If This Is a Man

If This Is a Man



The Pequod Review:

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian Jew held in Auschwitz for eleven months, from February 1944 until its liberation in January 1945. If This Is a Man is Levi’s memoir describing his experiences at the camp, with an especially sharp focus on his and his inmates' psychological mindset and strategies for daily survival. Levi writes in a calm and measured tone that is all the more devastating:

Consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories. 


There is a vast category of prisoners, not initially favored by fate, who fight merely with their own strength to survive. One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold, and the resulting inertia; to resist enemies and have no pity for rivals; to sharpen one's wits, build up one's patience, strengthen one's will-power. Or else, to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. All implied a weakening struggle of one against all, and a by no means small sum of aberrations and compromises. Survival without renunciation of any part of one's own moral world—apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune—was conceded only to very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints. 

He describes the small but significant humiliation of his fellow passengers when they were transported by boxcar without a bathroom on board: 

[It] gave rise to a much worse affliction than thirst and cold … for them, evacuating in public was painful or even impossible: a trauma for which civilization does not prepare us, a deep wound inflicted on human dignity, an aggression which is obscene and ominous, but also the sign of deliberate and gratuitous viciousness.

And yet they were able to create meaning and dignity through an innovative solution:

It was our paradoxical luck (although I hesitate to write this word in this context) that in our car there were also two young mothers with their infants of a few months and one of them had brought along a chamber pot: one only, and it had to serve about fifty people. Two days into the journey we found some nails stuck into the wooden sides, pushed two of them into a corner and with a piece of string and a blanket improvised a screen, which was substantially symbolic: we are not yet animals, we will not be animals as long as we try to resist.

And through it all he captures the human mind’s tendency toward equilibrium:

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.

This is one of the best accounts, fiction or non-fiction, of day-to-day life in Nazi concentration camps.