Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 5 : Our Nights | Summary

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Summary

After 20 days in the infirmary, Levi is discharged. He is not returned to his original block, but to Block 45, where his closest friend Alberto is. Levi notes that Alberto "did not become corrupt" despite being in Auschwitz.

Levi dreams of a train and of his sister, and in his dream, he is trying to tell friends of "our hunger and of lice-control" and so many other details. In his dream he is home, but no one is listening to him tell of the things he has to say. In his dream, his sister walks away. He is filled with despair and grief. When he shares the dream with Alberto, Alberto says that "it is also his dream and the dream of many others." He can hear others sleeping near them dreaming of food because they are licking their lips and moving their mouths as they dream of eating.

Levi explains that at night they wake constantly to relieve themselves because of the "great dose of water which during the day we are forced to absorb in the form of soup." The water causes swollen ankles and a "toil on our kidneys." The waste bucket must be emptied repeatedly throughout the night, about 20 times. Come morning, they wake, guarding their belongings against theft as they make their bunks and dress. They hurry to the latrine and then the queue for their bread.

Analysis

Part of the suffering of the prisoners in Auschwitz was caused by their diet and living conditions. They received only 1,300 calories per day in food and worked over 10 hours a day. That caloric amount was not sufficient to maintain health, especially with the excessive work the prisoners were to complete. A low-calorie diet and physical labor lower the body's ability to recover from illness. Moreover, the latrines lacked sanitary conditions, which added to the spread of germs. All these details were part of the methods the Nazis used to destroy the prisoners.

The deprivation of this diet often resulted in what Levi refers to as "musselman," those such as Null Achtzehn. The word literally translates to "Muslim," but as Levi explains, "This word 'Muselmann,' I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection." This was a type of organic deterioration from the starvation diet, resulting in physical exhaustion and, ultimately, death.

The reader may note the almost dispassionate tone of the text in discussing prisoners like Null Achtzehn. These prisoners are not able to endure or fight for the survival of spirit as others, like Alberto, do. What Levi does is present the facts and give the reader the evidence of the reality of life for these men. From there, the reader can reach the logical conclusion. In many ways, this is what a scientific article does. This method of presentation does not sensationalize or sentimentalize the information.

Along these lines, the focus on the friendship between Alberto and Levi stands out. To have any kind of friendship in this environment is remarkable. Despite the unsanitary conditions, insufficient food, and long cruel work, Levi is still human enough to take comfort in his friend, Alberto. This one detail does not overcome the rest, but it is a measure of comfort to Levi. Again, however, Levi does not belabor a discussion of his friendship with Alberto. He presents it as fact. The reader will note that this detail supports the theme of being a man. Neither Levi nor Alberto is a musselman.

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