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Survival in Auschwitz | Themes



From the moment of arrival at Auschwitz, the prisoners are dehumanized. "Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man," Levi says. Upon arrival, they are made to surrender their clothes and shoes. They are shaved and shorn, subjected to group showers, and left to stand naked in the cold. They are tattooed against their wills. This is an extra offensive act to force upon orthodox Jews, who are bound by the Torah not to get tattoos or show nakedness. In the midst of these dehumanizing acts, prisoners are given ill-fitting shoes, which leave sores on their feet that become infected.

"To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one," Levi says. Prisoners are provided watery soup and bread, and not enough of it. Their shelters are so scant that they have to share bunks. In the winter, they have insufficient clothing for the conditions so that "from October till April, seven out of ten of us will die."

The desperation causes some men "to have the gold filling of their teeth extracted to sell them for bread or tobacco." This offends the SS because "the very gold of our teeth is their property," which will be "torn from the mouths of the living or the dead."


The theme of survival is the underlying point of the text. It seems nearly impossible to survive in such horrific conditions. Steinlauf tells Levi that "even in this place one can survive, and that one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness."

Part of the difficulty of survival is the arbitrariness of achieving it. This is seen in the arrival, when over 500 Jews are sent to their deaths. It is also shown in the ongoing "selections" when they must pass an SS man who decides who will live and who will not. In this, there are "irregularities" such as Sattler, who is there only 20 days. Being fit does not save him.

Part of surviving is not becoming a "muselmann," like Null Achtzehn (018), who can no longer recall his name. It is in more than the body. However, the survival of the body is an equal challenge. Insufficient food, shelter, and rest combined with cruelty and the elements mean that living is not guaranteed. Of the 650 Jews who arrived in February, "ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau." The other 500 or more died within two days. When Levi goes to the Ka-Be, he notes that "only forty" remain. That is within two months. "Twenty-nine survived until October," Levi says. By the start of winter, "we are now twenty-one." Survival is far from probable.

Within the Lager, theft, exchange, and barter all exist as ways to extend the possibility of survival. Levi, throughout the text, highlights ways people attempt to survive. They use deceits to stay longer in the infirmary, gain protectors, or become qualified as a specialist (as Levi is with the chemical kommando). Even with every effort, survival is still challenged by the randomness of the selection for the gas chamber and the unforgiving cold of winter. Levi is one of the only people from his transport to Auschwitz in February 1944 who survived.

Being a Man

The theme of being a man is central to the text. The original title, in fact, was If This Is a Man. What it means to be a man, to be a person, contrasts with the constant attempts at dehumanization. The anti-Semitism at root in the entire Holocaust (Shoah) required that the Nazis not see Jews as people. The conditions of the camp were intended to treat them as somehow subhuman. In this, Levi is presented with opportunities that he conveys to the reader to emphasize the importance of being a man, as in the quotation cited from Dante.

When speaking to Steinlauf, Levi understands that "the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts." Steinlauf tells him that "even in this place one can survive, and that one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness." To do this they must try to remain civilized. They must "wash our faces without soap in dirty water." They must polish their shoes "for dignity and propriety." They must "walk erect" in order to "remain alive, not to begin to die."

To do so in the Lager is not easy.

When Levi has been there a while, he meets Lorenzo, a civilian worker, who gives him a warm vest and begins to give him food. This is another moment of reminding himself that he is not the beast the SS would have him be. "Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man," Levi says.

Levi also has a moment of remembering his humanity when he is teaching Italian to Jean, another inmate at Auschwitz. To do so, he uses Dante Alighieri's Inferno, another version of hell. With it, of course, is the awareness that he wants to convey everything to Jean at once because "tomorrow he or I might be dead."

Once the SS has evacuated Auschwitz, leaving the infirm behind, Levi and two other patients in the Ka-Be go to find provisions for them. A fourth patient suggests they offer part of their bread to the three who had gone into the cold to get supplies. Levi notes that "It was the first human gesture that occurred among us."

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