In Primo Levi’s autobiography, Survival in Auschwitz, he identifies some major factors which he can attribute to his survival including the physical state of a prisoner, ability to find companionship and their mental condition, and the timing of liberation. The horrible acts carried out by the captors at Buna, Krankenbau, and Auschwitz concentration and labor camps were not the focus for Levi’s autobiography, yet it was the survival of these acts that was the focus. Primo Levi being an Anti-Fascist Italian Jew from Turin was arrested in December 1943 and sent to a prison camp immediately before being sent to Auschwitz in February 1943.
He accounts that millions of Jews were just murdered and cremated upon being deported to the concentration camps. Due to Primo Levi’s physical state, he was selected to be put in a work camp, as opposed to being sent straight to a concentration camp. It was astonishing that he survived as long as he did, because the average time of survival in one of these labor camps, such as Buna where synthetic rubber was manufactured, was only 3 months because of the physical stress and malnutrition on the body.
Shortly after being deported to Auschwitz Levi records passing under the famous metal archway that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” in German translating to “work gives freedom” (Levi, 22). This is the first sense of false hope for the inmates that Levi was traveling with. I would wonder for my own sake at this point in time if I was going to die or not. Levi had seen plenty of death at this point in time with only forty men out of over one hundred from his initial work unit being alive still, so this sense of hope motivates Levi to survive.
This sense of motivation based on giving purpose to your life must have been hard in a place where purpose was intentionally destroyed by the Nazi captors. One of the most important factors leading to Primo Levi’s survival was his ability to find a companion. This was a common theme in each chapter of the book with him befriending people such as his first bunkmate Diena, inmate Alberto, workmate Nul Achtzen, and a close friend by the name of Resynk. It is because of these men that Levi has a chance of surviving.
He speaks about the benefits of having a companion, not only for himself, but for the men working beside him. In my opinion this is crucial to anyone’s psychological state in not accepting death and defeat like Levi had witnessed in some of the other men. This was made evident by his accounts of workmate Nul Achtzen and how he was only referred to by his entry number 018. Levi writes, “He carries out the orders that he is given, and it is foreseeable that when they send him to his death, he will go with them with the same total indifference” (Levi, 43).
Levi looks at Achtzen as having his will to survive broken through work and destruction of purpose. He refers to these people as being “the drowned” (Levi, 90). The saved are the individuals that have to capabilities and the will to survive, or keep swimming, while the drowned are the ones who sink into death. I think this is a very interesting metaphor because eventually Levi cannot save himself anymore due to Scarlet Fever and is rescued by the invading Soviet Army.
In the months leading up to the end of the war, the Nazi Regime had to divert their resources in Auschwitz from the mass execution of Jews, Christian Poles, Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war to labor. This was a blessing in disguise for Levi. Every day during work just hearing the sound of the invading Soviet Army in the distance would boost any man’s moral. It was most fortunate that Levi survived this ordeal so that he would be able to record his experiences on to paper.
I really liked the book as a whole because it wasn’t dramatized like most of the books and cinematography we see today. The fact that it was an autobiography from a survivor gave it a very real and true human value to it that no book or movie could capture. I think that Primo Levi doesn’t just keep dumping pages and pages of depression on the audience, he also looks at the brighter side of life in his book, and for example there is an entire chapter which reflects on a positive day of working in a beautiful meadow titled “A good day”.
In my opinion it was this positive outlook on his situation that gave him the will to survive. I feel like Primo Levi wanted to not only share his story and experiences for the purpose of educating about the horrors that happened, but he sought to shed positive light on the fact that he survived. He was successful in showing the human will to survive by living day in and day out and utilizing what you have. Primo Levi, being a graduate of chemistry at the University of Turin, refers to the Periodic Table when he writes, “Distilling is Beautiful” (Levi, 177).
He continues to tell the interviewers in his last chapter that the work was done out of professionalism. You can “hate the Germans, their food, their language, their war; but when they ask you to build a brick wall you build it up straight and solid not out of obedience, but out of professional dignity” (Levi, 179) This sentence answered so many questions for me, and really allowed me to become personally connected to the book because I am one who likes to do the job right myself. It also illustrated how Levi kept working day in and day out to eventually survive Auschwitz.
Works Cited: Levi, Primo, S J Wolf, and Phillip Roth. Survival in Auschwitz. 1st ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Print.