Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 2 : On the Bottom | Summary



Twenty minutes after leaving the train station, the lorry delivers the men to a door. Above it is written Arbeit Macht Frei (work gives freedom). They are directed into a poorly heated, vast room. They are all thirsty from days with no water. There is a water tap with the words Wassertrinken Verboten (this water is not for drinking). Levi drinks, but has to spit it out because the water is not potable.

The men are ordered into rows and told to strip off their clothes and shoes. The shoes are swept outside the door. Four more men come with razors and clippers. These men are wearing striped clothing with numbers sewn on them. All of the häftlinge (prisoners) are shaved and their heads shorn.

The men are then herded into another room, where they stand in "two inches of cold water." They are left to wait. Eventually, another prisoner, a Hungarian doctor who has been there for four and a half years, comes and tells them they are at a work-camp. He explains that once they are showered and disinfected they will be taken into the camp. They are further informed that they will be working at a factory that produces a rubber called Buna.

After the shower, the prisoners are tattooed. Primo Levi is tattooed with the number 174517. Showing these numbers (which indicate where and when a man arrived) will be necessary to receive bread and soup. The prisoners are still denied water. They wait in a hut. The work groups return to the camp. The men "walk in columns of five, with a strange unnatural hard gait."

Levi explains the blocks, the areas where the prisoners are housed and fed. There are different blocks for different things—one (Block 47) is the Reichsdeutsche, for political or criminal Aryan Germans, one (Block 29) is the Frauenblock, the brothel that is filled with Polish girls for the Reichsdeutsche. As he continues to describe the camp, he mentions the square where roll-call is held and gallows can be erected.

He details the symbols marking the prisoners—green and red triangles for the criminals and political prisoners. The Jewish prisoners wear red and yellow Stars of David as a Jewish symbol. He notes the routine, the ceremony of the changing of shoes (to replace one's shoes in hopes of better fitting shoes), and the long work hours within the camp. He points out that the shoes themselves are a torture, wearing wounds into the feet that then become infected and can lead to death. He notes that every aspect of the camp—which he details in an almost scientific tone—is designed to cause suffering.


Much that Levi reveals here continues the sheer shock of the introduction to Auschwitz. Well over 1,000,000 people, and possibly a considerably higher number, died at that camp. Those who survived suffered grievously while they were there. That kind of blunt assessment is, perhaps, too vast to grasp, but Levi makes it comprehensible by continuing to present the minutia—the sign over the water tap letting the prisoners know that there is water, but it is not drinkable; the long waits standing naked; the reduction of people to numbers and symbols. Levi has presented the details of the horrors in ways that make the abstract more comprehensible. It is scientific and orderly.

Among the physical pains are acts that are insults as well. Not only is tattooing forbidden in the Torah, but it is also forbidden for a man to cut his facial hair, although in Levi's time (and now) many Jewish men shaved regularly. According to the Torah, "You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard" (Leviticus 19:27). In the same chapter of Leviticus is found the command, "You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves."

The physical deprivations are also, in some cases, intentionally painful. The shoes are a prime example of this. Prisoners had to surrender their own shoes, and they were issued shoes intended to cause them pain. With ill-fitting shoes, every step is painful, and the sores are prone to infections that could lead to death.

The tattooing of prisoners was not conducted at every camp. The only camp where it was done consistently was Auschwitz. These numbers were, in theory, intended to be able to identify the prisoners. Identification often included a symbol, letter, or shape, as well. Those selected for immediate death were not tattooed. Levi had his tattoo with him for the rest of his life and never tried to hide it. It is inscribed on his tombstone in Turin's Jewish cemetery. The author of an article on writers' epitaphs in The Paris Review has remarked, "The numbers now flaunt Levi's survival."

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