Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 17 : The Story of Ten Days | Summary



Levi sickens from scarlet fever and is sent to the Ka-Be. He is the 13th prisoner in his room, four of whom also have scarlet fever. Three have diphtheria, and two have typhus. One person has "repellent facial erysipelas" (a bacterial skin infection), and the remaining two have multiple ailments. For four days, Levi rests and has trouble eating. On the fifth day, the barber comes, and while there, he tells them that everyone is leaving. The Russians are nearing the camp, and evacuation is upon them.

The doctor comes later in the day to tell them that if they can walk, they will be given shoes and clothes and will leave. Those too sick to do so would be left behind in the Ka-Be. When pressed as to their fate, the doctor says that he "did not think that they would kill us." However, it is obvious to Levi that the doctor does not believe this. The patients speak, and the two Hungarians decide to go. Levi allows that he "would probably also have followed the instinct of the flock if I had not felt so weak." The two men gather rags, wrap themselves, and climb out a window to join the others.

Several people come. The doctor leaves a novel behind. Alberto comes "to say goodbye to me from the window." He has located a "sturdy pair of shoes" and is optimistic about the change that was coming. Levi notes that all the healthy prisoners, aside from the few that hid, left the camp "during the night of January 1945." He says there "must have been about twenty thousand" and notes that "Alberto was among them." Beyond that, he says that maybe "someone will write their story one day."

There are no lights, no heat. Bombardment results in broken windows, and other patients arrive, begging for shelter. Their hut has caught fire. Levi and the others in his hut "barricade the door."

From here forward, Levi breaks down the remaining chapter by date.

19 January

The lack of heat is deadly. With the two Frenchmen, Levi goes out in search of a solution. They see the Lager in ruins, with "skeleton-like patients" who "dragged themselves everywhere on frozen soil." They have defecated everywhere, ruining the snow as viable sources of water. They have sought out what food they could find. Some are roasting potatoes around fires or melting snow so they have water. Charles and Levi find a stove and a wheelbarrow. They also find potatoes that they leave with Arthur, who falls "unconscious from the cold." They manage to make it back to their hut, repair the broken window, and light the stove.

One of the others, Towarowski, suggests that they "each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working." This is, to Levi, the "first human gesture that occurred among us." With their food and the stove, the 11 patients of the Infektionsabteilung (the infectious disease ward) wait.

20 January

The prisoners have food for only two more days, and they are melting snow for water. "The camp was silent," Levi says. Prisoners collect what they can use. Charles and Levi find a pile of frozen cabbages and turnips. Using a pickaxe, they chip free "about 100 pounds" of them. They also find salt and a can with "perhaps twelve gallons" of water.

Later in the day, Levi finds a vehicle battery and takes it to the room, so they have light. He notes that for the last three days, they had seen Germans pass by in retreat. "It seemed as if it would never end," he comments.

21 January

The passage of Germans ends, and outside is nothing. The Polish civilians are also gone. Levi thinks on his fellow patients. Towarowski is a 23-year-old Franco-Pole. Sertelet is a 20-year-old peasant from the Vosges (mountains in Germany). Alcalai is a Jewish glazier. Schenck is a Slovak Jewish businessman.

Levi tells the patients they need to start thinking of going home. They need to mind their own dishes and they should not share soup. They are to stay in their beds other than to use the latrine.

22 January

Charles and Levi decide to explore the SS (Nazi soldiers) camp, which is outside the electric fence. He sees that the guards have left quickly. On one table, Charles and Levi find frozen soup and beer; elsewhere they find "piles of valuable things." They take a bottle of vodka, medicines, newspapers, magazines, and four eiderdown quilts—"one of which is today in my house in Turin." Afterward, they learn that some SS men arrived and killed the 18 Frenchmen who were in the SS dining-hall. These corpses they left outside in the snow because "nobody had the strength to bury them." In fact, there are corpses "in all the huts" because the ground was "too frozen to dig graves." There are bodies piled in a trench, and the bodies are "shamefully visible" from the window of Levi's hut.

The next ward to the infectious diseases ward is for dysentery. The floor is "covered by a layer of frozen excrement," and the patients are groaning and begging. Levi takes them a bowl of water and the leftover soup in the evening. They cry out from then on "with the accents of all the languages of Europe, accompanied by incomprehensible prayers." Levi is helpless to do anything.

Lakmaker, a 17-year-old Dutch Jew, has been ill with typhus, scarlet fever, and a "serious cardiac illness." That night, he wakes and throws himself from the bed, trying unsuccessfully to reach the latrine. Charles and Levi do their best to clean him with the straw from the mattress and return him to his bed.

24 January

They are out of potatoes, but there is an "enormous trench of potatoes" outside the barbed wire. Charles and Levi exit through the wire—which has been beaten down by others. Charles exclaims that they are outside. It is the first time since his arrest that Levi is "free, without armed guards, without wire fences between myself and home."

The two men use pickaxes to break the ground to reach the frozen potatoes, as have many others who have broken holes in the ground. They take the potatoes back and have boiled potatoes, potato soup, and potato pancakes. Sertelet, however, cannot eat. He is worsening.

25 January

Although the broken barbed wire allows freedom, they still struggle. "All around lay destruction and death," Levi says. The trench of corpses is overflowing by now, and every person in the camp is weak from cold and illness. The other adjacent room to Levi's is the tuberculosis ward, where the patients "died one by one." Levi walks in one morning as a patient pitches off his bunk in death.

In Hut 14, however, the patients are recovering from surgery, and some go to the English prisoner-of-war camp. They return with a "cart full of wonders never seen before: margarine, custard, lard, soya-bean flour, and whisky." Levi's fellow patients aren't strong enough to go to the English camp. They make things they can trade for some of the goods from Hut 14.

27 January

Charles and Levi carry Sómogyi outside, and while they are doing so, the Russians arrive. Sómogyi is the "only one to die in the ten days." "Sertelet, Towarowski, Cagnolati, Lakmaker, and Dorget" all die later. Levi notes that he saw Schenck and Alcalai in April, and they were in "good health." Arthur has "reached his family happily," and Charles has resumed teaching. The book ends.


Although Levi doesn't discuss it, one in four of the prisoners who were evacuated that night died in transit. Starvation and exhaustion were culprits, as was the cold. The guards also shot prisoners. All told, almost 60,000 prisoners were evacuated from Auschwitz January 17–21, 1945. Alberto and the rest of the men who left during the evacuation did not find peace or freedom. They died. While Levi doesn't explicitly say that Alberto died then, he hopes that someone will write that story. What the reader knows is that the majority of the camp is emptied. The people left, and those who were left behind were expected to die.

That expectation was not wrong. The men left behind were sick. They had no resources, and it was the thick of winter. When the Soviet forces arrived at Auschwitz, they found some 7,000 prisoners—including Primo Levi—barely still alive.

In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi was one of 650 Italian Jews transported in February 1944. Of them, only four people were still alive in January 1945 when Russian forces liberated the camp. The graphic nature of his experiences in Auschwitz comes across to the reader by way of a nearly scientific presentation of the facts. However, the level of details he conveys is markedly different in this final chapter—which is the longest in the book. Here, each man in his infirmary ward is named. Of them, only one dies, horribly, during the days after the SS evacuated Auschwitz. They are now faced only with foes that are not human: illness, hunger, and cold.

As with the earliest chapters, the crisp details are more common in this chapter than in some of the middle sections of the book. The reason for this could be as simple as the experiences Levi has detailed of a "musselman" like Null Achtzehn. Levi did not reach the level of exhaustion and mental shutdown that Null Achtzehn did. However, the crispness of experience noted at intake and conclusion are both when he's had more rest. The experiences during the months in the middle would, logically, have been blurrier. They are characterized by the "sameness" of the days, insufficient rest, and insufficient food. It is the atypical experiences that are more minutely detailed in the text. His arrival experience is detailed. His initial trip to the infirmary is detailed. Here, in the final days of imprisonment, when freedom seems so near and death seems equally near, the memory is surely clear. It is far clearer than the periods of days and weeks of numbing to ignore the pains.

Here, too, Levi has access to more food. He also has access to his first moment of freedom. From a purely logical stance, a more filling diet means a sharper mind. The return to freedom, even though death still looms as a possibility, is also sharpening.

All of that noted, the reader will also see that the horrors Levi faces here are in some way "new." The cold is not, but the lack of any heat at all is new. Being hungry is not new, but having to chop the food out of the ice with an ax is. Death is not new, yet the remaining men in the Lager see the bodies stacked outside the window and frozen excrement on the floor. The threat of death is still present even after the guards are gone. Disease and environmental threats of every poisonous kind surround the prisoners. This final chapter captures so many details that the reader cannot help but be drawn into the fears and overwhelming threats Levi must face. The chapter also ends very abruptly. The arrival of the troops, and the subsequent liberation, is almost anticlimactic after the events that have come before it. The book closes with a summary of the fate of several men, but it is as logical and scientific as much of the text.

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