Essay Preview: Auschwitz
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In looking back upon his experience in Auschwitz, Primo Levi wrote in 1988: “It is naÐ”Ð‡ve, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism (Nazism) sanctifies its victims. On the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.” (Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 40). The victims of National Socialism in Levis book are clearly the Jewish Haftlings. Survival in Auschwitz, a book written by Levi after he was liberated from the camp, clearly makes a case that the majority of the Jews in the lager were stripped of their human dignity. The Jewish prisoners not only went through a physical hell, but they were psychologically driven under as well. Levi writes, “Ðthe Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beastsÐ… We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain deathÐ…” (Levi, 41). One would be hard pressed to find passages in Survival in Auschwitz that portray victims of the camp as being martyrs. The treatment of the Jews in the book explicitly spells out the dehumanization to which they were subjected. It is important to look at how the Jews were degraded in the camp, and then examine whether or not they came to embody National Socialism after this.
(It should be noted that when describing hardships of the concentration camps, understatements will inevitably be made. Levi puts it well when he says, “We say Ðhunger, we say Ðtiredness, Ðfear, Ðpain, we say Ðwinter and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; only this language could express what it means to toil the whole dayÐ…” (Levi, 123).)
Concentration camps, such as the one in which Levi lived, were tools of national socialist ideology. It further empowered the Nazis to treat the Jews as subhuman (an “inferior race”). Within in a short time after arriving at the camp, men were stripped of everything they had known throughout life. Families were immediately separated after the transport trains were unloaded, dividing the “healthy” from the “ill”. Levi learns that he is now called a “Haftling” and is given a number (174517), which is tattooed on his forearm, replacing his actual name. “The whole process of introduction to what was for us a new order took place in a grotesque and sarcastic manner” (Levi, 28). Levi writes, “Imagine a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needsÐ… for he who loses all often easily loses himself.” (Levi, 27).
The prisoners are further degraded because they simply do not have enough to eat. They become very haggardly and often have difficulty in judging each others age. Acquisition of a sufficient amount of food becomes a daily struggle, and for those who do not rise to the occasion ultimately parish. After a certain time period, it is impossible to survive unless you become an “Organisator, Kombinator, or a Prominent” (Levi, 89). Levi writes, “We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose the crumbs” (Levi, 33). A prisoner could only survive on a normal ration for around 3 months at best. Starving to death was not the main reason to acquire an adequate amount of food. The selections had to be avoided. If a prisoner was too weak to work, he was destined for the gas chambers.
In the book Levi mentions a man named Elias, who is a cunning thief and adept worker: “Ð… who is this man Elias. If he is a madman, incomprehensible and para-human, who ended up in the Lager by chance. If he is a atavism, different from our modern world, and better adapted to the primordial conditions of camp life. Or if he is perhaps a product of the camp itself, what we will become if we do not die in the camp, and if the camp itself does not end first. There is some truth in all three suppositions” (Levi, 97). Elias manages to survive in the camp simply because he has no self-control or conscience. The harsh conditions actually favor someone who is in essence, uncivilized.
However, the conditions also favor someone like Henri, who “is eminently civilized and sane” (Levi, 98). “According to Henris theory, there are three methods open to man to escape extermination which still allows him to retain the name of man: organization, pity, and theft” (Levi, 98). It is evident that Henri, like Elias, has been transformed by the pressure to survive in the camp. Sometimes, “One