Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 1 : The Journey | Summary

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Summary

Primo Levi was "captured by the fascist militia on 13 December 1943." He was 24. He had fled into the mountains and joined a group of people "affiliated with the Resistance movement," but they lacked "capable men." Upon capture, he tells the fascist militia that he is an "Italian citizen of Jewish race." He is sent to Fossoli, a detention camp, in January 1944. There are only about 150 other Italian Jews there at that time, but the number increases to more than 600. Every Jew there, including children and the elderly, is eventually transported out. The Germans count them (650 "pieces") and load them onto trains. They are to be delivered to Auschwitz in Poland, and of the people in the car with him, "only four saw their homes again."

Upon arrival, they are met by a dozen SS men, who ask questions of some of them in bad Italian. The people are then divided into two groups in "less than ten minutes." In their arrival group of 650 people, "ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau." The rest were all dead within two days.

Levi mentions one child, Emilia. The three-year-old girl had been bathed, despite the difficulty of gathering the water to do so. She is among the 500 people sent to the gas chamber. Levi notes that later in some cases those who "by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber." With other men, Levi is loaded into a lorry (a truck) and driven away.

Analysis

When Levi identified himself as an "Italian citizen of Jewish race," he believed it was safer to be the latter than the former. He would quickly be disabused of this belief. "It was all incomprehensible and mad," Levi notes. This sentiment is one that attempts to capture the sheer enormity of the arrival at Auschwitz. Addressing the devastation of the Shoah is difficult, but what Levi has done here and throughout the text is bring his scientific background to play in a literary text. Rather than poetic language or reliance on symbolism or allusions to canonical literary, philosophical, or religious texts, Levi presents facts, details, names, and numbers. There were "ninety-six men and twenty-nine women" chosen not to die immediately. This decision took 10 minutes. The others died within two days; one was a three-year-old child named Emilia, who had just been bathed. Only four people who arrived that day ever saw their homes again. He is primarily factual in the accounting of the events, avoiding all emotions and horror.

This tactic is also a way to convey the shock the people had to have felt. The account reveals that they'd had nothing to drink, despite traveling for days. They had little to no sleep. They had no food. In essence, the people who arrived that day were already being tortured. Most of them were then murdered. Levi, in his account, would be bewildered, frightened, thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. A factual account such as this conveys the sense of shock and exhaustion all were feeling.

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