After joining a small group of anti-Fascist partisans hiding out in the Italian forests (and doing a pretty amateur job of it, according to the author), Primo Levi was captured by the Fascists in 1943 and sent to a detention camp in Italy. Shortly afterwards, he and the other captured Italian Jews were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. And believe us: it really doesn't get much worse than that.
Along with the other prisoners, Levi was put to work at brutally hard labor—not anything he'd ever known as a highly educated chemist. Against all odds, he survived the camp over the course of a long, horrific year, during which he faced starvation, bone-numbing cold, and disease. In January 1945, the Nazis abandoned the camp in the face of the approaching Soviet army and their constant bombing of the camp. They took the healthy prisoners with them.
Levi, sick with scarlet fever in the camp infirmary, was left to fend for himself and the other sick prisoners in the destroyed camp. After ten days of misery in the freezing cold, with bodies piling up and conditions deteriorating, the emaciated prisoners still alive were finally rescued by the Soviet army.
Levi wrote his memoir, originally titled Se questo è un uomo (in English, If this is a man), in 1946, about a year after being set free from the camp. All of his experiences were brutally fresh in his mind—and we do mean brutal.
That's right. We're taking off our kid gloves and pulling precisely zero punches: this one's not at all easy to read. It recounts the inhuman life that Jewish prisoners were forced to lead inside the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps and what they did to survive.
And very few survived.
Levi wrote his work as an act of bearing witness to the horrors he had both seen and undergone himself. It's a testimony to both the sheer willpower of perseverance and human strength that emerges when people are stretched to their utter limits, as well as the dark depths to which humanity is capable of sinking. As a first-hand account of the concentration camps, Survival in Auschwitz is the wellspring of Holocaust witness literature, such as Elie Wiesel's Night.
Sadly, even though Levi emerged from Auschwitz alive and lived for many decades afterwards (with a successful literary career writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry), he committed suicide in 1987. About this, Elie Wiesel famously said: "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later."
We repeat: this won't be easy.
P.S. Because Auschwitz is a real, historical place, it's well-documented through words and images. We've included links to a few images throughout our Learning Guide to help visualize some of the things Levi is describing, and some of them are pretty upsetting to look at. So if you're sensitive about this stuff, use your discretion when you click. We'll let you know if an image is particularly disturbing.
World War can seem like ancient history to kids growing up now, right? Seriously, we at Shmoop would wager one week's book budget (which for us is not inconsiderable) that you'd be hard-pressed to have even your grandparents tell you some first-hand accounts of the big Dubble-ya Dubble-ya Dos.
And that, Shmoopers, is precisely why you should care. Before too much longer, all of those who actually lived through the unimaginable suffering in places like Auschwitz and other concentration and extermination camps will be gone. Not to mention that there are a lot of people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened or was completely exaggerated (source).
Director Steven Spielberg was so inspired by Holocaust survivors' stories when he was making his movie Schindler's List that he founded an organization to collect video testimony from survivors so that their experiences would be remembered even when their generation was gone.
We don't want their stories to pass along untold, nor the Bigger Truth here: that we are by no means in some kind of Safe Zone that would ensure that another Auschwitz will never happen again. Since we couldn't say it any better, let's hear Levi's own words on this issue, from his "Author's Preface" to Survival in Auschwitz:
Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy.' For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.
This is some pretty heavy stuff, right? But what does Levi mean by this? Well, he's reminding us that human beings have a deeply-rooted tribal instinct that hangs out in our brain just waiting to be activated by something in the culture. The real danger, he points out, is when this instinct becomes the basis for an entire set of rules in a culture—rules, like those of the Nazis, that allow one group of people to justify the destruction of another.
Consider Levi's testimony as a powerful vaccine that can help immunize the old human lizard-brain against this "latent infection" that makes some hate and fear those who are different.
The Primo Levi Center
Here's a helpful site that provides info and resources on Jewish culture and history.
Auschwitz: Jewish Virtual Library
Overview of Auschwitz, courtesy of the Jewish Virtual Library.
BBC: The Holocaust
Our friends at the BBC have put together an informative collection of information relating to the Holocaust.
Nazi Propaganda Archive
This site shows how the Nazis were able to incite hatred for the Jews among the public.
In Their Own Words
The Nazis were known to keep meticulous records and reports of what happened in the camps. Here's an example: a report to Himmler (a Nazi leader) by one of his subordinates telling him how they were able to do such an awesome job designing the selection process at Auschwitz.
Conversations with Primo Levi
Some excerpts from a 1989 book that features Levi talking about his experiences with writing his book and life in Auschwitz.
Primo Levi's Last Moments
Article that explores Primo Levi's suicide in 1987.
Primo Levi: Back to Auschwitz
Here's an Italian State Television documentary showing Levi taking a journey back to Auschwitz in 1983. It's in Italian, so better cozy up to someone who can translate for you if you don't understand it. Even if you don't speak the language, the visuals are powerful.
Primo: A Scene
This PBS Great Performances site gives us a glimpse of the stage adaptation of Survival in Auschwitz.
Primo Levi: Great Lives
Check out this BBC Radio program about the life of Primo Levi.
Witness: The Death of Primo Levi
Courtesy of the BBC World Service.
Young Primo Levi
A photo of Levi as a young man.
Here's another photo, now of a more mature Levi.
Current Cover Art
Cover Art for Survival in Auschwitz.
Early Cover Art: If This Is a Man
This is from an early Italian edition of Levi's text.
This is the scene described by Levi in the final paragraphs of his memoir: what the Russian soldiers found when they arrived at Auschwitz. Warning: graphic image, 10 out of 10 on the difficult-to-look-at scale.
Crematorium IV at Auschwitz with "The Chimney"