Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 11 : The Canto of Ulysses | Summary



Six of the prisoners are working inside an "old petrol tank." Even though the rust powder coats their throats, Levi describes this as a "luxury job" because they lack supervisors. His companions within the petrol tank include Deutsch, Goldner, and Sivadjan. Their Pikolo (the "messenger-clerk" who cleaned the hut, washed bowls, and distributed the tools) was Jean, a young Alsatian student. As Jean and Levi go to collect their rations, a 100-pound vat of soup, Levi tries to teach him some Italian, specifically the "canto of Ulysses" from the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy: The Inferno. The difficulty with this lesson is both recalling the canto and explaining it. The chapter closes with the line, "And over our heads, the hollow seas closed up."


Dante's canto XXVI, which Levi teaches to Jean, closes with the image of a moment of joy squelched. It reads, "We leaped for joy—it quickly turned to grief,/For from the new land a whirlwind surging up/Struck the foredeck of our ship head on." The very last lines of it are "Three times it spun us round in swirling waters;/The fourth round it raised the stern straight up/And plunged the prow down deep, as Another pleased/Until the sea once more closed over us." The experience of hope squelched is a fitting comparison for the emotions here. Levi is sharing one of the most revered Italian texts, and he is filled with the possibilities of that text. But it is—much as with the earlier explanation of the drowned and the saved—not entirely a thing of joy. The sea drowns them. It is too much. They are drowned, not saved. There are certainly tones within this chapter that emphasize that the recollection of great art, of sharing that art, of teaching do help remind Levi that he is a man still. But it is not the whole of it. Art is powerful, and in this art, from Levi's homeland, the reader can see that it offers hope, a reminder of the world beyond this reality. The excerpt chosen, however, is one that closes with grief and drowning. That, too, must not be overlooked.

The chapter also conveys a sense of urgency. The reality of life in Auschwitz was that tomorrow was never guaranteed. Death took the majority of the Jews who were sent to the death camp. Research verifies that a minimum of 1,095,000 people taken to Auschwitz were Jews, and the vast majority of them died there. Other estimates place that number much higher. To live at all in that reality is to be acutely aware of the finiteness of life, so Levi's sense of urgency is logical. While he would not have known the precise number of people who were already slaughtered and would be by the Nazis, he did know (and referenced earlier) that the gas chambers were there. He was captured toward the end of the war when word of the death camps had spread. He knew of the trains. While modern readers know the extent of the deaths of the Jews, Levi knew the closer reality. Even had he not known precisely the immense numbers, he knew men who were killed in the selections. He knew about the men, women, and children who debarked from the trains as he had and were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Hope in the face of the numbers, the smoke from the bodies, and the regular deaths of those who slept next to you would be extremely difficult. The urgency to share Dante's poetry with Jean makes perfect sense in that context, whether the boy understands it or not.

Moreover, the poetry in question returns the reader to the prior chapter on the drowned and the saved. Even when they think they might be saved, the prisoners (or characters in Dante) might very well drown. Levi, who has been chosen for a specialist position, might be saved. But the reality of Dante's text references is that sometimes even those who might expect to be saved will drown.

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