Quiet Survival

In the afterword to Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi stated: “As for survival…I insist there was no general rule, except entering the camp in good health and knowing German. Barring this, luck dominated” (180). Levi did enter the Lager in relatively good health and quickly learned some German, and he did encounter more luck than many of the Häftling, especially in the case of meeting Lorenzo, who provided Levi with both the physical sustenance of soup as well as the less tangible reminder of the world outside, where goodness still existed. Despite Levi’s statement that luck was the most important factor in survival, throughout his book, Levi mentioned other factors that likely contributed to his ability to survive despite the horrendous trials he and his fellow prisoners faced.

Levi’s ability to retain or at least remember his humanity was one of the most important factors to his survival. As mentioned previously, Lorenzo offered Levi a reminder of humanity in addition to the soup he gave him. Levi could see this element of Lorenzo’s offering, where other people might only see the soup. The fact that Levi could find the deeper meaning to such a simple gesture enabled him to never become the animal that the Germans saw him as. Before Levi met Lorenzo, a man named Steinlauf explained to him the importance of not becoming a “beast” (41). Levi carried this idea on with him thenceforth.

In addition to the importance of humanity, Levi also emphasized the importance of looking forward to small things. “Hope” may be too strong a word for this act, but any motivating factor could have given the prisoners the ability to stay alive, even if only one day at a time. During his first winter in the Lager, Levi explained that the prisoners’ “only purpose [was] to reach the spring” (71). Even though they would still be hungry and miserable in the spring, they would not be as cold, and this was something the prisoners could look forward too, small as it might seem to us. Another small light in Levi’s life was the menaschka, or pot, that he and Alberto obtained to transport Lorenzo’s soup. The tiniest of act of defiance, having such a pot boosted their social standing and gave them something other than hunger and misery to think about.

Throughout Levi’s book, it is small acts of humanity and small changes to daily life that seemed to have sustained him during his time in Auschwitz. In his book, survival is not a grand, heroic triumph but rather a quiet sustaining of the things that make us human, even in the face of dehumanizing forces.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Trans. S. J. Woolf. Ed. Philip Roth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print

2 thoughts on “Quiet Survival

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post and agree with all of the points that you made. For us, it is almost impossible to comprehend the hardships that fell upon these prisoners. This book helped us get some insight in to how they suffered, however, it is nice to see that some people still looked out for each other in these hard times. The ability to retain what humanity means is such a terrible thing to imagine having to endure. The dehumanization that occurred is horrible to imagine and difficult to understand how some of these people made it out alive and well.

  2. I think your post does a great job capturing Levi’s different takes on what it meant to survive Auschwitz. I completely agree with your statement of Levi’s constant reminder to remain human through the smallest of actions. Even if hope towards the next day was all they had, they had to give themselves something so they would not completely shut down.

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