Book Reviews

So many books (you know the rest)

Survival in Auschwitz
by Primo Levi
Published in 1947 (I finished it on May 12, 2011)

Having been there, it helps when reading such a book, but it’s certainly not necessary.

Survival is a powerful recount of a young (he was 24) man’s survival in a place where most did not. His tale is even more miraculous considering that he became sick just when the Germans were “evacuating” the camp, leading thousands to disappear forever.  

The story does exactly what you’d expect: evokes emotions and forces you to really appreciate all you have in life. That said, it also teaches one how to survive and persevere in the toughest (and possibly most horrific) conditions. There isn’t too much more to add to that, except that when visiting Auschwitz in 2009, my main question was simple this: “How did anyone find the strength to survive?” And it wasn’t just fighting the elements (it was dreadfully cold there even in March), but finding any hope to go on as well. I’ve copied down a few passages that help illustrate some of the many answers:

“Sooner or later in life everyone discover that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison everlasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.” (17)

Hope is a powerful thing. While it can be diminished greatly, to extinguish it completely couldn’t even be done by mass genocide. It survives by careful optimism, the act of finding something, anything to look forward to:

“It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.” (130)

What’s interesting is that the beatings were not the worst part—that one needed to converse strength and energy at every moment, for almost no one consumed enough food to remain strong enough to battle the cold weather and overwhelming work. Levi speaks of a newcomer, who had not yet learned the way to survive and is working far too hard:

“He does not yet know that it is better to be beaten, because one does not normally die of blows, but one does of exhaustion, and badly, and when one grows aware of it, it is already too late.” (132)

Yet, work itself is not a bad thing, but moreover, a necessary part of life. Near the end, in a short interview, Levi offers these insightful words:

“I am persuaded that normal human beings are biologically built for an activity that is aimed toward a goal and that idleness, or aimless work (like Auschwitz’s Arbeit), gives rise to suffering and to atrophy.” (179)

No rainstorm lasts forever.