Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 9 : The Drowned and the Saved | Summary



Levi asks if it is "necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state." He goes on to argue that it is. Furthermore, these experiences make clear that there are "two particularly well-differentiated categories among men—the saved and the drowned." In the Lager, the "struggle to survive is without respite."

He notes that if a man finds a way to avoid the hardest work, he will hide his method if possible. Those do not "die or disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone's memory." Jewish prisoners who had low numbers (less than 150,000) and had survived until 1944 were remarkable in some way. They were the "Organisator," the "Kombinator," and the "Prominent" (the organizer, the combiner, and the prominent). The others, the "muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp," but they do not survive.

Levi gives the examples of four men who are survivors: Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias, and Henri. Schepschel is "not very robust, nor very courageous, nor very wicked." He has a method to sell things, and he combines his theft with the skills of others. He also is willing to sacrifice others to protect himself. Alfred L., a successful businessman before Auschwitz, has a long-term plan. He joins the chemical kommando where he judges the new arrivals at camp. Levi says Alfred L. judges "with extreme severity, especially when faced with those in whom he smelled possible rivals." Elias Lindzin, a "dwarf," has a "bestial vigour." Levi notes that he never saw Elias rest, quiet, injured, or ill. He is "naturally and innocently a thief." When describing him, Levi ultimately says that Elias is, at the core, a survivor. He says that if Elias "regains his liberty, he will be confined to the fringes of human society, in a prison or lunatic asylum."

The last of the four is 22-year-old Henri, who is multilingual. He assesses people to see how he can "cultivate" them. He has made powerful allies to avoid the selections, and there is "nothing at camp that he does not know about." Levi suggests that speaking to Henri is pleasant. Levi notes that afterward he ultimately feels he is "not a man to him, but an instrument in his hands." He closes with saying that while he'd like to know of Henri's life after the camp, he does "not want to see him again."


At this point, the book veers more into philosophical matters. (Not coincidentally, The Drowned and the Saved was the title of Levi's last book before his death.) The earliest chapters highlight much of the practical realities of Auschwitz. The arrival process, the infirmary, the work detail, the food, the living conditions, these are all addressed in detail. Here, though, the question of survival and morality becomes more central. Until this chapter, the book reads as if Levi has no personal judgment of the people or events around him. As the book starts to reach the final chapters, more opinion, contemplation, and judgment of a personal nature filter into it.

In the four examples Levi offers of people who survived, the reader sees several types of people: Henri is charismatic and manipulative. His survival technique is charm, but he also makes use of organization and theft. He is the far opposite of Schepschel, who is not remarkable. He survives, to some degree, by avoiding notice and taking advantage of opportunities, whereas Henri seeks or creates them. Schepschel's method of survival is one that can be employed by many. Henri, however, has natural charm and language skills. He is, in his way, a specialist.

Alfred L. is also a specialist. He has extreme self-control, the ability to command, and a ruthlessness that is implied as a part of his business acumen prior to being brought to Auschwitz. He eliminates rivals, and he acquires a position in the chemical kommando that entitle him to access opportunities most camp prisoners lack. Similarly, Elias has unique skills. Like Henri and Alfred L., Elias is a specialist. His traits are aspects of a physicality that, in Levi's opinion, would not suit him well outside the camp. In sum, of the four who would be saved, not drowned as a "musselman" would be, three of them have exceptional traits. These are not characteristics most of the people sent to Auschwitz would have. They would "drown," through no fault of their own.

Another aspect of this chapter the reader might note is that it leads to the question of Primo Levi's specialization. Levi, as the reader knows from the onset of the text, has survived. This chapter maintains that surviving often results from being remarkable in some way. It sets up the revelation in the next chapter of just how Levi was saved, not drowned.

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