Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 4 : Ka-Be | Summary



Levi relates that everyone there is an enemy or a rival, but then he gives the example of his work companion, Null Achtzehn. This man is known only by "the last three figures of his entry number in German" (018). Levi suggests that Null Achtzehn has forgotten his own name, that he is dangerous because he is young and works with indifference. Levi believes that "when they send him to his death he will go with the same indifference."

Levi is carrying iron supports, along with Null Achtzehn, and a piece of iron falls. It results in a cut to Levi's foot, which sends him to the Ka-Be (an abbreviation for the krankenbau, or infirmary) after work and soup. Levi is "arztvormelder," a term he does not understand, and he is sent back. (The term means that the patient has a "medical concern.") The following day, Levi joins the queue of the arztvormelder, and he gives up his bowl, spoon, beret, and gloves (which cannot be taken into the Ka-Be). The arztvormelder undress and stand outside. They are counted and made to shower twice and wait. He relates, "we have been on our feet for ten hours and naked for six." Levi is given a gown and sandals, which are then taken. Again, he stands, naked, exhausted, and in pain. He thinks briefly that the room he's now in might be "the gas chamber of which all speak," but there is nothing he can do. He tries to speak to a fellow inmate, who ignores him. The nurse talks to that inmate, who notes his tattoo—a 174000 number, which marks him as an Italian Jew. They arrived only two months ago and "were more than a hundred and are now only forty." The nurse points out his ribs and other traits "as if I was a corpse in an anatomy class." At the end of this latest affront, he is told, "Du Jude, kaputt. Du schnell Krematorium fertig," which means "You Jew, finished. You soon ready for crematorium."

Despite this warning, Levi is sent to the beds in the Ka-Be to recover. Life in the Ka-Be is a different sort of torture. Here, prisoners have time to think. They sleep, they are examined, and they wait. While in the Ka-Be, Levi meets Water Bonn (a Dutchman) and Schmulek (a Polish albino Jew). Schmulek is selected for death while in the Ka-Be. Also while there, Levi is visited by Piero Sonnino, a friend from Rome. Piero is manipulating the system by paying a portion of his daily ration to a patient with dysentery to make the nurses believe Piero is ill.


The arrival at the Ka-Be is not as shocking as the arrival in camp had been. Levi again has adopted his scientific recounting of the facts. The minutiae are listed, the hours waiting and the showers. Much like the intake at the camp, the intake at the Ka-Be includes humanizing details. With the train and the arrival, Levi highlights the child, Emilia, and the ludicrousness of shoes being carefully organized but then swept away into piles. The fluctuation between the extremes is a sort of destabilizing act. The Nazi guards insist on the prisoners adhering to strict order, but then they insist on illogical acts.

These illogical acts the nurses and guards compel the prisoners to complete are also counter to the objective of healing. The patients are forced, again, to wait naked. They are not given food or drink. They are degraded and demeaned. Even the nurse, who treats him as if he were "a corpse in an anatomy class," adds to the difficulty of the experience. She and another inmate treat him callously. The Ka-Be heals the prisoners enough for them to suffer longer. Healing, within Auschwitz, is supremely irrational, as the camp has the most active gas chambers of any.

The prisoners can, at best, delay death. This is furthered by the example of Levi's friend, Piero. Piero's manipulation of the system helps him survive longer, but it is presented together with the reminder of the gas chamber. The prisoners are in the hospital, ostensibly to recover, but they are also taken from the beds to die. The SS began conducting selections of the patients at Auschwitz in 1941. They were then killed by gas chamber or lethal injection.

For Levi, the time in the Ka-Be is "the Lager without its physical discomfort." It provides time to consider "what they have made us become." This dehumanization and hopelessness are made manifest in the person of Null Achtzehn. He has lost his identity, and while he is technically alive, he exists as if he is not. Null Achtzehn is a counter to the character of Piero, who is doing anything he can to survive a little longer.

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