“Architects calmly design the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Burger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are ready. All that’s missing is them.” – Night and Fog
Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man was released in the U.S. as Survival at Auschwitz, but If This Is A Man fits the theme of the book much better. The question, “if this is a man,…” can be asked in two ways: If the prisoner of the camps is a man, why is s/he treated in this manner? and If the officers, the Kapos, the soldiers are men, how do they find it within themselves to treat other human beings in such a manner? “The personages in these pages are not men. Their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it, under an offence received or inflicted on someone else. The evil and insane SS men, the Kapos, the political, the criminal, the prominent, great and small, down to the indifferent slave Häftlinge, all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the Germans paradoxically fraternize in a uniform internal desolation.”
Levi, an Italian Jew was brought to Auschwitz III (Monowitz, the labor camp) in early 1944. By a stroke of fortune, he was sent to the Ka-Be (the infirmary) because of scarlet fever just before the forced march out of Auschwitz in January 1945 (Eli Wiesel’s Night tells the story of the march). He and a few others left behind in the sickbay forage for food, batteries, and a furnace…(“like the story of Robinson Crusoe in hell” – Phillip Roth)…enough to keep themselves and the others alive until the camp is liberated by the Russians a few days later. Over the course of the book, Levi and the other prisoners lose their humanity, and are able to gain it back. Humanity, according to Levi’s narrative, is gratitude, kindness, generosity, and unselfishness: “When the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment Towarowski…proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed. Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said: ‘eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,’ and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge to men again.”
Levi also describes what he terms the “Drowned” and the “Saved.” The saved “develop ways of surviving” in the camp, mostly through connections and official and unofficial positions within the hierarchy of prisoners. The Drowned, also called musselman are the weak, those who are unable to adapt and survive. “One knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks, nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and crossed out number on a register…they suffer and drag themselves along in an opaque intimate solitude, and in solitude they die and disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone’s memory.” The stories that have come out of the Holocaust are the stories of the saved. The drowned will forever remain in that unnamed solitude. Levi sums up life in the camps in the following, stark way: “here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone.”
Levi stated in an interview with Phillip Roth that his model for the style of If This Is A Man was the “weekly report” used in industry. This comes across clear, as his prose is distant, simple, and objective. I did not find Levi’s narrative as moving as Wiesel’s Night, though I read that in ninth grade so my remembrance of it might be skewed by my age at the time of my reading as well as the passage of time since then. But Levi’s prose style is effective, and gives the reader a contrast, in that what is described is horrific, but it is told in the manner of an everyday, “everything as usual” manner.
“Even a peaceful landscape…even a meadow in harvest, Even a peaceful landscape...even a meadow in harvest, with crows circling overhead and grass fires...even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass...even a resort village with a steeple and country fair can lead to a concentration camp.” – Night and Fog
The French film Night and Fog (see my previous post) is also about Auschwitz, and I timed my Netflix delivery of the documentary to coincide with my finishing If This Is A Man. It is an extremely moving piece of film, in which there is no dialog, just images of Auschwitz in color, with birds and grass, and black and white footage of the camps, probably of both Allied and German origin. It’s not a film about Hitler (in fact, there is only one shot of him); it’s not a film about Nazis. It is just images with a voice-over. But the images: train tracks leading to the camp, now covered with grass. Decapitated bodies. People with stars of David on their jackets, waiting with their luggage beside the train. A bulldozer pushing bodies into a pit. The fingernail scrapings on the inside of the gas chambers. It is all horrendous. The film brought horrible reality to Levi’s slightly distant prose. The images of the prisoners’ shoes was especially poignant after reading Levi’s account of the problems they caused. Two lessons are taken away from the film: Who is responsible? and will we let this type of tragedy happen again by our complacency…by our belief that this horror happened at time and place that is now passed? This is a film everyone should see.
“Today, I think that if for no other reason than that an Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence.” – Primo Levi