Surviving Auschwitz

There is this woman in my life, my Uncle’s mother, who I have known since I was quite young. As a child, there were three things I knew about Huggy (as we kids called her) she is tiny (about 4’6″), she is French, and she always wears long sleeves.

Growing up Jewish, the holocaust was a key part of my religious education. French Jews were imprisoned? Huggy is a French Jew. It took place in the 1940s? Huggy was growing up then. Piecing realizations together until figuring out Huguette was a Holocaust survivor.

Huggy entered Auschwitz with her family when she was about 12, and due to treatment/malnutrition in the camp did not grow. She is tattooed with her ID number on her for arm. She and her brother were the only surviving members of the family. She is an Auschwitz survivor.

Reading Levi’s book, you can understand the  gravity, and hopelessness of the situation he is in. However, he preaches that hope, compassion, and looking out for each other were the key to survival. I don’t think that Huguette would agree with any of these tactics and plans, to her there were those who were lucky enough to survive, and those who weren’t.


The UN Genocide Charter and Auschwitz

The two readings we had assigned this evening, The UN Charter on Genocide and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz both discuss genocide, but approach the topic in very different ways. One can safely assume that those who wrote up the charter did not experience the atrocities of a concentration camp, and are outsiders looking in. Levi, on the other hand, speaks with the voice of a survivor. He knows what it means to survive Auschwitz, and thus, mass genocide.

The charter uses very sweeping terms when describing what genocide is. They do not go into the minute details, but stay general such as in Article II: “(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…”. This may be because they wish to capture all possible forms of genocide, but at the same time, this method gives a lot of leeway for certain activities to pass.

Levi, however, gives very specific examples as to how they were discriminated against. To be at Auschwitz was to be at the very bottom, everything was taken away from you, “…nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.” (27) Even if a person survived the concentration camp, they still were made to become something less than human, like cattle, and this process will undoubtedly affect the rest of their life. Levi even mentions how certain portions of the experience still linger in his dreams.

When genocide is committed, it not only destroys a group of individuals, but an entire culture, and both sources indicate this. Even if an individual survives, their culture may have died, making the existence of the survivor very lonely, and their account of events, less believable.

Surviving Auschwitz

In “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi spoke to his experiences in an Auschwitz concentration camp for ten months.  As the title suggests, Levi spoke to how he managed to survive in such awful conditions.  Early on during his time in Auschwitz, Levi spoke to a time in which he was thirsty and opened the window, hoping to snatch an icicle.  However, a guard on duty quickly took the icicle away from Levi. When he asked the guard why, the guard responded, and said, “there is no why here,” (29). From this experience, Levi learned, “in this place everything is forbidden, not for hidden reasons, but because the camp has been created for that purpose.  If one wants to live on must learn quickly and well,” (29).  With this, it became clear that one way method of survival in Auschwitz was to never question guards, for questioning was a sign of disrespect.

Another example that Primo Levi gave in his account is that “everything is useful,” (33) and “the value of food,” (33).  Levi argued that in order to survive, a prisoner must understand that “everything is useful” because prisoners were not given much and it was imperative to hold onto the things you did have.  Furthermore, Levi argued that prisoners must be aware of their surroundings and hold onto their possessions, for “everything can be stolen,” (33).  This was especially important for prisoners, for they were not given much and if you had something stolen from you, that could mean the end for your survival.  In regards to “the value of food,” Levi argued that food was crucial because food was hard to come by.  With food being so hard to come by, Levi argued that prisoners must “scrape the bottom of the bowl,” (33) for that food had to sustain you for a day’s work.  Lastly, Primo Levi spoke against the idea of hygiene.  The reason?  Levi believed that taking the time to wash yourself simply was not worth it, for you were wasting your energy when you could have been resting.  Ultimately, Primo Levi and his account provide tremendous insight on what life was like in Auschwitz and how best to survive such terrible conditions.

How does one survive in Auschwitz?

In Survival in Auschwitz, the author Primo Levi captures the reader into the harsh reality of life in the infamous Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Primo Levi is a young Jewish-Italian man who, in 1943 at the age of 24, was captured by the Nazi fascists while hiding in the woods and stripped of everything that belonged to him including his name.

Auschwitz is probably the most well known out of all the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Primo Levi spends almost an entire year, what to him seemed like an eternity, being starved, badly beaten and worked until he could no longer breathe. The camp presented extremely unsanitary conditions and prisoners were fed little to nothing, as they were given soup with scraps of potato and cabbage. During this time, Primo struggled to maintain a sense of humanity and never saw an end to his suffering. After spending almost an entire year in these devastating conditions the Nazi’s abandoned these camps with the threat of the invading Soviet Union and after surviving on their own they were eventually rescued.

To answer the topic question, “How does one survive Auschwitz?”, Primo presents severals cases and points. For one to survive Auschwitz you must be extremely lucky, know German, never give up hope, maintain good health as best you can and most importantly have compassion. Compassion is something Primo learns when he meets the ever so kind Lorenzo, who isn’t a prisoner but yet a civilian worker, who constantly provides food secretly to Primo and talks with him. Primo says, “I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me of his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside of our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, not extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.” (121) Compassion in Auschwitz means having a community of people who look out for each other and share their resources to maximize the entire groups chances of survival. This sense of community helped maintain sanity for Primo and through his inspiration that he found from Lorenzo that he was able to survive Auschwitz.


Survival in Auschwitz

In Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, Levi argued that one survived in Auschwitz by maintaining his humanity. In Auschwitz, everything possible was done to strip people of their humanity: upon arriving, people were robbed of their clothes, belongings, and money. They were then shaved and tattooed with numbers that replaced their names. People in Auschwitz lived without food or proper medical treatment; most were separated from their families. Everyone was forced to do back-breaking labor day after day with little to look forward to or hope for.

At the end of Chapter 9, Levi described how four particular people survived Auschwitz. In each of the stories, these people survived by maintaining elements of their personality within the de-humanizing walls. They found little things to cling to:  keeping clean, singing songs, or stealing to remember who they were. Levi explained that those “not initially favoured by fate” could survive if they had the will power “to battle everyday and every hour” (Levi 92).

There was also an emphasis on the methodical daily existence within Auschwitz. Everyday there were numerous pointless rules, rituals, and ceremonies designed to wear down the human psych. Simply finding a way to break the monotony of such a harsh structure was very important to surviving Auschwitz. Prisoners did this by partaking in the Exchange Market, or helping each other out in exchange for food.

Essentially, surviving in Auschwitz consisted of clinging to the little things. People had to find the small  things that helped them forge meaning into a system that attempted to make their lives meaningless.

Levi, Primo, and Stuart Woolf. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

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

Survival in Auschwitz

Three Points:
  1. In these camps, one of the largest barriers between those living there was language. Most of them had Jewish background and many of them were educated; however, there was little access to communication. Not only did this make work more difficult when listening to the commanders who spoke German and the other workers that one was working with, but also an enormous feeling of isolation.
  2. The demoralizing of the people in the concentration camps proves to be one of the founding steps in the process of their success. Levi often discusses how the process would make the officers go out of their way to demean the people coming into the camps, such as when they would have to stand naked for hours when waiting to enter the camp. Not only did the Nazis make their presence known through physical trauma towards these people, but in addition they made sure that their living circumstances were all they could think about.
  3. I was surprised to hear that people within the camps were not always aware of the extreme circumstances there. For some time, Levi was unaware about the crematoriums and how prevalent the Germans used them in the concentration caps. The Germans attempted to keep the prisoners in the dark about as many things as possible, but specifically this surprised me because of how frequently they were used.
  1. I was wondering more about the levels of hierarchy in the concentration camps, specifically the kapos. How did their roles affect the way that they were perceived by the other prisoners, and how were they perceived by the Germans running the camp?
  2. Levi mentions that he would rather have disclosed his religion than his political affiliation. However, in Levi’s youth, he participated in the Avanguardisti- a section of the youth organization run by the Italian fascists, Opera Nazionale Balilla, for 14 to 18 year olds.  Was there any possibility in using this to cover up his political affiliation to avoid being taken?
When Levi publishes this book, it was through a small Italian publisher. However, as the book grew in popularity and fame he expanded through Europe. When he began the translation into German in 1961, Levi apparently was very careful on which German publisher to use, and was supervising the whole process. Most importantly with his decision to maintain a part of this process was his introduction written specifically for this version to the German people, condemning them for what they allowed to happen. We discussed in class how after WWII many Germans denied knowledge of these events or participation, and Levi immediately shuts that down by investing the time in forcing these people to acknowledge the actual horrors of the war.

Survival in Auschwitz

  1. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew born in Turin, Italy, in 1919. At age twenty-four, he was part of a political resistance group that was caught by the fascist militia. When interrogated, he disclosed that he was a Jewish Italian citizen rather than explaining his political affiliation because he feared torture and certain death. He was sent to a vast detention camp in Fossoli, near Modena.
  2. After SS troops inspected the detention camp, they announced the deportation of all Jews. The SS troops sent the Jews to a work camp near Auschwitz called Monowitz. Here, Levi is reduced to a number and experiences the severe horrors of the Holocaust: extreme starvation, fatigue, illness, uncertainty, and terror.
  3. Levi remained at the work camp until January 1945. The SS troops knew that a Russian bombing was imminent and decided to take all of the “healthy” prisoners on a death march to the next camp. Levi, who had caught scarlet fever, was left behind. The bombings caused the Germans to flee the camp. Levi, along with other prisoners, managed to survive the bombings and ultimately escape the deserted camp.


Even though Levi believed he would have been executed for announcing his political resistance, would he had fared better had he not disclosed his religion to the fascist militia?

How is Levi able to refuse to consent to his treatment by the SS troops? How is he able to keep a clear mind and possess the will to survive against all odds?


I find it most interesting how lucky Levi was during his imprisonment in the work camp. He was not only sent to the infirmary after a foot injury, which meant forty days free of work, but he only got ill once, contracting scarlet fever right before the death march, and he survived the bombings by the Russian allies. Statistically, Levi was one of the very few that survived from his original group.