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.

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

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

The story of Ivan Denisovich is a telling tale of the human spirit and it’s will to survive. The author was able to make you feel the emotions of what life was truly like in the typical day of an inmate in the gulag. Ivan story seems to be a typical story of an individual that was accused of being a spy and guilty of treason against the soviet empire. The fact that other individuals in the same camp found themselves there under the same pretext shows it was a rather common crime, or in other words was a crime the government used to classify someone they believed had done something wrong. The fact a person had to make a choice to either face a firing squad if they denied the charge or admit to treason and go to the gulag show that the government had no desire to find out if there was any merit to the accusation.


The author highlighted the theme, not of escape, freedom, injustice; allusion to these theme appear throughout the account, yet while important, these themes to an inmate are irrelevant. Nothing can change why they are in the gulag. The only thing a prisoner can think about is survival. The account brings to the fore this issue by placing emphasis on two reoccurring areas, food and warmth. The amount of time in just one day a person thinks about food and the extent that a person’s life revolves around getting food only to make it to the next day. So much effort by the author goes into describing food, the rationing out of it, when and how much, as well as the type and the result of deprivation of food. The book really puts into perspective the condition of the gulag, and the human spirit will to survive.