This book depicts whathappened to Levi after his arrest in 1944. Along with 650 others,he was loaded into a freight train for a four day journey without foodor water and without the liberty to leave the train at anytime. Upontheir arrival at the camp of Auschwitz, Poland, the first of a precessionof selections took place. The German SS Soldiers separated thosethey deemed capable of work from those they deemed incapable, such as women,children and elderly.
Only 135 of the 650 from Levis train were admittedinto Auschwitz, the other 515 went immediately to the gas chambers. Thesemethods of selection were to a degree, a logical means as compared to otherrandom selections. “Later, a simpler method was adopted that involved merelyopening both doors on the train. Without warning or instructionto the new arrivals, those who by chance climbed down on one side of theconvoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber. “(20)He was herded with the others into thecamp and after being striped naked and having his head shaved, he was givenan old striped uniform and the identification numbers 174517 tattooed onhis arm. Levi recalled with remarkable accuracy the humiliation and confusionfelt as he was forced to assimilate into his new surroundings.
Thefood rations were too insufficient to stave off the hunger. Thousandsof others around him were suffering and unavoidably dying as a result ofthis insufficient food supply. Although he was new to the camp, hisexperiences with others and his own observations told him that the Germansmilitant nature was at its worst. In order to outlive the war andsurvive, he found ways to maintain the illusion of usefulness with theleast possible exertion. Any protest or disobedience from prisoners endedswiftly with beatings and death.
An iron sign above the front gates proclaimedthe camp slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”. This translated to; “work givesyou freedom. ” Prisoners of Auschwitz were forced to work seven days aweek with two Sundays off a month which were filled with tedious, exhaustingtasks and were often the only opportunity available was to attend to personalhygiene needs. The bulk of their time was spent working 16-hour days infactories and around the camp, making supplies for the war and other itemsfor the Germans. With little food and inadequate clothing, it was easyto fall ill or die from exhaustion while working in the snow and rain.
Levi was lucky enough to be sent to (and return from) the Ka-be or theinfirmary to recover from an injury to his Achilles tendon. The Ka-bewas overcrowded, and was populated by individuals with deadly, communicablediseases such as typhus and dysentery. There were no medicines availableto relieve the symptoms and the pain and suffering was widespread. Despitethis he was able to rest and build up some strength before returning backto work. Much of the work assigned to them was needless. Itwas given for the purpose of wearing down the prisoner and making him weaker.
A weak prisoner was less likely to protest or attempt to escape. Levi described how many of the prisoners,after long hours of manual labor, would gather in a corner of the campfor a market. They would trade rations and stolen goods. Suchgoods as a spoon or buttons were as valuable as gold. The market followedall the classical economic laws.
This seemed to show the ability of peopleto live and think and work in the most adverse of conditions. Insidethe barbed wire, the prisoners had created their own social and economicalworld in order to endure. Primo Levi seems to write as a means inwhich he could express the physical trauma that he experienced as a survivorof Auschwitz and its emotional consequences. He recalls for thereader the challenges that he faced on a daily and hourly basis to meetthe basic needs necessary to remain alive.
Levi depicts his timeas a prisoner with a straight forward and narrative approach and with analmost unemotional tone that often disguises the horror of what he is describing. It would be easy to bluntly horrify the reader with a book about life ina death camp, but this is not his intention, instead he produces a realisticaccount of events with an insight into his own feelings and emotions. Althoughmost were only mentioned briefly, other prisoners are introduced to showempathy to the many nationalities that were persecuted. He tellsthe story of the oppressed and nameless rather then that of the adversary. He does not concern himself with trying to justify the motives behind theNazis actions.
“They behaved with the calm assurance of people doing theirnormal duty of everyday. “(19)If not for his degree in chemistry, whichearned him a place in the Chemistry Command working indoors during thelast winter, Primo would have probably suffered the same fate as the elevenmillion people, six million of them Jews, who died during the war. It is hard to imagine the reasons why a man who had survived such incomprehensiblehorrors would commit suicide, but that is how Levi ended his life 42 yearsafter being liberated by the Russians. For every one person whomsurvived and told his story like Primo Levi, There are thousands of otherswith equally shocking and disturbing stories who were gassed and murderedat the hands of the Nazis.