Translated by Stuart Woolf
Introduction by Paul Bailey
Abacus (ISBN 978-0-349-10013-5)
Primo Levi was 24 years old in the fall of 1943 when he was arrested with other members of the Italian resistance movement. Instead of being shot as a traitor, he confessed to being Jewish and was shipped to Auschwitz. If This Is a Man tells about Levi’s time in the Lager (camp). As Sam Magavern details in Primo Levi’s Universe, this book would not be the final word on Levi’s experience but would provide the starting point of an evolving moral philosophy. Levi describes in the Afterword how he felt about his experience upon his return: “[T]hose memories burned so intensely inside me that I felt compelled to write as soon as I returned to Italy, and within a few months I wrote If This Is a Man. (381)
Levi states that the central purpose of the book was to provide “documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” (15) Since Levi wants the reader to participate in what occurred, he takes some poetic license despite assuring us no facts were invented—which may be correct in a narrow sense but misleading since not everything described happened to Levi.
The opening poem to the book can be read here. It is based on the Jewish prayer representing God’s call to Israel, asking the reader to engrave these words on their heart while we consider if “this,” the victims of the Nazis and the state to which they are reduced in the camps, are men and women. The American title is Survival in Auschwitz, a terrible choice (not to mention some editions omit the opening poem). The methods Levi and other prisoners employed to stay alive is important, but it’s only part of the story since that partially overlaps with what it entailed to remain human.
The German Lager system intended the destruction of people, not just in the physical sense but targeting their souls, too. Levi saw firsthand that many men became subhuman...animals...when treated that way. Their humanity was stolen in many ways, even in something as simple as denying them a name. As Levi describes it, taking away everything a person is used to having and enjoying turns them into a “hollow man.” Steinlauf chides Levi for not taking better care of himself in the camp, telling him that because the Lager “was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.” (47) The one power prisoners retain resides in their refusal to consent to their treatment and its intended purpose. Dying as a man, in this regard, is a difficult task. The Lager shows a “resolution...to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards.” (57)
There are several types of men Levi despises, but two examples are provide a basis for his judgment. Levi has been given an opportunity to work in a chemical laboratory in the Lager but he must pass an exam first. A German scientist, Doktor Pannwitz, administers the exam but he gives Levi a derisive look before they begin the test:
Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany. One felt in that moment, in an immediate manner, what we all though and said of the Germans. The brain which governed those blue eyes and those manicured hands said: “This something in front of me belongs to a species which it is obviously opportune to suppress.” (111-12)
Levi’s scathing judgment isn’t limited to the Nazis but covers other prisoners assisting the system. As Levi returns from the exam to the camp with Alex (the Kapo of his work detail),
[O]ne has to cross a space cluttered up with piles of cross-beams and metal frames. The steel cable of a crane cuts across the road, and Alex catches hold of it to climb over: Donnerwetter, he looks at his hand black with thick grease. In the meanwhile I have joined him. Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on the basis of this action, I judge him and Pannwitz and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere. (113-14)
Behind this judgment is not an attempt to understand the actions of those that treat him as less than human but an examination of what their actions created or destroyed. It’s often said that Levi’s scientific background in chemistry shows through in his writing, whether in its dispassionate recording and/or his look at cause and effect, but his analysis searches for something beyond apparent actions.
Levi makes it clear that humanity comes from what a man does and the actions he takes. He admits that he descended to animal-like status in the hell of the Lager but he was able, eventually, to return to the land of the living. His language at times shows he could become like his captors, describing other prisoners as things instead of men. Word choices capture the difference, too. The Nazis describe the prisoners’ dining as fressen (eating like an animal) instead of the normal term essen, eating like a human.
So what keeps the moral compass pointing toward “man” instead of “animal”? I’ve mentioned Levi's focus on discipline, taking care of the self and others. But there’s also a factor of motive, helping others without expecting something in return. A civilian worker, Lorenzo, provided Levi (and other prisoners) with food, not making a big to-do about it and not expecting anything in return. Levi credits Lorenzo with keeping him alive as well as reminding him that there was a world where he and other could be men: “Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.” (128) A second example of a man, though, brings shame to Levi. He and his friend Alberto developed a system where they received extra food. In addition to the satisfaction of extra food, the increased measure of respect from other prisoners makes them feel good. Levi realizes their feelings are misplaced while watching the hanging of a man blamed for blowing up a crematorium at Birkenau. The condemned man calls out, “Comrades, I am the last one!”, a reference not just to possibly being the last man hanged before the impending Russian liberation of the camp but providing the last example of a strong man. Levi and Alberto can’t look at each other that evening after the hanging, embarrassed by their actions in comparison to "the last man." Levi’s shame grows and causes him to recognize what the Lager has done to him and others:
“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgment.” (156)
Levi’s descent into the hell of the Lager proves to a continuation of previous literary examples. Levi guides us, our Virgil into a Dantean vision of hell. Unlike Dante’s construction, though, the Lager’s Hell is not based on justice but is constructed as an insane, violent system with no other meaning than to destroy men. Levi dismisses judgment on many actions by the prisoners—there are no criminals with the absence of morality. Before the prisoners get to the camp Levi declares the trip in the railcar as hell. The privation in the railcars is compounded by the torture of constantly expecting something to happen. There will be many more moments in the book emphasizing the similarity to Tantalus.
Despite declaring language as inadequate to describe what he saw and experienced, Levi tries to do just that. The existence of the book obviously undermines his claim of ineffability. Even so, words in their ordinary meanings will not suffice. Hunger and cold, for example, don’t do justice to what the prisoners experienced:
“Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way being cold has need of a new word. We say ‘hunger’, we say ‘tiredness’, ‘fear’, ‘pain’, we say ‘winter’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born.” (129)
Levi establishes the uselessness of asking questions early in the novel when an official replies “There is no why here” in answer to a request. Levi insists on asking questions to the reader, though, even though there isn't always an answer. The tone for questions had been set early, of course, with the opening poem. The attempt to understand events torments Levi, leading to a survival mentality that avoids looking to the future or the past. To Levi religion has no place in the Lager, either. It’s practiced at times, such as Kuhn’s thankful prayer to God for not being included in the day’s extermination, but Kuhn’s prayer disgusts Levi since that means someone was chosen in his place. Levi wants no part of a religion that encourages behavior like this.
The chapter titled “The Canto of Ulysses” reinforces the idea of the Lager as Hell, but this is a dark analogy since it calls forth Dante’s version with Ulysses instead of Odysseus in the Homeric version. Homer’s Odysseus descended into Hell but he knew he would return. Dante’s Ulysses, on the other hand, drowned after deciding not to return home after leaving Circe’s isle, desiring to experience all human things (including vices). Ulysses made it as far as seeing Purgatory before his ship went down, landing him in a deep level of Hell along with other fraudulent counselors. Levi attempts to quote Dante’s canto to teach Italian to a fellow prisoner. He is able to remember many passages but has to provide summaries for the sections he can’t remember. Levi feels a rush while teaching the canto when he feels he understands Dante's message. Unfortunately the chapter ends with a double anticlimax.
The first anticlimax comes after Levi feels an urgency and necessity to get his pupil to understand a part of the poem, just as he experiences “something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today...” (121; ellipsis in original) But Levi never explains what he ‘saw.’ Is it also something that can’t be adequately put into words, only alluded to in poetry? The second anticlimax comes after this transcendent moment. Levi and his pupil are in line for soup, a jarring return to reality after such lofty poetry. The let-down carries on to the end of the chapter, where Levi quotes “And over our heads the hollow seas closed up” while the prisoners chatter about cabbages and turnips.
There’s another Hell Levi experiences—he has a recurring dream of returning home and telling his family about his experiences in the Lager, only to be ignored or, at best, listened to with indifference. Levi feels undiluted pain during this recurring dream. For his experience to have any sort of meaning, Levi’s believes he must survives the Lager in order to tell his story but there must be sentient listeners, too.
Part of Levi’s Hell is the one thing man retains, even during the worst moments—hope. It’s unavoidable since it is part of the human condition, but it also reminds a reader why hope was in the jar of evils that Pandora opened and why it became trapped by the lid. Hope doesn't exist as either a good or an evil, but depends on the context in which it is used and whether it is merited. Hope in the Lager was one more tantalizing thing, compounding what the prisoners had to endure. Complementary to hope were chance happenings keeping the prisoners from complete despair. The day may be completely miserable but one little thing would happen that would make everything seem tolerable. While this says more about psychology than the Lager, Levi takes this thought in a dark direction. There’s always an option in the Lager—suicide. A prisoner could always touch the electric fence or fall underneath the wheels of a train. As perverse as it sounds the available option of suicide provides a balm, a choice that a prisoner could take if things became unbearable.
The “Canto of Ulysses” chapter also points to the central metaphor of the book: the drowned versus the saved. For Dante the ‘drowned’ were damned souls, while in Levi’s novel the ‘drowned’ are those that have lost what it means to be a man. They may still be alive on the outside but their core is hollow. The destruction of civilization is one important element in this concept since in the Lager “the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone.” (94)
The inadequacy of words comes into play again since what 'death' doesn't fully explain what prisoners experienced before and at their expiration. It’s common to read reviews of the book pointing to the indestructibility of the human spirit but Levi provides many examples of the destruction of men long before their death. He doesn’t pull any punches in looking at victims, either. Levi doesn’t equate captors and victims but he does point to several of the men around him agreeing to their ‘drowning.’
The last chapter covers the time between German evacuation of the camp and arrival of the Russians. Parts of this chapter add to the uneasiness in reading the book. Levi and a few men in the sick ward turn away other patients because they would have been a drain on the limited resources (and would have died anyway). In later works and interviews Levi notes that they were able to save several men by these actions, but if they had tried to save everyone nobody would have survived. As chances of survival improve, Levi and his friends do help others.
I have more notes about the novel since Levi includes many more themes, motifs, and techniques (nature as insensible as the Nazis, the unmemorable nature of most of the drowned, Dantean judgments on the drowned and the saved, Levi’s use of anticlimaxes, and even his use of humor) but I’ve gone on too long as it is and I want to post on Levi’s The Truce soon (where we see Homer's Odysseus instead). If This Is a Man is an amazing story, told with remarkable restraint while raising many troubling issues. Highest recommendation.
“Today I think that if for no other reason than that an Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence.” (163-64)