Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (II)

In my first post on teaching Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, I discussed the conclusions I help students come to in regards to what I take to be the two most important chapters in the book. In this post I’ll list some of the other aspects I address. I never get to all of this material; there just isn’t enough time. Take this then as a menu of options, from which I choose based on our conversations:

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1. Levi’s aims—reading the preface:

Survival in Auschwitz begins with a short author’s preface. It’s easy to skip, but you shouldn’t. It tells us interesting things about what Levi thinks he is up to in his book. The first phrase—“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” and the last sentence—“It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented”—offer good opportunities to think about tone and rhetoric (the irony of the opening, the preterition of the closing). More than that though I want students to think about Levi’s aims. As the final line suggests, Levi is at least in part motivated by the impulse to document. The things he will relate really happened. Levi was often asked whether the Holocaust could happen again. His response: it happened once, thus it can happen again.

But Levi isn’t only a documentarian. Yes, he wrote the book, he explains, not to accuse but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Levi apologizes for “the structural defects of the book,” which date to his time in the camp, where the need not just to tell his story to others but to make them participate in it had already taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” On one hand, Survival is sober and reasoned (that quiet study of the mind: Levi refers to syllogisms and logic); on the other, it’s an emotional outpouring. This isn’t some kind of failure on Levi’s part; it’s typical of the fractured quality of so much Holocaust literature. These texts struggle with its very textuality. Every text has some kind of shape or form. But what happens when the subject matter of that form is destruction, terror, violence, in a word, formlessness? Each work of Holocaust literature answers this question in a different way, but, I tell my students, it’s one we’ll come back to again and again.

2. Author as character:

I’ll often start our second session, by which time students have read most of the book, by asking these questions: Who is Primo Levi? How does he present himself? What do we learn about him from his memoir?

He’s Italian. He’s Jewish. What does Jewishness mean to him? He doesn’t seem to be very Jewish. How can you tell? He’s not religious. (This is a useful place for a mini-lecture on Jewishness as both religion and culture: my students, almost none of whom are Jewish, often have many questions.) How does he end up at Auschwitz? That is, what brings on his deportation? He’s arrested. For what? For fighting as a partisan. (Mini-lecture on the partisans, and the situation in Italy before and during the war, especially 1943-44.) Right, he’s arrested as an anti-fascist. And when he is arrested, he prefers to admit, as he puts it, his “status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race,’” believing, wrongly as it turns out, that it would be more dangerous to confess to being a partisan. To me this suggests that he thinks of his Jewishness as a kind of bargaining chip: not that he doesn’t care about it, but that it isn’t central to his sense of self.

What else do we know? How old is he? 24. Why is that important? He tells us that he was neither too old nor too young—adducing as an example of the latter a teenage prisoner known simply as Null Achtzehn (Zero Eighteen, the last digits of his tattooed number). No one likes to work with Null Achtzehn because he has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t husband his strength. He works flat out until he collapses, invariably bringing trouble on whomever happens to be his partner that day. (Their job in this particular anecdote is moving “sleepers,” railway ties frozen into the Silesian mud.)

What about Levi’s background? Can we tell anything about who he’s been before deportation? I’ll often have us look at a passage where Levi mentions how, for days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he would reflexively look at his wrist, and find, instead of a watch, a tattoo. What does this anecdote suggest? Dehumanization, of course—his name has been taken away (along with his clothes, his hair, his belongings, his dignity), he has been entered into a vast bureaucracy. (Which requires us to complicate the consoling idea that the Nazis are monsters, irrational, barbarians, etc. They are efficient, methodical, all-too-human.) All true. But what else? What kind of person looks at their watch? (Tricky question, getting more abstruse every year, as watches fade from memory.) Students will offer hesitant replies. An anxious person? A punctual person? A detailed-oriented person? (Levi was all of these things.) How about, I say, a person who understands time in a certain way: a person who doesn’t work in the fields. Levi is bourgeois, a middle class professional. The Italian Jews—secular, assimilated—are known throughout the camp for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). What do other prisoners think of them? They laugh at them, think of them as useless, hopeless. Right. Levi notes they can’t do anything practical, they are not long for this world.

What is Levi’s own training? He is a scientist, a chemist. Why is that important? It saves his life: he is transferred to a work detail, a chemical unit, which gets slightly better rations and, just as importantly, works inside, out of the worst of the cold. Some students will suggest that we can see Levi’s scientific background in his style. I am always a little resistant to this idea, which always seems to me based on a crude idea of science, but they adduce his matter-of-factness, almost brusqueness, the absence of showy stylistic flourishes. I admit they have a point, especially when we think of how thoroughly Lei effaces himself in the text, and, more generally, how much he downplays agency, that is, willpower.

But I want us to get back to the matter of Levi’s style as a function of his background. Does Levi only know about science? Does he have other knowledge that appears in his writing? Those questions don’t always go anywhere right away. So I’ll point to the passage about the guard on the truck taking the “lucky” prisoners from the ramp to the labour camp at Monowitz: Levi calls him “our Charon.” We discuss who Charon is, and briefly consider the implied comparison of Auschwitz to the underworld. My point, though, is that this is a classical allusion, an example of Levi’s humanist education, which we will consider in detail when reading the Canto of Ulysses chapter. Levi is as much a humanist as a scientist. He is well-rounded, a real liberal arts guy. Levi is interested in everything pertaining to the human.

3. Levi’s style:

An exercise that always gets good results is to ask students to find a passage they consider representative of Levi’s style and to free write why. I’ll choose a few students to share their examples, selecting students who’ve been quiet so far. (This is usually in the second week of the semester.) I always have my own example in reserve. Depending on how much time we have, we sometimes work through it. (Sometimes students even select it: always a happy occasion.) Levi is describing the arrival of his transport at Auschwitz:

The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.

A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment, they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: “How old? Healthy or ill?” And on the basis of that reply they pointed in two different directions. […]

In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.

Here is Levi’s version of a scene central to so many Holocaust memoirs—the scene of arrival at the camp, with its sudden shift from limbo to hell. One of the most surprising things about Levi’s depiction is how calm, almost silent is a scene that other writers describe as a cacophonous tumult. After the opening crash of the transport doors and the barked orders, there is only silence. This is matched by the casualness, even indifference of the SS, their legs akimbo. There is no sadism here. And the scene is the more terrible for its absence. (Though Levi will certainly experience that later, not least in a famous scene when, tormented by thirst, he has tried to grab an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away. Why? he asks. The guard responds, chillingly: Here there is no why.)

The unexpected calmness is further conveyed by Levi’s unadorned, modest prose. In this passage (as elsewhere), he is chary with metaphor. The SS men have faces of stone, the night swallows up those sent to the gas chambers, but those are the only examples. The description in the first paragraph of the ramp swarming with shadows is probably literal, given the glare of the lights.

I suggest the scene is more report than narrative. Notice Levi’s pronouns. He doesn’t use I at all here, and quite seldom in the text, which is surprising since he’s writing a memoir. That effacement of the self by the group reflects Levi’s wish to consider the event in its larger significance. It’s not just about him. Sometimes students want to take is use of “we” as a gesture of solidarity, which is a fine thought, though neither here nor elsewhere is that a real possibility. Besides, the “we” doesn’t, in fact, just refer to the deportees. In the excerpt’s last sentence, it expands to refer maybe not to everyone but to all who have studied these events. And Levi makes it clear that each of us must take up the task.

Perhaps for this reason—his desire to record the truth about an experience the significance of which extends beyond himself—Levi often writes in the kind of judging, assessing, almost omniscient style we might find in Balzac, or, more pertinently, Manzoni. Look at the end of the first sentence: orders are uttered in “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” The orders aren’t just barked; they are barked the way Germans bark them, expressing a thousand-year-old rage. (Maybe there is a buried reference to the thousand-year Reich here, too.)

What most concerns Levi in this passage is the speed with which human beings can be turned into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself seduced by Nazism, called “standing reserve”: an inability to see anyone or anything in anything except for their use value. Levi and his fellows are so many kilojoules, units of work to be extracted before their bodies are discarded as useless husks.

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Arrival records from Auschwitz. Levi’s name is seventh from the top.

4. Kraus, or, Friendship in Auschwitz:

I often devote time to short chapter called “Kraus.” Unusually, Levi is at the center of the action. Kraus is one of the thousands of Hungarians who flood Auschwitz and its sub-camps in the summer of 1944. By now it is November and it is raining. The veterans, like Levi, who counts as one after having survived nine months, fear the onset of winter. Kraus, though, is still a newbie. Kraus can’t march in step and he risks bringing the Kapo’s ire on the rest of the work detail. For some reason, which he cannot or will not explain, Levi suddenly addresses the man in pidgin German. He tells Kraus he dreamt about him. In the dream, the war was over and Kraus visited Levi in Italy, bringing a warm loaf of bread with him. Levi puts him up for the night, introduces him to his family, they share good fellowship.

Then comes this:

What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian: he will not survive very long here, one can see it at the first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. … Poor silly Kraus. If only he knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.

Why, I’ll ask the class, does Levi include this moment? He wants to show a full picture of himself, that he’s not just good. What, is he bad? Well, no, not bad. The situation is bad. So that’s what he wants to show? The whole book is about that. Why this moment? Discussion ensues. He’s mean to Kraus, someone will say. Yeah, the way all the veterans are mean to the new arrivals, retorts another. I don’t know if he’s mean, he’s trying to encourage Kraus. But he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a trick, cynical even. I’ll jump in: so is this like “bless your heart”? I always ask this question, because I can’t help playing to the gallery and it always gets a laugh. (I lived in the South for several years before I realized just how double-edged this expression is, which mostly means something like “What an idiot,” but can sometimes mean “Poor you.”) Then I’ll add: has Levi become like the prisoners he condemned in an earlier chapter, people who’ll use anyone in any way to aid their own survival? Depending on time, I’ll juxtapose this scene to Levi’s descriptions of two people who were really like friends, as much as possible in that place, anyway. Alberto was another Jewish deportee from northern Italy; Leonardo a civilian worker sent from Italy to support the war effort. As a non-Jew, he lived in a different kind of camp, had access to food parcels, and received a much greater ration. The two encountered each other by chance one day and realized they were both Piedmontese. For six months Leonardo left a pint of soup each day for Levi.

By comparing these descriptions of friendship to the example of Kraus we can think further about whether solidarity is a meaningful concept in the world of the camp. Since everything in the book goes back to the concept of the human, we can think about how solidarity might preserve humanity.

5 “The Story of the Last Ten Days”: The end of Survival in Auschwitz:

Why does the book end as it does? Why is the last chapter presented as a diary, unlike anything else in the book? (Even though it is clear that the diary is fake—that is, written retrospectively. Interestingly, Levi wrote this chapter first.) Why does it end so abruptly? The last entry concludes by stating the fate of two Frenchmen with whom Levi formed a trio dedicated to helping each other in the newly-liberated camp: “Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher’s profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The students and I note that liberation is presented neither as a triumph nor an invitation to resume life. The abrupt ending suggests that something has ended, but nothing has yet replaced it. (Levi would write another book about the many months it took him to return home.) The only hint that humanity will be a part of whatever that new state turns out to be is the fact that Levi’s last lines reference communication and connection. The last chapter describes the stages by which the prisoners slowly inch towards becoming human again, the best evidence of which is their willingness to help each other.

As part of the process of reawakening, the dated “entries” reintroduce ordinary time to the text. Which is where the book begins: the first line is “I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943.” But that’s one of the last references to time. Survival in Auschwitz is organized thematically, not chronologically. This decision is a function of Levi’s interest in structure, in analysis, in the big picture. As we’ve already noted, he isn’t just telling his own story. But it is also a function of the way time changes in the camp. The days are all the same, only the weather is a little better or a little worse. The linearity we attach so much importance to in thinking about our lives is gone. There is no beginning, middle, and end. The final chapter, then, is important as a marker of change. Liberation returns Levi to time.

That’s hardly everything there is to say about this important book. But we return to Levi throughout the semester. He becomes our touchstone, not so much the arbiter of how to think about the camps, but the one most interested in documenting it as scrupulously as possible. Levi sometimes bridled at the term “witness.” In the book’s first reviews—basically uninterested: the book was not initially a success—Levi is often called a witness, a term explicitly contrasted to writer. As if Levi were merely transcribing, rather than also shaping experience. But Levi came more and more to embrace the term. As he wrote to Jean Samuel, immortalized in the book as the Pikolo in “The Canto of Ulysses,” who remained a close friend after the war: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.” Studying Survival in Auschwitz is one of the first ways my students learn what it might mean to bear that weight.

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

This month I’m reading and writing about Primo Levi. Here’s the first of two posts on my experience teaching his most famous work.

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Along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only book to have remained constant on my Holocaust Literature syllabus is Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. It sounds grandiose, but Levi’s memoir is one the most important books in my life. It drew me to the field of Holocaust literature in the first place, but it would be a desert island book for me even if I didn’t do what I do for a living. One of the key testimonies of the 20th century, it is the book I recommend when people ask me what they should read to learn about the Holocaust.

I’ve taught the book often enough (12-15 times, I’d say) that I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a sense of how I teach it, usually over three 50-minute class periods. Not enough time, but what can you do, there’s so much other material to get to, plus I typically spend two more days on two important essays by Levi, which gives me some extra time to squeeze in a few more bits of the memoir. By the way, the book I am calling Survival in Auschwitz is really called If This is a Man. (Readers in the UK know it under that title.) Unfortunately, for all the predictable reasons (sales, expectations of what American readers want from a text, etc), Levi’s US publishers changed the title. It’s one of the great publishing travesties, but since that’s what it’s come to be known in the US, that’s the title I use in class. Plus we can have a useful conversation about the differences implied by the titles.

What follows is likely more useful for those who have read the book. If you haven’t, I hope you will. It’s not long, and it’s really powerful.

Over the years I’ve varied my teaching approach, partly to keep things fresh and partly because my ideas about the book have changed. (Not fundamentally, but the more time you spend with a book the more clearly you see how its parts fit together.) But despite those refinements, I’ve always spent a lot of time on two chapters. They are central to Levi’s project, and they’re what I’ll talk about in this post, adding a second one about some of the other topics I like to get to.

The first of the two chapters is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” which is Levi’s way of distinguishing between two types of prisoners. For whatever reason, the alpine Levi, born and raised in Turin, always used water metaphors to conceptualize the fate of the Nazis’ victims. He uses the terms sinking and touching bottom when speaking of death in the camps. He gives the name “the drowned” to those who are not dead yet, but will be soon. Even if physiologically alive they are mentally and spiritually dead. They are barely human. In the argot of Auschwitz, the drowned are Musselmänner, Muslims. (The term in no way refers to actual Muslims; scholars still don’t know where the term came from, though some speculate it is connected to the concept of submission that is one of the pillars of Islam. But this would be a terrible distortion of what Muslims mean by that term.) No prisoner could live much more than three months on the rations they were given without succumbing, without drowning. Only those who could find a way to cheat the system, to gain some small privilege that will result in an extra half slice of bread, an extra ration of soup had a chance of surviving.

When he talks about “the saved,” Levi does not mean the elect. The saved are not better than the drowned. In fact, in an essay written much later, Levi argued they were in fact worse, because they had to have compromised their morals in some way. He does not exempt himself from this charge. (Students struggle with this. They really want Levi to be saying that the saved are morally superior: in this way, they reflect our culture’s poor understanding of Darwin, who was describing not prescribing when he spoke of the survival of the fittest.)

We spend a long time on Levi’s distinction, not least because it preoccupied Levi his whole life. I want students to figure out Levi’s attitude to the drowned. To that end, I ask them to close read this sentence:

All the musselmanns who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

I’ll begin by asking, What are the implications of this metaphor? If that doesn’t generate anything useful, I’ll break it down. Why do streams go to the sea? Gravity, someone will say. That’s just the way it is, says another. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s natural. What, then, is the implication of these answers for our understanding of the drowned? Is it in their nature to drown? Is Levi describing something like fate? Is the universe just made for them to succumb? If so, what about Levi’s many claims that chance was the main determination of who survived? Is Levi judging the drowned?

Later passages make it clear that he is not. Take this resonant, stern assertion:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

What he judges is the universe in which it is natural for the drowned to sink to the bottom, which is to say, the universe of the camps. That last sentence is further evidence of a tendency we will by this point in our conversation already have talked about, namely, how highly Levi values thought and reason. To be able to reason is to be human. But to reason in the camps is painful—it reminds the prisoner of all he has lost. That is the ambivalence of the camp infirmary: it spares prisoners from the back-breaking labour for a time (assuming they recover), but it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to them.

An even more complex consideration of the double-edged quality of reason lies at the heart of the book’s most magisterial chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” the second I emphasize. (In recently learned from Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi that he wrote it in a single 30-minute lunch break at his first job after returning home to Turin.) Here Levi submits reason to the most intense and consequential scrutiny.

“The Canto of Ulysses” concerns Levi’s relationship with his work kommando’s Pikolo, a young man named Jean. A Pikolo (also known as a Pipel) was a kind of messenger boy/mascot selected by the Kapo or head of the commando. (Kapos were themselves prisoners, but almost always criminals or sometimes political prisoners.) A Pikolo was typically a teenage boy, who was often used sexually by the Kapo; either way, he had a higher status than ordinary prisoners and received certain privileges. Jean’s full name was Jean Samuel: after the war, he and Levi maintained a decades-long friendship. Jean, an Alsatian, speaks French and German equally well. Mindful of the importance of languages in the camps, he asks Levi, on a day when he has selected the older man to accompany him from the work site to the kitchen to fetch the day’s cauldron of soup, to teach him some Italian. The chapter describes what counts as an idyll in Auschwitz. The task takes about an hour, in which the two men are free from hard labour and the threat of punishment.

Levi makes the unusual decision—which Samuel later said bemused him at the time—of granting Jean his wish by reciting for him a canto from Dante’s Inferno. He readily admits he does so more for himself than for Jean: being able to turn his mind to the foundational text of Italian literature imbues him with new life. But the canto Levi chooses—in class I pass out a copy of the relevant section, as only some lines are quoted in the chapter, and in the process offer a quick summary of Dante’s aims and achievement in the Divine Comedy—is surprising.

In the poem, Dante is surprised to find Ulysses in Hell (as opposed to in Limbo with other virtuous pagans). What, he wonders, has Ulysses done to deserve this fate? Ulysses answers by telling the story of how, having escaped the enchantments of Circe, he goaded his men into sailing across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and past the edge of the known world. He trespassed the boundaries of human accomplishment—and was punished for that audacity. Levi makes a clear parallel between the expedition he and Jean are making and Ulysses’s own, which the wily Ithacan launched in a rousing speech: you are men, and thus made for wisdom, he tells the sailors, mere beasts of burden. The canto matters to Levi because the story it tells “has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulder.”

They are not the oxen they appear to be. In using the phrase “dare to reason,” Levi echoes the Latin sapere aude, dare to know, the credo of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even this early in the semester, students hunger for a positive moment. They welcome the message that humanity can’t so easily be destroyed.

To complicate this wishful thinking, I assign an activity in which half the students make connections between the excerpt from Dante and Levi’s chapter, and other half close the chapter’s final paragraph in order to figure out how it’s related to what’s come before. In pushing them past the obvious comparisons between the rousing Ulysses and the valiant camp inmates, I focus on how Ulysses gets his men to do what he wants. (They are rightly reluctant.) The poem says that his speech about how knowing is central to being human is an example of zeal. We consider the ambivalence of this word, which can be used as much to condemn as to praise. Zeal is almost always too much. It’s irrational (think of the way we use “zealot”). What I want students to see how reason is compromised by the very intensity with which it’s upheld. Ulysses is irrational in his praise of reason. Think about our own culture’s unreasoning and often unreasonable belief in the importance of science and technology, of progress, of improvement. It’s not that these are fictions. It’s that they are hollowed out when they are fetishized. This contradiction is important, because too often the Holocaust is taken to be an aberration from Western culture, when it is, if not its logical conclusion, completely in keeping with the way the West has thought about the world.

That’s why the chapter’s final paragraph, which is set off from what’s come before by a break, is so important. Levi and the Pikolo have reached the kitchen before their language lesson can be completed. Their idyll is over; the reality of camp life returns:

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. ’Kraut und Rüben? Kraut und Rüben.’ The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ’Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’

‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’

The last line is Ulysses’s description of his expedition’s fate. This language resonates with the references to sinking and drowning I mentioned earlier. Levi’s language (“sordid, ragged”), his description of the crowd that swallows the two men, putting paid to their conversation about Dante, and his use of foreign languages to talk not about poetry but about food combine to return is to reality. What matters is what’s in the soup today. But what about that final line from Dante. Should we read it as a final irony, a dismissal of what Levi and Jean have achieved? Or as an insistence, however faint, that poetry (and human accomplishment more generally) can persist? What does it mean to describe the press of starving men in the language of Dante? Does it elevate the scene? Does it denigrate Dante? Does the scene even need elevation?

Our difficulty in answering these questions—a result of the text’s complexity, nuance, and appreciation of paradox—challenges any consoling beliefs about the human spirit.

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Next time, notes on some of the other questions I ask in teaching Survival in Auschwitz.