Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

In Philip Roth's Afterward to Primo Levi’s memoir, he notes that the original title was If This is a Man, a title that questions the humanity of both the prisoners and the Nazis (181). What is it that makes us recognize "humanity"? The idea of studying "humanities" is grounded in the values of the Enlightenment, implying that the cultural products of human beings are positive, progressive, beautiful, intelligent, and illuminating. The rationality of the Enlightenment rejected superstition: think of Voltaire's famous line about the deception of religion was "Ecrasez l'infame"—crush the infamous thing. The promise of the Enlightenment was that once the laws of the universe were discovered, people could live in order and harmony. Justice was real and obtainable through awareness of and obedience to the law.

When Levi is deported from Turin, Italy, he notes that people condemned to death are usually given time for reflection, time to repent and to feel justice. But this was not accorded the Jews. Moreover, he asked, “for what crime did we need pardon?” (15). Here was his first recognition that the promises of the Enlightenment had failed humanity in the 20th century.

The English language publishers eventually change the memoir’s name to Survival in Auschwitz. Roth tells Levi that he thinks it is the story of "Robinson Crusoe in Hell" (179). Robinson Crusoe survives nearly three decades on a deserted island by satisfying his needs with whatever he found at hand. The prisoners in Auschwitz similarly survive by whatever is found "at hand"--but the supplies are scanty, arbitrary, and irregular.


1. In the opening chapters, what are examples of "inhumanity"? How do the Germans refer to the prisoners? What happens in the boxcars? What is the connection between inhumanity and hopelessness?

2. Chapter 3: Why do some prisoners bother to wash when they can?

3. Chapter 4: Why is the Krankenbau both a place of respite and a dangerous place?

4. Chapter 5: Why don't the other prisoners welcome Levi back? Explain the dream of Tantalus.

5. Chapter 6: Explain what Levi means by "stories of a new bible."

6. Chapter 7: How has life in Auschwitz changed the prisoners' values?

7. Chapter 8: Assess the econonmic system of the camp.

8. Chapter 9: Why does Levi tell the stories of Alfred, Elias, and Henri?

9. Chapter 10: Why does Levi compare his Chemistry examination to "Oedipus in front of the Sphinx"?

10. Chapter 11: Who is helped more by reciting Dante, Picolo or Levi? Why?

11. Chapter 12: What does Lorenzo represent to Levi?

12. Chapter 13: What is the logic or non-logic of the selection process? Why does this make Levi reflect on God?

13. Chapter 14: What does the story of Kraus suggest about the morality of lying?

14. Chapter 15: What does Levi think as he reflects about his life over the past year?

15. Chapter 16: What is different about the "last man" whose execution the prisoners are forced to watch?

16. Chapter 17: What sort of "family" does Levi's infirmary hut create? How have they lost their humanity?