If This Is a Man / Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

It’s January and the DolceVitaBloggers LinkUp – organized by Kristie, Jasmine and Kelly – is back again. This time with the topic “Best Italian Book”.

Auschwitz - Birkenau - Gates of Hell - barbed wire

Photo by Harshil Shah on Flickr

When asked what’s one’s favourite book, many people prefer to make a list, instead of naming a single title. Probably they have yet to meet their book. I am lucky enough to have already encountered mine, some years ago at school.

Cultural awareness and sensitivity are different among readers and everyone has a potential different paper soul mate out there, but I feel like this one – the one that I inappropriately call mine – goes beyond any barrier imposed by personal preferences and upbringing. Its message is universal and it’s here to talk to every human being. It’s a slap in the face to wake us from our everlasting torpor and stupidity. It’s Se Questo E’ un Uomo by Primo Levi.

Writing a review of this book is something you’re destined to fail from the very beginning. A titanic endeavour. But if I manage to persuade just one of you to read it, it will be worth it. It will be worth to fail.

Primo Levi, public image

It was 1943. Primo Levi was a young chemist from Turin, Northern Italy. He described himself as a 24 years old with poor judgement, no experience and a tendency of living in a dream world characterized by an abstract sense of rebellion. Just a normal young man – like the ones you come across nowadays –  except he lived in Italy, it was 1943 and in his documents appeared his status of “Italian citizen of Jewish race”. Just few years before, the Fascist dictatorship had approved the shameful Italian Racial Laws that first limited the rights of the Jewish citizens and then ended up ordering their arrest and deportation.

Primo was arrested in December 1943, when he was caught hiding in the mountains with a group of partisans, and lately sent through one of the infamous cargo trains to Auschwitz.

The book starts from here and describes the hell that he went through as a prisoner and slave in the camp until the Liberation Day.

Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term “extermination camp,” and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: “to lie on the bottom.”

The fact that the book is a reportage of a survivor of Auschwitz, lead many people to refuse to read it. Who wants to know the gruesome details of the atrocities perpetuated inside the extermination camps? Who has the guts to face something like that? But there are not such details. The ultimate intent of Levi was not to share this kind of information; his work – according to his words – is here to provide material for a “measured study of certain aspects of humanity”. It’s indeed a book about the human being.

With the power of observation and precision of the scientist, and the depth of analysis of the philosopher, Primo Levi investigates the dehumanization caused by the Lager that deprives the prisoners of the basic rights – freedom, dignity, identity – and even capable of blurring the line that divides the oppressed from the oppressor.

Many have been the ways that we devised in order not to die: as many as the different human behaviours. All entail a wearing battle of everyone against each other and many of them a big amount of aberrations and compromises. Surviving without giving up anything of one’s morals […] has been allowed to very few individuals, whose nature was the one of martyrs and saints (*)

What’s the amount of humanity left in a man who fights for a crust of bread and who dies by a yes or no? “Tell me if this is a man”, asks Primo Levi at the beginning of his work.

The entire book revolves around this question and that’s why I kind of despise the choice of the editor that opted for Survival in Auschwitz as a title for the American version of the book. This is not just a reportage of an Auschwitz’ survivor, this is a philosophical work, a teaching about Life. A diary of a man who has seen “the Gorgon in the face” and yet has been capable of leaving us an unforgettable lesson concerning happiness. Or maybe it’s exactly because of that, it’s when you touch the endless bottom and manage to survive that you can have such extraordinary intuitions about Life.

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers 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 human condition which is opposed to everything infinite.

If This Is a Man is an earthquake, an upheaval able to change one’s perception forever: once you’ll read it, you won’t be the same person anymore. I always keep it with me and  every time I feel the need to read it again, I open it and, like a Pandora’s box, every emotion of the world resurfaces. All despite one, which absence, at first, puzzles the new reader: the author’s hate for the German enemy. There’s none. “Hate is such an animalistic and brutish sentiment”, Levi lately stated, “I prefer my actions and words to be driven by intellect as much as possible”.

Like a Pandora’s box, there’s only one thing that remains trapped inside in the end: hope.

Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.

A fundamental read of the proportions of a sacred book.

All the quotes are taken from the American version of the book, “Survival in Auschwitz”, apart from the one signalled with (*) that was translated from the Italian version by the author of the blog post.

27 thoughts on “If This Is a Man / Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

  1. Wow, this sounds like an incredible book. I like that you say it’s more about what humans are capable of than just a story about the horrors of the prison camps, although I do find the history fascinating too. I will have to look out for it! Great write up about it!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Too kind Manja! But I don’t deserve to be compared with him to any degree, of course!

      I highly recommend Levi also for his writing style: clear, simple, straight to the point. Try in Italian if you feel like it. But, for the English excerpts I have seen, the translated version seems good too!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read it in Italian, but the excerpts taken from the English version that I’ve found on the Internet, seem good translated. As stated in a comment above, I sincerely recommend the Italian version, though, because Levi’s writing style is clear and straight to the point. Sadly, many Italian writers tend to be a little too complicated in their style, so reading Primo Levi is really refreshing. He has a message and he delivers it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect that it’s partly (or maybe mostly) because I’m a native English speaker, but I find the English language more direct than Italian. I can also compare it to German, though, which has its own difficulties and complications for the non-native speaker; however, I’ve found German more straightforward than Italian and once you get past the intermediate level, actually easier than Italian because there isn’t the ambiguity.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I totally agree. It’s a language full of idioms and forms that requires a cultural background and that allows a savage use of subordinate clauses and digressions. It’s difficult. Add to this also the fact that many Italian authors like to show off by writing in a redundant and “pretentious” manner, and you partly understand why so many Italians do not read.

        As an Italian, I consider German more straighforward than English. It’s hard at the beginning (with all that grammar to learn), but then it seems pretty logical and without the quantity of idioms that English has.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s better to read it in Italian, but the English translation seems to be good, I have to say. In my honest opinion, his writing style is one of the best – clear and straight to the point – so yeah, in the end I definitely vote for the original version 😉


  2. Ciao Sara! Thank you for sharing your paper soul mate with us! I just read about Carlo Levi in Cristina’s post, and I had to google just now to see if there was any connection with Primo Levi. What a coincidence that two fantastic books are penned by gentlemen with the same last name! I am putting both of these books on my list to read. I love this type of philosophical non-fiction book. Thank you for always sharing such valuable information and recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Levi is one of the most popular Jewish surnames and, among the most brilliant Italian-Jewish intellectuals, there were many who carried that surname (Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, Rita Levi Montalcini etc.)
      I love philosophical non-fiction books, as well. Thanks for reading :*


  3. I read ‘If this is a man’ at University and I don’t think it’s ever left me. It’s such a stark reminder on how easily people can justify their actions by removing the sense of humanity from a person. It’s really shocking. I remember thinking everyone should read this book growing up! Thank you for sharing Sara. It’s lovely to have you back x


  4. Dearest Sara, I apologize for my lateness on commenting across the board here! I have neither read this book nor heard of it but that’s the beauty of the linkup, the chance to get introduced to books that we might never have picked up. Indeed, it sounds like quite a read and I hope to find myself in the right headspace at some point in the future to do so. Thanks for joining us!


  5. I read this book a few years ago, on the suggestion of my husband, who is from Turin. And you are so right about it. It has never left me. He has a very dispassionate way of recounting these horrifying experiences, almost like a journalist, or a reflection of the scientist in him. Which somehow renders them even more horrifying. (And I realize that saying that will probably make people not want to read it, but I sincerely hope they do.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you can totally see that he used “a scientific approach” when describing what happened to him in Auschwitz. No rage, no hate are visible in his words. It’s incredible how he was able to do that…


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