Survival in Auschwitz
The Holocaust is considered one of the worst genocides in history, known for it’s merciless killings and torture of Jews and other outcasts. The cruelness of the genocide can be witnessed first hand in the novel Survival in Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz was written by Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who was a prisoner in the concentration camp of Auschwitz when he was the age of twenty-four. He managed to leave Auschwitz alive, and dedicated the rest of his life to writing about the Holocaust and his experiences. Levi goes into detail about the horrors of the camp, and explains how prison effects how humans act morally. The Nazis degrade the Jews so deeply that they view them as animals, not important enough to receive basic human needs.
Being treated as an animal takes a large toll on the normal ethics that the Jews practice outside of prison.
It becomes evident how the prisoners change the way they act throughout their stay at Auschwitz. Because of being treated as non-humans, the Jews resorted to stealing and stopped helping others. According to Primo Levi, the Nazis dehumanized concentration camp internees; as a result, Jews were forced to create their own corrupt system of morals to survive.
There is no question that the guarding Nazis dehumanized the Jews in Auschwitz. The acts Nazis committed against Jews are described in detail throughout the entire novel. This is depicted in the beginning of the novel; when the Jews are taken from their homes they are immediately shoved into packed lorries, comparable to how animals are shipped. However, when the Jews arrive at Auschwitz, the Nazis have them under false pretenses that life in the prison does not have to be miserable. A man comes in to tell the Jews that if they work hard they will be rewarded; that there will be concerts and football matches, and suggests that they will be fed decently. However, the promise is not kept, and the dehumanization of the Jews really begins once they start work in the camp. The Jews are stripped of all their belongings, signifying the first step of their dehumanization.
Primo Levi comments on how this type of treatment leaves the prisoners feeling. “Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself” (Levi 27). This quote accurately sums up how being treated by the Nazis takes a toll on the Jews, leaving them questioning who they are and how they should behave morally. Besides all of their possessions being confiscated from them, the prisoners in the camp are then subjected to starvation and harsh labor.
The Nazis literally view them as work animals, causing the guards to have no qualms about whipping the prisoners. It would seem that this kind of abuse would be devastating to Jews, but their minds adjust to this treatment and they come to expect it. Levi recalls a time when his task was to unload a heavy, cast-iron cylinder from a wagon. He is so completely exhausted by the end of the work, that he is looking for any motivation to move his legs and finish the job. Talking of how the Nazis beat him, Levi states, “…some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load almost livingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses” (Levi 67). There is no better example in Survival in Auschwitz than this quote, demonstrating how the Jews actually begin to think of themselves as animals.
Living in this new world where they are dehumanized and are treated with no respect, the Jews begin to question how they are to function in this world. There are many rules placed on the prisoners, yet they are backwards from the rules that are implemented in normal society. Though the S.S. guards absolutely forbid any stealing by the prisoners in the camp, they encourage theft in Buna. Stealing does happen daily and excessively within the camp, but if Jews are caught; the thief and the victim are punished in exactly the same manner. However, theft that may benefit a Nazi may be permitted depending on who the guard was. With all of these rules contradicting not only each other, but also the rules of normal society, prisoners struggle to retain any of their morals. Primo Levi strives to make this an obvious point of the book saying, “We not invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire” (Levi 86). The confusing limitations placed on Jews within the prison combined with their dehumanization directly causes prisoners to create their own system of morals.
Though some actions of the Jewish prisoners may not be considered morally correct by normal standards, Levi does not believe that any of the prisoners did anything morally wrong. He especially does not want readers to take these morally “wrong” actions as a representation that man is fundamentally evil without civilization. Levi believes that in situations where individuals deprived of their physical and emotional needs through dehumanization, that ordinary morals and social habits are “reduced to silence” (Levi 87). The silencing of normal ethics is demonstrated in two ways throughout the novel: by Jews stealing and refusing to give assistance to other prisoners.
Stealing is one of the first topics Levi mentions when describing the environment of the camp. It is immediately made clear to the reader that stealing is an action committed by all, and if a prisoner does not take precautions, he will be stolen from. Levi describes how careful one has to be in order to keep his scarce belongings: “If one goes to the latrine or the washroom, everyone washes one’s face, the bundle of clothes has to be held tightly between one’s knees: in any other manner it will be stolen in that second” (Levi 35). This demonstrates the severity of theft showing that anything can be stolen at any moment. The common practice of theft within Auschwitz is due to the fact that the Jews were immediately stripped of all their possessions upon entering the camp, and that they are being starved.
Though the act of stealing is viewed as morally wrong in normal society, the fact that the Jews were being dehumanized caused them to do whatever it took to survive. When Levi talks about stealing, or situations where it occurred, it is clear that he does not view stealing as ethically wrong in the situation, but more as a way of life. He discusses “musselmans”, individuals who follow the rules of the camp by only eating what they are given, not stealing, and working with their full effort. These people would be considered as individuals who are morally right in normal society, yet Levi states, “Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way” (Levi 90). The fact that those who would be ethically correct outside the prison are the same individuals that die quickly within the prison demonstrates that when dehumanization occurs, ordinary morals cannot survive. Besides prisoners resorting to stealing, the other large moral that becomes absent is the treatment of others.
By normal societies’ standards, one would think that in a situation where a group of people is being treated as animals that they would work together to survive. However, with the silencing of normal morals, the exact opposite is what takes place. One of the first examples Levi gives of this describes Mischa and the Galacian, individuals who had the job of supervising the other inmates. Levi states, “Their job is the least tiring, so that they show excess zeal to keep it: they show at companions who dawdle, they incite them, they admonish them, the drive on the work at unbearable pace…I already know that it is in the normal order of things that the privileged oppress the unprivileged: the social structure of the camp is based on human law” (Levi 44).
This again exemplifies the fact that normal morals cannot exist in an environment where humans are treated as animals. Though Levi hates Mischa and the Galacian, he acknowledges that if the tables were turned, he would act the same way. Levi goes into detail about this lost moral, referring to two categories of men- the saved and the drowned (Levi 87). He first discusses how these distinctions are not obvious in ordinary society, as it is not common for a man to be dehumanized and completely lose himself. In normal life, people are willing to help their neighbors, as it is possible for both to succeed.
The opposite is true in the Lager, where individuals fend for themselves. Levi describes how people will act in the presence of dehumanization, stating that if one is looking for a helping hand they will not find one, and if someone finds a method to survive they will keep it to themselves. Treating others like this is viewed as horrible and morally incorrect outside of the prison, but it is necessary for survival in the Lager. These actions by prisoners show how dehumanization has the ability to completely reverse normal moral standards.
During the Holocaust, Primo Levi was dehumanized and subjected to treatment
that most could never dream of. When he and other prisoners were treated as animals, the only option was to create a backward set of morals to survive. In this case, prisoners resort to stealing and only help themselves outlive others. Though some of these acts can be viewed as morally wrong by normal standards, they were necessary to survive and should not be seen as wrong in this setting. Dehumanization causes the Jews to create a backwards system of morals in effort to live, regardless of what is considered ethical outside the barbed wire of Auschwitz.