Focusing on the experiences of the prisoners rather than on indictments of the Nazis, the books provide a unique perspective on human psychology and behavior under duress. Among Levi's important observations are the physical and moral metamorphoses undergone by the prisoners, the randomness of the selection of who was to live and who was to die, the human inability ever to feel uncomplicated contentment or complete desperation, the freedom to live by one's own beliefs, and his anticlimactic confrontation with ordinary Germans after the war.
This essay was originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 26, 2010.
The physical and moral metamorphosisUpon arriving at Auschwitz, Levi and his fellow prisoners on the train observed the camp inmates who "walked in squads, in rows of three, with an odd, embarrassed step, head dangling in front, arms rigid... This was the metamorphosis that awaited us. Tomorrow we would be like them." (Survival) Levi's cohorts, already deprived of water for days, soon had their heads and faces shaven, received their first compulsory shower, and were driven out naked into the cold. This initiated the metamorphosis on a physical level.
"When we finish, everyone remains in his own corner and we do not dare lift our eyes to look at one another. There is nowhere to look in a mirror, but our appearance stands in front of us, reflected in a hundred livid faces, in a hundred miserable and sordid puppets. We are transformed into the phantoms glimpsed yesterday evening." (Survival)
After the physical dimension, the moral dimension of this change began. One of Levi's earliest observations in this area was his own disinterest in keeping himself clean. The Nazis demanded that prisoners wash themselves, but it seemed fruitless to Levi, given that his work coated him with coal dust and the washing water was dirty anyway. A fellow prisoner advised him that he should nevertheless wash himself, not to conform to the command, but as a way of reminding himself that he was still alive and that he resisted his enslavement. Levi, who was from Italy, had trouble accepting this advice from someone who was from Prussia, since his own cultural belief was that "nothing is of greater vanity than to force oneself to swallow whole a moral system elaborated by others, under another sky." Skirting the topic of cleanliness, he questioned more broadly whether it was "really necessary to elaborate a [moral] system and put it into practice? Or would it not be better to acknowledge one's lack of a system?" (Survival)
One might think that behavioral concerns such as cleanliness constitute only a small component of one's personal moral system, especially when juxtaposed against the more pressing concern of mass murder. However, Levi explained,
"It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbour to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the model of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist." (Survival)
His distinction seems to be about whether a person has the freedom to make basic choices. When someone is imprisoned and deprived to such an extent that he cannot choose to sleep and eat in ways that meet survival needs, he is missing a foundation for his existence as a contemplative human being. According to this material definition of humanity, someone who chooses to commit evil deeds has more humanity than someone who does not have the opportunity to choose. Washing oneself is symbolic of the ability to choose to preserve a shred of dignity and of the desire to fulfill physical needs.
In the death camp, the usual understandings of right and wrong were inverted. One was expected to steal from, not to help, one's fellow prisoner. Being altruistic when one had already lost everything entailed death. Levi wrote:
"We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager [i.e., in Auschwitz] of the words 'good' and 'evil', 'just' and 'unjust'; let everybody judge...how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire." (Survival)
Behavior was thus influenced not only by whether one was Italian or Prussian or of a particular individualistic leaning, but by the severe conditions in the camp that rendered existing moral codes inapplicable.
The spell was broken and the moral metamorphosis reversed in an instant (the physical wasting would take more time to correct) when the Germans abandoned the camp, leaving a few prisoners who had hidden during the chaos of the evacuation. Levi recorded that in the early stages of this freedom, specifically on the cold day of Jan. 19, 1945, some prisoners worked to repair a window and stove and the others agreed to compensate them with extra bread. "Only a day before," he wrote, "a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said: 'eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour', and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead." (Survival)
Who will live and who will dieGiven most virtues, such as the pairs of "the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate," Levi saw room for subtlety and shading. Among free people, this gray area applies even to the question of whether one is going to live or die, because if a person encounters serious trouble, he or she can expect to receive neighborly assistance. In the death camp, however, where "everyone is desperately and ferociously alone" and cannot expect anyone to lend a hand, there was a stark distinction between "the saved and the drowned." (Survival)
The risk of annihilation without the normal hope of intervention was made even more unbearable for the prisoners by their awareness of the randomness in the selection process. Generally, the Nazis put Auschwitz prisoners to hard labor and eventually, when the laborers became emaciated or displayed wounds that would not heal, they were sent to be exterminated. However, some worked for a while and were sent to their deaths despite being in relatively good physical condition, while others were killed immediately upon arrival at the camp. As Levi explained it:
"We also know that not even this tenuous principle of discrimination between fit and unfit was always followed, and that later the simpler method was often adopted of merely opening both the doors of the wagon without warning or instructions to the new arrivals. Those who by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber." (Survival)
One usually expects reason or compassion to play a central role in decisions about who will live and who will die. In Auschwitz, they did not. The caprice in the decision process instilled its own kind of psychological horror.
Facing the question of whether one would be saved or drowned, then, meant facing the reality that one would sink or swim entirely on one's own, and furthermore that even if one managed to swim very well for months in a frozen ocean, one might nevertheless be shot.
Extremes of optimism and pessimismIn Auschwitz, Levi observed, "the single name of the major cause [of unhappiness] 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 one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others. So that [in Auschwitz] as soon as the cold, which throughout the winter had seemed our only enemy, had ceased, we became aware of our hunger; and repeating the same error, we now say: 'If it was not for the hunger!...'" The same general psychological principle applies to people who live free and in comfort; even among these fortunates, he wrote, "one hears it said that man is never content." (Survival)
A similar principle is used in the opposite situation: as bad as life may seem, there is always a silver lining. Prisoners at hard labor in the rain in Auschwitz might think to themselves, Levi wrote, "It is lucky that it is not windy today." This sort of natural optimism allowed them to continue to live. On the other hand, when there are no possible good outcomes, then there is no meaningful distinction between optimism and pessimism. The psychological tendencies to see the most urgent stressor and the silver lining could have this perverted expression: "it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to... you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining." (Survival)
Why are people never completely happy or completely unhappy? Because of our own finite human nature, particularly our uncertainty of what the future will bring. The only thing of which we can be certain is our own eventual deaths. Mortality "places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief," while day-to-day concerns distract from the heights of happiness and unhappiness. (Survival)
Moral autonomy after the liberationThe sequel's original title, The Truce, comes from one of its concluding paragraphs: "The months just past, although hard, of wandering on the margins of civilization now seemed to us like a truce, a parenthesis of unlimited availability, a providential but unrepeatable gift of fate." Its newer title, The Reawakening, rests on a complex interpretation of the final paragraph in which Levi describes a recurring nightmare of an illusion of peace that ruptures into the reality of war. The final word of the book is "Wstawach," the wake-up command at Auschwitz. If "Wstawach" is the awakening, then the “reawakening” must refer to the emergence from the nightmare of Auschwitz and the re-entry into peaceful life.
For a short while, during the journey home, Levi partnered with a Greek man who had also been in Auschwitz. Mordo Nahum – or "the Greek," as Levi referred to him – had a strong and peculiar work ethic. He was an entrepreneurial merchant who was not opposed to stealing and trickery, since he believed it to be of paramount importance to support himself rather than to rely on the charity of others. While this lifestyle kept Levi from starving, he found the situation unsettling. On the subject of this foreign moral code, the Greek, Levi explained,
"was not prepared for compromise or discussion. Moral codes, all of them, are rigid by definition; they do not admit blurrings, compromises, or reciprocal contaminations. They are to be accepted or rejected en bloc. This is one of the principal reasons why man is gregarious and searches more or less consciously for the company not of his generic neighbour, but only of someone who shares his profound beliefs (or lack of them)...everyone knows how awkward it is to do business, in fact to live together, with an ideological opponent." (Reawakening)
Levi did not blame his fellow survivor for his moral differences. He rather sought to understand how the other man had formed his beliefs. After all,
"everybody's moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography. The biography of my Greek was linear; it was that of a strong and cold man...The Lager had happened to both of us; I had felt it as a monstrous upheaval, a loathsome anomaly in my history and in the history of the world; he, as a sad confirmation of things well known." (Reawakening)
As Levi noted earlier in his reflections on survival within the labor camp, the ability and opportunity to live by one's personal code is a way of expressing one's freedom and autonomy. He did not express a sense of urgency of convincing anyone else of his own beliefs, nor of allowing himself to be persuaded by others so that he might fit into a group. He seems to have believed that it was enough for each person to have the dignity of determining such matters for himself.
Confronting the enemyAt the end of the tale, Levi briefly mentions a resentment toward the Germans during his return trip to Italy.
"We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us; we felt an urgent need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment, like chess players at the end of a game. Did 'they' know about Auschwitz, about the silent daily massacre, a step away from their doors? If they did, how could they walk about, return home and look at their children, cross the threshold of a church? If they did not, they ought, as a sacred duty, to listen, to learn everything, immediately, from us, from me; I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore." (Reawakening)
He immediately tempers this sentiment with the observation that the Germans he saw near the train station in Munich were "few," "mutilated," and "dressed in rags like us." They seemed to be "deaf, blind and dumb imprisoned in their ruins, as in a fortress of wilful ignorance, still strong, still capable of hatred and contempt, still prisoners of their old tangle of pride and guilt." Levi realized that, even if a German were to apologize to him, it would be one of "the few just ones," not one of those who had committed atrocities.
As Mona Simpson wrote for The Atlantic in June 2007: "Levi’s great achievement rests on a paradox and great artifice. Who but a chronic depressive (given to the habit of self-criticism) could be sent to Auschwitz and focus on the behavior of the Jews, intricately chronicling their moral gradations of honor and corruption?" Even if one is taken aback by Levi's unusual perspective, the insights, gained through so much labor and patience, are worth contemplation.