And here’s a book review that appeared on my old blog on July 28, 2017. It is reposted as/is.
Here’s yet another review of another book about the Holocaust that took place during World War II. I am finished reading about the Holocaust for now. Too much reading about the mass murders that went on less than one hundred years ago is depressing and there’s plenty to be depressed about today, without reading history.
Survival in Auschwitz, originally published in Italy under the name If This Is A Man, was written by an Italian Jew named Primo Levi, who was incarcerated at Auschwitz from February 1944 until the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945. Levi was deported from Turin, Italy, having been arrested as a member of an Italian resistance group. At the time of his arrest, Levi was a 25 year old chemist.
The original title of Levi’s book seems to be better than the English title bestowed upon it. This book is basically about what happens to good people when they are beaten, starved, and placed in an environment where only the fittest and luckiest survive. With a dry wit and an almost dispassionate tone, Levi writes about the cut throat environment of Auschwitz, as well as the small threads of humanity and even humor. If This Is A Man was originally published in Italian in 1947, when Levi was still a young man and Auschwitz was still a fresh memory to many people. However, reading it today seventy years later, it still maintained a gripping hold on me. At just 172 pages, this book packs a lot of meaning into a brief manuscript. It was published in English for the first time in 1959.
Levi describes the whole dehumanizing experience of his time at Auschwitz with starkness and clarity. He writes of how families were torn apart upon their arrival at the camp. They were stripped of their clothes; their heads were shaved; tattooed numbers on the ones who were not immediately gassed; and treated as mere objects to be used. The men who were incarcerated with Levi came from different countries. They all spoke different languages and many did not understand German, save for a few words like Jawohl (a strong affirmative, roughly equivalent to “Yes Sir or Ma’am”).
The prisoners who survived their arrival at Auschwitz were given ill fitting clothes that would never keep them warm, shoes that were full of holes, and the minimum amount of food– soup and bread. Levi writes about how prisoners would use their food rations as currency and, sometimes, come up with ingenious ways to make themselves slightly more comfortable. Naturally, trying to make things better was not allowed; prisoners who were caught were made an example of as they were publicly executed. Levi witnessed many people killed before his very eyes. He describes the executions, again with a minimum of emotion, yet with grace and clarity.
Every prisoner learned never to trust anyone. The smart ones never left bowls, spoons, shoes, or anything else unguarded, or it would be stolen. The prisoners worked hard every day. Under normal circumstances, those who could not work would eventually be killed. Ironically, the ones who eventually survived Auschwitz post liberation were the sick ones. Levi happened to be among them when the Russians liberated the camp. The so-called “healthy” prisoners who were “evacuated” ahead of the Russians’ arrival did not survive. Sadly, one of Levi’s friends was among those who left and was not heard from again.
Levi explains that prisoners who were docile and compliant were not the ones who survived. The survivors were physically powerful, shrewd, or had a skill the Germans coveted. Since Levi was a chemist, he was of use to the Germans. That was why he managed to live ten months. Many, many other prisoners never made it that long. Some of the ones who seemed like they would be of value to the Germans were murdered, while some who were sickly lived for awhile. It was as if the selections were arbitrary and careless.
It’s really hard for me to reconcile the mostly good people I’ve come to know here in Germany as coming from the same people who could be so incredibly cruel to others. I know now that this part of history is still a source of great shame to Germans and they have taken steps to make amends to the groups of people who were persecuted and murdered during World War II. I am continually amazed when I consider that the Holocaust occurred during my parents’ lifetimes. I was born not even thirty years after these atrocities occurred. It seems incredible to me.
But then I look at our world today and realize that these same horrors are going on in other parts of the world. The battle is still raging, just with different players. Maybe that’s why I think it’s so important to read about World War II and the Holocaust, depressing as it is.
In any case, this book is fascinating and extremely well written. I think it’s a worthwhile read for anyone researching the Holocaust and what it was actually like to be at Auschwitz. Levi is very matter-of-fact in his writing, which seems fitting given how casually and arbitrarily human lives were disposed of during World War II. I highly recommend Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is A Man) to all people who are concerned about where we could be heading if our world leaders don’t pull their heads out of their collective asses soon.
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