Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi is one of the must-read books. This necessity does not arise from its amazing plot, excellent multidimensional characters, intriguing twists, and etc. This reading necessity can be compared to a polio vaccine. It is something that must be done. In the hectic life of the twenty first century and brain-numbing historical ignorance, the biggest cultural and moral disease the humanity ever experienced – The Holocaust- seems to be sidelined in the modern world. Yes, people know vaguely something about it; yes, they remember it was a crime against a certain ethnic group, but the personal side of the these events is lost. It might be a certain blessing to live in the world where MAJOR WAR has not been waged for more than sixty years, and the immediacy of this human catastrophe is not razor sharp any more, but does it guarantee that we will not repeat the same mistake again, that we will not be brainwashed and bigoted to the level of intolerance and hatred?Unfortunately the humanity has a bad history of repeating its own mistakes, and this book is a powerful warning message to avoid the same abysmal path of self-destruction.
The author writes about his personal experience, but he does not turn this book into memoirs, and I am not sure whether this term is applicable. Memoirs have a feeling of completeness and achievement while this book is not about life, it is about anti-life. It is both personal and impersonal, and these two ideas are intermingled in this book. The harrowing experience of dehumanizing life in the concentration camp turns people into human shells that are driven by a simple basic instinct to survive. The depravity of life is so immense that some people lose this very basic instinct and even anticipate the so-called ‘selection’, a process of selecting for the gas champers if they are too weak to carry on.
The author switches the perspective of narrating all the time – sometimes it is personal and poignant, like the beginning and the end, sometimes it is impersonal as if he steps aside from the personal exposure and observes the life in the huge ant house. This life still goes on and evinces all elements of a regular human community – the survival of the fittest, the competition, the desire to get the better lot even if the end is visibly the same for the most of them.
Staying human is both impossible and dangerous in the camp. Being human will not numb the pain, will aggravate the feelings of loss, angst, shattered and forgotten dreams, the feeling of accomplishment. On the other hand, all this is not totally lost, but only hidden somewhere very deep within, and the process can be easily reversed as soon as people are placed in semi-decent conditions (Ka-Be, also known as hospitals for the convalescing). One might argue that this was impossible in the camp where everyone was doomed to die, but death would be just too easy without exhausting and human-spirit-sucking toil and labor, so anyone who could be used as a slave were treated only to kill them later in the most dehumanizing manner.
The narration in the book is so powerful that it sometimes reaches the transcendental level of clarity and scientific objectivity. This feeling is only heightened by the present-tense that adds the edge of immediacy, incompleteness, and intensity. Was it it a pleasant read? Definitely no. Was it a necessary read? Most definitely yes.