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Survival in Auschwitz | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Arrest and Arrival at Auschwitz

In 1943 Primo Levi, a 24-year-old chemist and Italian Jew, is hiding with a group of anti-fascist resistance fighters when he is arrested by the fascist militia. He is initially interred in Italy at a camp called Fossoli, but in January 1944, he is transported with 650 other Jews to Auschwitz in Poland. Upon arrival, they are separated. Ninety-six men and 29 women are not immediately killed.

Levi, one of the 96 men, details the dehumanizing process. They must surrender their clothes and shoes, be shaved and shorn, and wait naked. The prisoners are also tattooed their inmate numbers. Levi details the camp, its abject hunger and overcrowded dormitories for prisoners (who slept two to a narrow bunk). He explains the camp layout and daily routine.

He meets another prisoner, Steinlauf, who explains the importance of trying to maintain civility, the possibility of survival, and bearing witness. Steinlauf relates that the power they do have exists in not consenting to the forces controlling them.

The Ka-Be and Approaching Winter

Levi endures numerous assaults on his humanity and health, and on one work detail, he is injured because of exhaustion and grueling physical labor. Entering the Ka-Be (an abbreviation for the krankenbau, or infirmary) is again an assault. The injured wait naked to be examined. The staff decides that Levi is genuinely injured, and he stays in the infirmary for 20 days. He meets several prisoners he describes by name, including Schmulek, who is selected to die.

Upon release, he is assigned to a different block (where he will reside). In this block is his best friend, Alberto. During this time, Levi also meets Resnyk, who helps him endure a particularly difficult work detail and shares his bunk.

Levi relates a relatively happy day (for the circumstances) in which one inmate, Templar, learns of abandoned soup (thought to be rancid), and their block has extra food. This, and the skies seeming to warm in a way that indicates that winter has ended, makes the day memorable.

The Chemical Kommando

Time passes, and there is a new kommando (work detail). This one is a specialists' kommando for chemists. Levi is one of the people eligible, and he has to be examined regarding his knowledge. He answers questions to determine his knowledge, but the kommando is not yet doing chemical work. Instead, the members of the kommando are scraping the inside of a petrol tank.

Winter comes, but the members of the chemical kommando do not receive overcoats because they are considered to be working indoors. They, at this point, are hauling 125-pound bags of chemicals. Eventually, though, Levi is chosen as one of the three men to work in the lab, where it is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. He profits also by stealing from the lab to buy things on the illegal exchange within the Lager (prison camp). This is a normal part of life within the Lager. Levi describes the ways some men manage to survive by doing so. He and his friend Alberto both profit from this, as do others in his block.

With winter there is another selekcja. The "selection" involves prisoners chosen in the space of minutes to either stay on work details or be sent to the gas chamber. Air raids have begun, and the prisoners know that the front (the actual fighting of the war) is moving closer.


Levi continues working in the laboratory, but he is stricken with scarlet fever and sent to the Ka-Be again. While there, he rests for several days, but then he learns that the camp is being evacuated. All but the prisoners in the Ka-Be who are unable to walk are being evacuated. Alberto leaves but Levi stays behind, as do other patients.

Air raids continue, and there is no electricity. For 10 days, the patients are left to fend for themselves, trying to find food and heat. The Nazis have abandoned the camp, and there are many prisoners dying from cold, hunger, and illness. There is a trench overflowing with dead bodies, but the ground is too frozen to bury them. With the help primarily of Charles, one of the others in the infectious diseases ward, Levi procures a small stove, a vehicle battery, turnips, potatoes, and assorted supplies. The 11 patients in his ward manage to all survive the 10 days until the Russian army arrives, meaning the end of the German rule. One patient in the ward, Sómogyi, dies. Several others die afterward in the Russian temporary hospital. Levi, Charles, Arthur, Schenck, and Alcalai survive and return to life outside Auschwitz.

Survival in Auschwitz Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Levi is captured by fascist militia.

Rising Action

2 Levi is transported to Auschwitz.

3 Because of an injury, Levi goes to the Ka-Be.

4 Levi is tested for chemical kommando.

5 Levi begins work in the laboratory.

6 Sick with scarlet fever, Levi goes to the Ka-Be.


7 Auschwitz is evacuated.

Falling Action

8 Russian troops arrive.


9 Levi is released from Auschwitz.

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