Survival in Auschwitz – Primo Levi (tr. Stuart Woolf) – 1958

Levi is immediate. Many people, many nations see the stranger as an enemy. And the extermination camp—with its parallel offence of the demolition of a man, deprived of everything, even to his name, and everything forbidden to him—becomes its logical conclusion in the syllogism based on this premise. Even accepting that an individual is impelled to “pursue his own ends by all possible means,” nonetheless so “long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us.”

Primo Levi

Primo Levi

In this extreme design, men become “slaves and masters, the masters slaves themselves.”

“[I]t is in the normal order of things that the privileged oppress the unprivileged: the social structure of the camp is based on this human law,” the insane “dream of grandeur of [the] masters, their contempt for God and men….” The “ferocious law,” perpetual if only too occasionally glimpsed, states that “’to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away.’” And this is insidious in its constancy. In “all countries in which a foreign people have set foot as invaders, an analogous position of rivalry and hatred among the subjected has been brought about,” yet another exemplification of a human characteristic.

Auschwitz (Courtesy:

Auschwitz (Courtesy:

Levi’s perspective is one of candour: neither perfect happiness nor its antithesis, perfect unhappiness, is attainable, the realization of either impossible because the human condition “is opposed to everything infinite.” And everything finite includes the future, and death, and material care, the mood of any moment drifting between extremes of optimism and pessimism in the lack of logic that prevails when one’s fate is in the balance.

“There are few men who know how to go to their deaths with dignity … [and few] know how to remain silent and respect the silence of others.”

Perhaps in this can be respected the silence of so many survivors, and their resistance to retelling. If one can read the last chapter of the book and understand it, then one must have been there. Otherwise, there is only the import and the evanescent utterance of words to guide us.

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