Primo Levi’s reflection on humanity in crisis: Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a man)

Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, translated by Giulio Einaudi), is not just about the author’s survival in the notorious Nazi concentration camp, but above all about the survival of his humanity after enduring such a grueling process of dehumanization. Published in 1947 under the Italian title If This is a Man (Se questo e un uomo), the author doesn’t claim to offer new information in this autobiographical book. Nor does he wish to level fresh accusations against the Nazis. Written in a calm, observational tone, Survival in Auschwitz sets out “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9).

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, the narrative constitutes a reflection on the power—and limits—of forgiveness. In an interview published by the New Republic on February 16, 1986, Levi announces that he…

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Primo Levi — Surviving Auschwitz

Primo Levi

Primo Levi

The Italian Jewish chemist and author, Primo Levi [1919 – 1987], was a notable survivor of Auschwitz whose powerful writing was second to none when it came to describing his experiences. If you haven’t yet read any of his books, it’s time to add them to your list. He was liberated from the concentration camp by Russia’s Red Army in January 1945 but was not able to return to Italy until four months later. His journey took him through Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Germany and he did not arrive in Turin until 19th October, 1945.

“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

“Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz