Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 16 : The Last One | Summary

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Summary

It is nearly Christmas. Levi is with Alberto, and they talk at night to catch up after days working apart. Levi's protector, Lorenzo, brings "six or eight pints of soup from the Italian civilian workers." To do this, they have a "menaschka," a bucket-like pot. As a result of this, Henri treats them as equals, and Elias is often with them. "L. has assumed a paternal and condescending air," Levi says. The work of organizing has changed their lives, and that has been possible primarily because of Levi's role in the chemical kommando. There are other plans, such as an elaborate scheme to create tickets that prisoners can use to pretend to they have showered. Showers were either cold or boiling, and while showering, one was often robbed. Tickets were issued to prove that prisoners had showered. Alberto's plot is to sell tickets to groups so they can avoid being caught and punished even if they were to evade the showers. It is a clever plan that is greeted with enthusiasm.

As Levi and Alberto speak, they reach the green where the gallows have been erected. Levi notes that he has "already watched thirteen hangings." The man to be killed that day had been a participant in the explosion of one of the crematoriums at Birkenau the month prior. The man is hanged, but the assembled prisoners are silent.

Afterward, Alberto and Levi return to the hut. Levi notes that the man who was hanged must have "been made of another metal." He says the situation that "has broken us, could not bend him." He adds that although they have found ways to combat cold, fatigue, and hunger, they are "broken, conquered." They eat in fact "oppressed by shame."

Analysis

The uprising that Levi alludes to here was the October 7, 1944, act of sabotage. It damaged Crematorium IV to the point that it could not be used again.

The uprising started because of the sonderkommandos, male Jewish prisoners whose work detail was to burn the corpses of the people killed in the gas chambers. At Auschwitz, they had better clothing, better food, and better living conditions. Some greeted prisoners and lied to them, telling them they were being showered before being sent to work. Afterward, some sonderkommandos would transport the bodies to the ovens. They would remove the clothes, shave the hair, and remove any valuables—including gold teeth. The sonderkommandos also were charged with the actual burning of the bodies and throwing the ashes into a river.

The sonderkommandos were also often killed because of their knowledge. Doing this heinous job only delayed their murders. The 12th sonderkommando at Auschwitz attempted a revolt and escape. They were soon to be executed, so they made plans. Women smuggled in gunpowder that was made into grenades, and some small weapons were smuggled into the camp as well. The revolt began with sonderkommandos in Crematorium I and was joined by those in III and IV. The sonderkommandos of Crematorium II began to break the wires of the camp fence.

SS guards quickly ended the revolt and recaptured the escapees. However, during the revolt, sonderkommandos in IV took their explosives into the room and committed suicide, disabling Crematorium IV. Two hundred sonderkommandos were executed by shots to the head. Others were held for interrogation. Those men were tortured for information, and they surrendered the names of others. They also gave over names of the women who smuggled the gunpowder. Those women were then tortured. They revealed no names of anyone still alive—even though they were raped, beaten, and subjected to electric shocks to their genitals. Four of the women were hanged on January 5, 1945, 12 days before the camp was evacuated.

Levi and the other prisoners do not look on the men being executed in the same way as the men who are "selected." Levi notes is that they must be made of a different "metal." Within that assessment is a question—one that he addresses in terms of those who drown and those who are saved. These men who are executed in front of them fought back. On one hand, there is an innate guilt in not resisting. The Nazis killed men, women, and children. They demeaned, punished, and destroyed the prisoners. There was no major resistance. That said, these men who did resist also died. Is it better to be as the men who found ways to survive and have bits of hope? Is it better to die quickly? Is it better to resist? The varieties of options are addressed throughout the book, and overall, Levi is scientific and objective. He passes no overt judgments on the men and their choices. Nonetheless, in such moments as this when he questions the "metal" the executed men are made of, the reader might hear an inevitable self-admonishment and guilt as well. When Levi notes "here we are, docile under your gaze" in the context of the men who resisted, he closes the chapter by saying "now we are oppressed by shame."

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