auschwitz than a meditation on the human condition, which of course any reader of a Holocaust memoir would feel cheated without.

Primo Levi was (he died in 1987 after falling from his balcony, a death widely interpreted as a suicide) an “Italian citizen of the Jewish race”; a chemist by training and a member of the anti-Fascist resistance in his native Turin. He was captured and deported to Auschwitz in winter of 1944, and spent ten months there, surviving—and by his own admission—thanks to not much more than luck. The book is not really structured chronologically, and though a narrative is very apparent, the memoir reads more like a collection of essays: his arrival; his stay in Ka Be, the camp’s infirmary; his recollections of his friends and acquaintances, and of those who escaped execution by cunning or strength or both; the ten days before the Red Army’s liberation, after the Germans abandoned the camp and the battle for survival was fiercer than ever. 

I’m devoting my Master’s thesis to what essentially amounts to the continued fallout, 65 years later, of one of the worst genocides in human history (essentially, how diminishing historical guilt affects German support for the “European project” and normalization of power), and I’m not even sure how to sum up my own feelings toward German war crimes in a neat, blog-worthy fashion. But no matter how much you think you know about the Holocaust, there’s nothing like rereading a firsthand account, especially one that is so stark and beautiful. In Kraków, my friend and travel partner Katharine and I visited the Galicia Museum in the Jewish Quarter the day before we toured Auschwitz-Birkenau to hear an 83-year-old Auschwitz survivor named Josef Rasolowski tell his story. (A museum staff member translated from the Polish.) Needless to say, we both had tears running down our faces by the end of his talk, and he ended on a hopeful note: He claimed he had forgiven the Germans for what they’d done, though it “took a long time.” Levi doesn’t delve into the aftermath of his incarceration in Survival in Auschwitz, though he does in his follow-up, The Reawakening (again, renamed for some bizarre reason—the original title is The Truce), which I have not yet read. From what I’ve read on Levi’s life, however, I cannot imagine that forgiveness was something he embraced, and frankly, I commend him for that.

Not to bring everything back to me, but whenever I explain my thesis topic to virtually anybody, I get some variant of “But do you think the Holocaust is still relevant?” or “But the Germans alive today are innocent,” or “You can’t keep blaming poor Germany for something that happened so long ago.” I’m not Jewish, but I think if I were, people would understand my fascination a bit more. Or, more likely, they’d dismiss said fascination as basic bitterness, much like white Americans are so eager to tell black people to “get over” slavery. If only moving on were that easy. For the record, I don’t hold twenty-first century Germans personally accountable for the crimes of their forefathers, but to underestimate how the Holocaust has shaped and continues to shape German national identity invites only the most superficial understanding of history. Reading books like Survival in Auschwitz are essential to keeping that history alive, for retaining its relevance in an era when most people just assume that “what happened a long time ago” (which wasn’t that long ago) doesn’t really matter. (I’m not even going to get into some of the worst wartime European offenders’ current attitudes toward Israel.) It boggles the mind how a nation like Germany could orchestrate a Holocaust and go on to claim one of the most liberal Constitutions of postwar Europe and serve as the main facilitator of European integration—though I contend that the country has undergone a noticeable shift since the beginning of the new millennium and is beginning to sublimate European goals to German interests. Regardless, though, Germany is unique—and while Survival in Auschwitz of course serves as a powerful testament to Auschwitz’s victims, it should also be remembered for what it says about the perpetrators. I don’t pretend to have that answer, and most likely no one ever will—but the questions cannot be discounted.

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