Survival in Auschwitz : the Nazi assault on humanity

by Primo Levi

Paper Book, 1996




New York [u.a.] : Simon & Schuster, 1996.


This book describes Primo Levi's experiences in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during the Second World War. Levi, then a 25-year-old chemist, spent 10 months in Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the Red Army. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his shipment, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camp alive. The average life expectancy of a new entry was three months. This truly amazing story offers a revealing glimpse into the realities of the Holocaust and its effects on our world. - Back cover.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Lunarreader
What a story. Horror. Devastating. I've been several times close to crying.
Levi tells about his stay in Auschwitz. The humiliations, the random killings, the for no reason random violence, beyond human and not being considered a human being anymore.
How is it possible that people do this to one
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another? How much hate can there be? And for what good reason?
Levi describes as if he has already left his own body, his own mind, the daily life in the camp. The work, the relationships, the mind numbing routines, the complete approach to make you feel less than nothing.
My thoughts are very basic after reading this book: how can one live on? How could the SS even catch sleep? How could Levi find any sense of being alive to hang on, in the camp but also afterwards? These mysteries will for ever be in my head.
The novel is a collection of short descriptions and they are written, not just like a journalist telling what happened, but with a real sense for litterature. Some passages are, hard to imagine, poetic. Levi must have been a true intellectual to be able to reflect so soon after this events, so calmly, so reflective, so ... pure.
A must read in these times where civilisation is again challenged by another kind of doctrine, a religious one this time but equivalent in its brutality, its atrocity and most of all senselessness
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LibraryThing member ctpress
The italien jew Primo Levi was a prisoner in Auschwitz from february 1944 until the end of the war when the camp was liberated by the Russian Army.

Together with Night by Elie Wiesel this is an invaluable account of the Nazi's attrocities. Brutally honest and shocking.

What constitute a man? When he
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is stripped of everything and reduced to mere survival instincts - is he a man anymore or just a brute beast? This is the devastating realisation by Levi - what he has become, his humanity is buried - by the brutality of the SS and by the prisoners themselves as they struggle to survive. What is right and wrong? It's every man for himself - forget the sick and weak - take care of yourself. Don't trust anyone. Don't expect anything. Don't hope for anything.

Levi divides the prisoners in two groups. The Drowned and the Saved. He is in group one - the Saved - those who are able to find ways to cheat, steal, make trades and bargain with anything - they rise above the majority of the prisoners. Then there's the Drowned, the muselmen, who have given up all hope and have lapsed into a state of despairing apathy.

“One knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks, nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and crossed out number on a register…they suffer and drag themselves along in an opaque intimate solitude, and in solitude they die and disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone’s memory.”

Levi is able to survive - but also because of the friendship with Alberto and the extraordinary kindness of Lorenzo - two other prisoners. There's great humanity here. And then his luck: Getting to work as a chemist in the camps laboratory thus escaping the "selections" for the gas chambers.

I can't recommend this book enough. If you have the stomach for it. Incredible that it is written only two years after the war.
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LibraryThing member satsche
In my opinion one of the best books about the Holocaust.

Primo Levi was a chemist and spent a year in Auschwitz. Physically he survived, but mentally he didn't. The ever recurring nightmares and the presence of his own past in Auschwitz leads to Levis suicide in 1987. So, in the end the Nazis killed
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him after all.

Primo Levi was born in 1919 and was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 24. Afore he was a member of the resistance and very erudite. During the time at the concentration camp he tried to remember some parts of some great works like "Divine Comedy" by Dante Alighieri, just to keep himself alive and to know he's still a human.

'Cause who's a human under this conditions? Is he a human, who's waiting for his neighbour to die, just to get some piece of bread of him? And the one who's mumbling "aye" while he's dying: wasn't his personhood already took away?

Levi was writing very to the point. About what was happening to him and the other fellow sufferers in Auschwitz, about the relationships of one arrestee to another - and he was able to generate a panorama of life in Auschwitz. Of cause, what he describes is just a little piece of all the incomprehensible crimes of the gigantic killing machinery, but every reader will know: imaginable there's no kind of absolution.
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LibraryThing member BenjaminHahn
As much as a holocaust memoir can be, this was a refreshing take on a very complicated experience. The author, Primo Levi, wrote this recently after his experience. Knowing that, plus his background as an Italian, non practicing Jew, atheist, makes this a unique take on Auschwitz. Many versions of
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this book is combined with a follow up book, The Truce, but this Folio Society edition is just a stand alone. However, there is an epilogue featuring Primo's answers to the most common questions he often received when delivering lectures or talks on this subject in the 60's and 70's. These questions and his responses are almost as illuminating as the memoir, for they get at the real heart of the important ethical questions raised by the advent of the WWII holocaust. Primo focuses many of his more ruminative chapters on the part of the nature of human kind that allows something like the holocaust to take place. What conditions must be present for such a thing to occur? His writings on these questions seemed to me to be the most fascinating because I felt there were many parallels that could be drawn to current situations around the world. I would like to believe that something as horrible as mass genocide could never happen in the United States given our current form of representative government, but I'm not so sure anymore. Read this memoir, then immediately watch FOX news for 1 hour and listen to the paranoia, hate, and intolerance being dished out and gobbled up. It gave me a few chills. I recommend this book for anyone interested in holocaust memoirs, but some may be put off by Primo's blunt detached style of writing. For me, this made the details of his experience that much more poignant. It was also interesting to read this paired with Maus I and II by Spiegelmen.
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LibraryThing member Britt84
Very impressive; good read for anybody who wants to know more about what happened in Auschwitz, how the people lived there. Stunning and beautifully written.
LibraryThing member Ron_Peters
Primo Levi's classic depiction of his 10 months spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz in 1944. "Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us." (p. 9) A textbook, of sorts, on the
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techniques of dehumanization and the corresponding responses that lead to survival and resilience.
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LibraryThing member lynneinfla
I read this book after a visit to Auschwitz. What an amazing story of what it took to survive that death factory! It is extremely well-written and easy to read, although "easy to read" is probably an inappropriate term for such a disturbing subject. Learning more about what happened in the Nazi
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death camps is important for everyone, and this book is an excellent window on life in Auschwitz.
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LibraryThing member marilib
best known for If This Is a Man, published in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz
LibraryThing member wordseeker
This book is about the author's experience in auschwitz. it is written as if he'd wrote it there. it has no refences on what happened on the out side word, while he was held prisoner, no important events or dates. he was able to transmite the sence of loneliness and despere of a man that is not
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certain of what the future departs for him or if he even has one. it is a book every one should read. we read so much about what happened in these fields and in war world two and what they'd suffer whitout really imagine what these prisoners thougth and did to survive. we all know the awful things nazis did, and think about the prisoners, but this author is capable to get us inside his mind, to really undestand the complexity of the situation, so we become not just whitnesses, but the main character. and no matter what you may think, it is not a depressive story; it is about a man that survived and struguled to stay focus in the middle of madness.
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LibraryThing member tatasmagik
Tremendously moving, heart-breaking, sobering and inspiring. A well-written account of one man's survival of the absolute bottom of humanity. Difficult to read at times.
LibraryThing member cenneidigh
Wow, what a story. This is not about the Germans and much as it is about the way the Jews treated each other. Very sad and well written.
LibraryThing member agnesmack
This was one of the most difficult books I've ever read. Not in it's word usage or general prose style, but reading about this man's experience in Auschwitz and knowing that it was real . . . I had a really hard time getting through it.

This was the story of Primo Levi, a man who lived in Auschwitz
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and managed to survive. As I was reading this, I kept thinking about how strange the human's want to survive is. If I were in his position, I am not sure that I would continue fighting. I'm not sure I could keep working 18 hours a day, eating one scrap of bread, 1/2 a pint of soup and sleeping on the ground. I'm not sure I would prefer being beaten to being killed. I think I'd prefer they just shoot me. Primo, on the other hand, never gives up - though he does lose hope.

I flagged so much of this book. I both want everyone I know to read this book immediately, and also for no one I know to ever read this book. I am going to just pick a passage at random because I can't go through and read everything I've marked. It's too much and it makes me too sad.

"For human nature is such that grief and pain - even simultaneously suffered - do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective. It is providential and is our means of surviving in the camp. And this is the reason why so often in free life one hears it said that man is never content. In fact it is not a question of human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but o an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.
At sunset, the siren of the Feierabend sounds, the end of work; and as we are all satiated, at least for a few hours, no quarrels arise, we feel good, the Kapo feels no urge to hit us, and we are able to think of our mothers and wives, which usually does not happen. For a few hours, we can be unhappy in the manner of free men."

* * * *

It was affecting, moving and devastating. I don't know what else to say about it.
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LibraryThing member overthemoon
the book I think everyone should read.
LibraryThing member TomMcGreevy
Fundamentally chilling. A memoir of inhumanity exercised deliberately as nazi state policy. Everyone is damned even the survivors. As far as history goes this is an important book that should be placed on curricula of 20th century history. It is a testimonial narrative and as such warrants
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LibraryThing member Chris_El
For the most part this book is a straightforward telling of what it was like to be sent to a concentration camp and to live and work there. The author's style is simple. He does not spend time in recriminations. Just tells his story.

He does occasionally philosophize: "Then for the first time we
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became aware that our language lacks the words to express this offense, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, and even our hair; of we speak they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name; and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us , of us as we were, still remains.

We know that we will have difficulty in being understood, and this is as it should be. But consider what value, what meaning is enclosed in even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions that even a beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, a photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to replace the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.

Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone that he loves, and at the same time his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything that he possess: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often 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 pure judgment of utility. It is in this way we 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".
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LibraryThing member ARICANA
In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-old chemist and "Italian citizen of Jewish race," was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi's classic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic
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cruelty and miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion, and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit.
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LibraryThing member fist
Horrifying tale of the author's stay in a concentration camp. Unlike other camp memoirs, Levi does not shy away from portraying the struggle for life among inmates. Homo homini lupus, even when man is being dehumanised in the hell of a concentration camp in WWII.
Levi's language is clear and
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factual, and at the same time very literary, with many references to Dante's Divina Commedia. The combination of style and content is chilling and memorable.
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LibraryThing member LeslieHurd
Primo Levi was a 25-year-old "Italian citizen of Jewish race" when he was arrested by the Fascist Militia in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz in late February of 1944. This is his account of the 10 months he spent there before liberation by the Russians. While the book examines the daily torments of
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the prisoners, Levi's book is told from his perspective of the camps as a “gigantic biological and social experiment.” Each prisoner is deprived of everything: family, clothing, hair, cleanliness, warmth, safety, the ability to make decisions, even their names. Not only do the captors not see their prisoners as human beings, they stop seeing each other, and even themselves, as human as well. Each life compress to nothing more than making it through the next hour, and no one dares to think of a future. Those that don't succumb to despair learn to fight for survival every minute, even becoming entrepreneurs in order to secure extra food or necessities such as spoons or fabric to patch their pitiful clothing.

Levi's language is spare, but somehow that gives his factual statement of what they endured even more of an impact, and makes his observations of the descent into hopelessness the more harrowing. When it's clear they may survive their ordeal and his fellow patients vote to share their ration of bread with those who've been able to help them survive, we see for the first time the emergence of the men they used to be.

I thought this book was excellent and would recommend it to others looking to see the camp experience from a different perspective.
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LibraryThing member TheWasp
Primo Levi is an Italian jew who survived 10 months in the German concentration camp of Monowitz before being liberated. He recounts events of that time with a particular interest and observation of what "makes" a man.
LibraryThing member Kristelh
I’ve read both fiction and nonfiction books about the holocaust. I’ve read both Primo Levi’s list books. I think I liked his novel a bit better than the memoir but the memoir was harder and real and the novel was lighter. I liked this memoir that examines humanity. I like the title If this is
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a man but better and it fits the novel better than Survival in Auschwitz.

The book shows how deep is hope in man that he can’t give up even in the worst conditions. Even when he was certain that he would end up in the selection process he never quit. When examining myself, I shudder to think of what they endured and cannot imagine surviving such conditions.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
As hard to read as expected. Levi does an amazing job of showing the ingenuity of the prisoners/slaves/inmates. As he explains, no matter how bad it got, they nearly all had some sort of hope to keep going. Even when they thought and discussed "if it gets worse, I will..." but they never do. They
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just kept going, stealing, dealing, accepting beatings as an acceptable risk to get another shirt, or make another spoon, or make a deal with a willing civilian. How much work they could do while starving and, at the end, while ill, is unbelievable to me.

I really want to read the next volume—about his return to Italy as a survivor. To reintegrate into society after such a harrowing experience seems nearly impossible. Yet he did it, successfully.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz" is a heart-wrenching account of the year he spent in the German concentration camp. Levi, who was captured as a member of the Italian resistance and mistakenly thought admitting he was Jewish, rather than a part of the resistance, would give him a better chance
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at survival. He focuses on how those who survived made it-- mainly through ingenuity and theft.

This is an important book and a hard read. It's more a straight-forward account of Levi's time in the camp as compared to "The Drowned and the Saved," which is more focused on trying to understand the tragedy of the Holocaust and its impact years later.
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LibraryThing member IonaS
This is an account of the author’s sojourn in Auschwitz.

It is wonderfully written but horrifying.

Levi was 24 when he was captured by the Fascist Militia.

The men and women are divided. The men never see tthe women again. The men are divided into fit and unfit. They have a terrible thirst after
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having had nothing to drink for four days.

They have to take off all their clothes and shoes. They are “shaved and sheared”.

They are at a work-camp at Monovitz, near Auschwitz.

They have a shower in boiling water and are then given rags to wear and “broken-down" boots with wooden soles.

The water is not drinkable but they get watery soup every day.

They don’t understand what they are told and are thrust into the icy snow barefoot and naked with the clothing in their hands They run to the next hut and are finally permitted to get dressed in the rags.

They had reached the bottom. No human condition was more miserable than this.

Each man is “a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs.” “He who loses all often easily loses himself.” They had no name, only a number.

Primo is a “Häftling”. His number is 174517. The number is tattoed on his left arm.

Only by showing one’s number can one get bread and soup.

To the old hands of the camp, the numbers told everything – the period of entry into the camp, the convoy one formed a part of, and thus the nationality.

When they ask for something they are told “This is not a sanatorium.” “The only exit is by way of the chimney.” They soon learn what this means.

The camp is called the “Lager”. It is a square of about six hundred yards in length, surrounded by two fences of barbed wire, the inner one carrying a high tension current.

There are sixty wooden huts called Blocks.

There are two men in most of the bunks, which are portable planks of wood, each covered by a thin straw sack and two blankets.

The guests of the Lager are the criminals, the politicals and the Jews. They are all clothed in stripes, all are “Haftlinge”. The Jews, who form the large majority, wear the Jewish Star, red and yellow.

It is best to get a ladleful of soup from the bottom of the vat, as otherwise the soup is too watery.

Everything is liable to be stolen so they need to sleep with their head on a bundle made up of their jacket and all their possessions, including their bowl and shoes.

If one goes to the latrine or washroom, everything has to be carried along, and while one washes one’s face, the bundle of clothes has to be held tightly between one’s knees so as not to be stolen.

“Death begins with the shoes.” They can be instruments of torture which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores, which become totally infected.

Everybody walks except those who are ill. All hours of light are working hours.

Levi quickly gets numb sores on the back of his feet that will not heal.

His belly is swollen, his limbs emaciated, his face thick in the morning, hollow in the evening, Some have yellow skin, others grey.

The slab of bread “seems gigantic in your neighbour’s hand, but in your own hand so small as to make you cry”.

The floor of the washroom is covered by mud. The water is not drinkable and has a revolting smell. Often there is no water.

He is given work carrying coal sacks together with a man called “Null Achtzehn” - Zero Eighteen.

Null Achtzehn is no longer a man – he gives the impression of being empty inside. He is very young and indifferent to the point of not even troubling to avoid tiredness or blows or to search for food. He carries out all the orders he is given and when they send him to his death he will go with the same indifference.

Primo belongs to the category of “economically useful Jews”.

They have a medical examination. Afterwards a Pole says to him “Du Jude, kaput, Du schnell fertig.” (You Jew, finished, You soon ready for crematorium,)

His foot is wounded, and thus he goes to Ka-Be.

Ka-Be is an abbreviation of Krankenhaus, the Infirmary,

It is a life of limbo. It is not cold, there is no work to do, and unless you commit some fault, you are not beaten.

The bread is distributed at half-past five and one can cut it into thin slices and eat it lying down.

There is also an evening ration, served in bed.

One man gives Primo his spoon and knife as part of a group being led out with long hair and without being treated, without a shower, They are going to the crematorium.

After thirty days of Ka-Be, when his wound is practically healed, to his great displeasure, Primo is discharged,

Alfredo is his best friend, He is only 22, two years younger than Primo.

In the winter the nights are long and they are allowed a considerable interval of time to sleep.

In the winter, the men’s only purpose is to reach the Spring.

“The Lager is hunger; we ourselves are hunger. Living hunger.”

The word “Muselmann” is used to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection .

The Muselmanner form the backbone of the camp, “an anonymous mass ---- of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer”.

The men’s hunger is not the feeling of missing a meal and their way of being cold needs a new word.

“If the Lager had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language would express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.”

The young tell the young that only the old ones will be chosen, The healthy tell the healthy that only the ill will be chosen.

The Germans and Poles go to work in rubber jackets, woollen ear-pads and padded overalls, and the English have wonderful fur-lined jackets.

In Primo’s Lager, except for a few of the privileged, they have distributed no overcoats, so they are left in their summer jackets.

Primo was chosen as one of the three Halftlinge for the chemical laboratory.

As a specialized worker, he has the right to a new shirt and underpants and must be shaved every Wednesday.

The temperature in the laboratory is wonderful – 65 degrees F.

They should suffer neither hunger nor cold this winter. This means they are not likely to fall seriously ill, nor be frozen.

But he gets scarlet fever and is sent to the Ka-Be. All the healthy prisoners are evacuated on January 18, 1945,

All the Germans leave. The towers are empty.

There was no more water or electricity; broken windows and doors were slamming in the wind.

They found two sacks with potatoes and also a cast-iron stove which they took to their hut in a wheelbarrow.

A broken window was repaired and the stove made to work, They had found wood and coal.

They had enough potatoes for two days only and had to melt the snow for water,

The Germans had left and they were free, but many men died The Russians arrived and now the prisoners had to find out how to get home.

This is a shocking account of the prisoners’ life in Auschwitz, Primo has written a sequel telling how he got home.
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LibraryThing member John
Another of my re-read books, and it is every bit as excellent as I remember it to have been. It is, quite simply, brilliant in not just its description of the insanity that was Auschwitz, but in its explanation of life and survival in the camp, and in its attempt to understand, as much as one
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could, the madness of a desire to exterminate an entire people. Levi describes wonderfully, and movingly, the transport, the shock of entering the camp, the dehumanizing experiences, the killing work, the faint chances of survival (getting a cushy job, having status no matter how low) and he analyzes the social and economic structure and life of the camp, including the sophisticated barter system that showed how the laws of supply and demand immediately affect the value of any object on the market.

Levi was 24 years old when he was arrested, in 1943, and he was, as he says, "with little wisdom, no experience and decided live in an unrealistic world of my own...". And from this world he was transported into the unreal, but at the same time only too real, world of the work and extermination camp. The best summary of this book is in Levi's own words.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, or us as we were still remains.

We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all of 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.

Survival without renunciation of any part of one's own moral world–apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune–was conceded only to a very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
I’ve meant to read this book by Holocaust survivor [[Primo Levi]] for years. Jews, no matter their personal beliefs, have been and seem to periodically continue to be victims of such devastating experiences as described by the author of his own time as a laborer while imprisoned in Auschwitz.

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read this book to express my solidarity with the pyschological pain and physical suffering of my people throughout history, past and present. It is a chilling, mind-blowing account of hatred and cruelty, of man’s inhumanity to man, told as one Italian Jewish man’s personal experience. Levi tells his story outright, by simply stating what he felt, thought, and saw without expressing emotion about it. If an individual wants to know what happened to those prisoners who remained alive in Auschwitz, this book is a compulsory read. I hope whoever does read it does so with compassion for the needless suffering of fellow men.
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