Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 8 : This Side of Good and Evil | Summary



The prisoners are awaiting the "ceremony of the change of underclothes"; its delay leads to rumors that liberation will be coming. As it approaches, inmates in possession of illegal second shirts go to the "Exchange Market" to barter for food "before the flood of new shirts." The market itself is illegal. Levi explains the market in detail, the desperation and drive to acquire food and the other items that can be bought there, including mahorca. This crude tobacco is not sought by many of the häftlinge for personal use, but for trade with the civilian workers. Levi gives other examples of the sorts of bargains one can make, the trade and upselling all to try to survive. He adds that "some do not hesitate to have the gold fillings of their teeth extracted to sell them for bread or tobacco." He says the SS are "eager to suppress" this because "the very gold of our teeth is their property." He comments that "torn from the mouths of the living or the dead, it ends up in their hands."


Levi says, "We had an incorrigible tendency to see a symbol and sign in every event." What he describes here is, in part, the persistence of hope. Despite every reason to be broken, the prisoners maintain hope. While the author is imprisoned for no crime other than his faith, the question of faith is not highlighted much at all in the text.

In fact, one thing that Levi does not do in the whole of the text is address questions of loss of faith or raging against God. (In contrast, Elie Wiesel tackles this aspect of the Shoah in his remarkable 1956 book, Night.) Nonetheless, Levi expresses that the häftlinge (prisoners) did have hope. Here, he references it in the context of seeing "a symbol and sign in every event."

Unfortunately, even with hope, the reality was undeniably harsh. The removal of teeth from the dead—which Levi references in this chapter—was remarked upon by American generals when they arrived at Buchenwald. Within a shed, the generals found bodies, torture devices, and a butcher's block for removing gold fillings from the dead.

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