Jan 12, 2007

Book Review: Survival in Auschwitz


Levi, Primo

New York: Touchstone Press, 192 pages

Primo Levi was a Jewish-Italian chemist, Holocaust survivor and - most importantly - author of an impressive body of literature. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi's account of the nearly 11 months he spent in the Auschwitz complex.

Auschwitz was perhaps the most notorious of the German death camps, and estimates range between 1.1 and 1.6 million people murdered there, the vast majority of whom were Jews. The Auschwitz II (or Auschwitz-Birkenau) component existed for one purpose: to gas and incinerate human beings. Levi was held in Auschwitz III (or Auschwitz-Monowitz), which was designed as a slave labor camp for the Buna-Werk factory (owned by IG Farben).

Levi follows a chronological approach to his narrative, beginning with his transportation to the camp via cattle truck until the Red Army liberated the surviving Auschwitz inmates in January 1945. The book was originally published in 1947 as Se Questo è un Uomo (If This Is a Man), and languished for a dozen years, selling only 1,500 copies until being translated and released in English in 1959.

To describe Survival in Auschwitz as a "classic" is almost an understatement, as Levi's harrowing details of the brutality of the Nazi death camp - combined with his inimitable prose - puts the text in the category of necessary reading. One cannot begin to understand the Holocaust without experiencing this book, and in a more perfect world Survival in Auschwitz would be read by every human with a conscience. If you have yet to read the book, shell out eight the bucks and get busy.


Anonymous said...

I have never read this - thanks for the tip!


LTLOP said...

I read this in Grad school for Dr. Wilcox at UT. It is a truly amazing stiry of the will to live and sheer luck of being in the right place and the right time. Read the book and you will understand that statement. While the tale is depressing what is even more disheartening is that Levi eventually commited suicide from living with the guilt that he was able to survive while many others did not and having to live with his "success". If you have ever watched the "World at War" series, vol 20 Genocide. Levi, as well as other survivors briefly described their ordeal. Another thought provoking Holocaust read is "The Sunflower" It is a two part book. Part one is the story, @100 pgs. The second part is commentary from important, historical figures such as Desmond Tutu, Lucy Dawidowicz et. al. The most telling, interesting and puzzling commentary is by Rudolf Hess. For life in the ghettoes look for "The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak" These were handwritten journals that were found when the Lodz'(?) ghetto were liberated. They were found sitting atop a stove and were being used as fuel. The last entry was about two months, I think, before the ghetto was liberated.

Frank said...

I appreciate your review & recommendation as I'm in the process of surveying Holocaust literature for an upcoming project. Just finished Neighbors by Jan Gross.

Do you have any other titles you could recommend? I am particularly interested in the questions that came to me after reading Gross and others: how could people with no tie to the Third Reich become dehumanized killers, why did they fall for Nazi propaganda and how, what breakdown in their society allowed the unthinkable to occur, where were journalists, the clergy, people with consciences? What are the seeds of fascism, how can we identify and prevent it from rising again?

LTLOP said...

Frank, one title you may want to look at is by Daniel J. Goldhagen. It is titled "Hitler's willing executioners", it deals with how people became the disconnected killers that they were. His hypo is that it was in the general nature of the German people. Just one cautionary note, he is a journalist and not a historian so there will be a slant to his theory. Don't forget about the Milgram experiment in the 60's, this dealt with the excuse that people were just following orders. In reality there was some outcry at the beginning. For example there is the T-4 project which dealt with the euthanasia of the sicka and mentally impaired, Through the use of movies, selective lighting etc they were able to partially accomplish their goal of legitimizing the practice and dehumanizing the target. But as the program went on certain doctors would go to the bier stube and discuss their work, which eventually leaked out. The local ministers began to preach about the project and it finally reached the papers. Because of the public pressure it was eventually halted. Don't think that "Die Totenkopf" squads did not suffer as well. There is evidence that they recieved extra liquor rations to help drown the pain.

Frank said...

thanks for the help

historymike said...

Here are some more:

One of the best basic texts is Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews. Information on the history of Holocaust denial can be found in Debra Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Also check out Hilberg's Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: the Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945 for more information on how everyday people became part of the state killing apparatus.

A good book on the buildup to the Holocaust is Christopher Browning's The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy.

A good counterpoint to Goldhagen is Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Goldhagen argues that German culture contains a virulent streak of antisemitism, and has come under criticism for his condemnation of ordinary Germans.

Finally, although she took a controversial stance on Hitler as mastermind, Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 is also an important book for understanding the Holocaust.