Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 15 : Die drei Leute vom Labor | Summary



The rain turns to snow. There are no more air raids. Levi notes that of the 96 men who were with him upon arrival, there are now 21. He wonders how many will be left come spring. In this, he remarks that the English prisoners have "wonderful fur-lined jackets," but within the Lager, there were no coats distributed. Because the chemical kommando "works under shelter," they have only their summer clothes. They work with phenylbeta, which caused "large burnt patches" on their skin. Being in the chemical kommando means they do not get coats. They are also carrying heavier bags of chemicals, as opposed to lighter bags of cement.

Soon Levi learns that he is one of three people chosen for the work in the laboratory. Alberto, Levi's closest friend, congratulates him "without a shadow of envy." As one of the specialized workers now, Levi must be shaved every Wednesday. He also gets a new shirt and underpants. Levi points out that in this time of bombs and the Buna falling into disrepair, it is particularly odd that this has happened. But, he says, no person can "boast of understanding the Germans."

Levi commences work in the lab, where the temperature is "wonderful" at 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, "soap, petrol, and alcohol" is there to be stolen and exchanged on the market. Even so, Levi has learned to be cautious. This good fortune should to be "enjoyed as intensely as possible and at once," he says. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, and the Russians are nearing.

Much like when he was in the Ka-Be, being in this detail means that Levi has the opportunity to think. There are also women here. There are several girls, and their presence makes the three men feel "shame and embarrassment." The men's shoes are noisy and caked with mud and grease. They are covered in fleas, and their clothes are dirty. They smell. The girls talk, and in one conversation they speak of going home for Christmas, noting that the "year has gone by so quickly."

At that, Levi notes to himself that it has. A year ago, he was free (albeit an "outlaw"). He had "a name and a family." He used to think of other things: his work, the war, "the nature of things and of the laws which govern human actions." He thought of poetry and music. In a year, so much has changed: "I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself." He cannot speak of this to one of the girls. He doesn't know enough German to do so. And even if he could, she "would flee from me, as one flees from contact with an incurable invalid, or from a man condemned to death."


This chapter highlights both the positive results—finally—of being chosen to be on the chemical kommando and the difficult results. Being at the laboratory allows Levi to be in a warm environment. This might very well save his life during the harsh Polish winter when he has no overcoat. It also provides access to things he can steal to buy himself and his friends more food. As the reader will recall, theft is an accepted part of life in camp.

Again, it calls up earlier chapters. As it was when Levi spoke to Jean about the canto from Dante Alighieri, here is the reminder that tomorrow is not certain in this place. Furthermore, it brings a reminder that time to think is not a blessing here. Levi is rarely given space to consider how drastically his life has changed in one short year.

While the women who work there disregard him as if were not a man, Levi is left thinking about his life before Auschwitz. The comparison of a man who thinks of greater things—the arts, family, and freedom—and the reality of Levi's physical state is striking. Furthermore, the comparison between such a man and the vapid women who dismiss him is even more so. Levi's original title, If This Is a Man, comes to mind here. The reader will note that Levi, despite devastating obstacles and privation, is and has always remained a worthy man. His example, through his text and life achievements after liberation from Auschwitz, is proof of the fallacy of the Nazi belief in their superiority over him.

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