Apr 29, 2008

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
If This is a Man, published in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz, is Primo Levi's account of his experiences during WW2. I’m not quite sure how to classify this book. It’s not a memoir in the conventional sense – Levi himself referred to it as a semi-autobiographical work, and said he changed some details for the sake of fluidity. For example, if merging two real people into a single character made telling the story easier, he would do so. However, in the preface he also says that everything he recounts in the book is real, so I think that to call it fiction because of those changes would be disrespectful.

Primo Levi was captured by the Fascist Militia in 1943 and was taken to an internment camp. In February 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he stayed for eleven months. Having read Elie Wiesel’s Night recently, I couldn’t help but compare the two. Despite the superficial similarities, they are very different books. Night is very sparse, very matter-of-factly. The horrors of Auschwitz are described, and nothing needs to be added. This approach is undoubtedly a part of the book’s power. If This is a Man, however, is a very contemplative book. Levi has a lot to add to what he’s describing. His constant observations made me feel closer to him, and, as a result, this book was even more painful to read.

I liked him. I liked him a lot. And there he was, this intelligent and insightful and reflective person being put through all that. Being robbed of his humanity, being treated like a germ. This book was hard for me to read, more so than my other picks for the Themed Reading Challenge. Sometimes I get the feeling that the more I read about the Holocaust, the less I understand it. But anyway.

Levi combines chilling descriptions with observations about what it means to be human, what people will do to survive under extreme circumstances, the importance of food, of warmth, of things we take for granted. Food and warmth are things I barely ever thing about, and reading this book made me realize what a luxury that is.

This week I’ve been reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier for a course (an amazing book, by the way. I pondered posting about it – normally I refrain from posting about books I read for my classes because I want to save the impulse to write about them for essays and such, but in this case I wanted to tell everyone how good it was. I guess this very long comment in parenthesis is a sort of compromise) which is about the depression in the 30’s, and in it he writes about how sometimes unemployed and underfed people would spend the little money they had in a movie ticket instead of buying food. This may seem irrational if you’re a well-off person in a warm house, but these people lived in lodging houses where they couldn’t stay in the daytime, so the movies were simply a way to stay out of the cold in a winter afternoon. I guess judging them is easy when you have no idea what it’s like to have nowhere to go when it’s freezing outside.

But back to Levi. He writes about what it means to be robbed of your name and to be given a number tattooed in your arm instead. He describes absurd situations – for example, because he had majored in chemistry, he was picked towork in a lab that would supposedly produce synthetic rubber. This was a blessing, because it meant the end of hard labour in the freezing cold. But before being selected, he was put through a chemistry exam. He was taken to an office where a member of the SS asked him questions about chemistry. The absurd of it was that for a Nazi officer, as a Jew he wasn’t even human. He was part of a plague that had to be eliminated. And yet, because it was convenient, they were willing to temporarily acknowledge that he was intellectually capable enough to be a specialist in chemistry. How can a person harbour this kind of contradiction? How would they explain it to themselves? What Levi says is that for the Nazis he was something that had to be destroyed, yes – but also something to be used until everything had been drained out of him.

Primo Levi died in 1987. Although there is some controversy on the subject, everything indicates that he committed suicide.

This was my last official pick for the Themed Reading Challenge. I’m still hoping to read The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank as an extra, though, so I’ll leave my wrap-up post for later.


  1. I should have signed up for the Themed Reading Challenge because I am going through a huge Holocaust spurt at the moment. I've read at least 5 in the last month and have not only this one but 2-3 more lined up. Very depressing, but utterly fascinating. Thanks for the great review. This one is on hold at the library at the moment and I can't wait to read it.

  2. I've read this in school and I don't see myself reading it again in the future, but I'm happy I did. It thought me a lot about concentrations camps and anytime I think about them I have his images in mind, the every day struggles, the cold and the diseases...I'm glad you liked it too, it's not an easy book.

  3. It's such a depressing but important subject to read and write about. It makes me very uncomfortable, especially knowing the way humans still treat each other. It seems we don't learn and there is still so much discrimination and terror. Thank you for the review, this sounds like a book for when I am in a better mood (I blame the wonderful yet extremely chilling Briar Rose for my current state).

  4. Man's inhumanity to man. I think you said it perfectly when you said that the more read about it, the less you understand it. And yet I think it is important that we do read about it. Though I'm certainly guilty of trying to put off "the tough reads" sometimes. Slavery, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Darfur...the brutality in this world throughout history, and to this day, is beyond mind-boggling.

    I've never heard of this book, but it sounds like another must-read...I'll be writing this one down for sure.

    Have you ever read We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch? If not, I highly recommend it. I read it about a year ago, and it continues to haunt me. Again, one of those books that you can't attach the word "enjoy" to, but that you are so glad you read afterward.

    Anyway, Nymeth, thank you once again for another very special review. You might deserve to pick up something light and fun now, don't you think?

  5. That time was such a dark blotch in our history. No one should ever have to go through that. Great review, Nymeth.

  6. Interesting! I don't think I'll pick up this book on my own, but after reading your review, I might! ;)

  7. I would very much like to say that I'm going to read this one. It sounds fantastic but... I just don't know. Books like that are so very difficult for me to read...

    You reminded me of how I felt at the Holocaust Museum in DC, Nymeth. I walked through room after room, display after display, and my one thought was how was it possible that the entire world went mad all at once? It wasn't just Germany under Hitler and the Nazis. It was the entire world. I don't understand it, but I'm frightened that we seem to be headed that way again.


  8. Wow, that poem is incredible. The intensity of this book has to be one of those things you won't ever forget, I love books like this one...but I can only read them every once in a while.

  9. What a great post! You really did your homework here. This book will have to go on my TBR list, although I'm going to save it until I'm sure I can deal with the awfulness of it all. Thanks, Nymeth!

  10. This book had a profound effect on me when I read it a few years back. I agree that this and Night are two completely different books, but they are both so haunting. Thanks for the review--I'm sure it must have been a tough one to write but you did so beautifully.

  11. While I was working in a bookshop this book often caught my eye and I would sometimes pick it up and thumb through it, but somehow never came round to reading it. I think in a way I was afraid too, the holocaust being such a hard (but necessary) subject to read about and Levi's writing so very personal, making it even harder. I'm sure I will at some point, but definitely not while offshore when I need lighter fare!

  12. Oh boy. I shouldn't read books like this because I cry too easily and can't let go of the feelings, but I always feel compelled to read them anyway. As in they deserve to be read by as many people as possible. Thanks for bringing this particular book to our attention.

  13. Maw Books, I really look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

    Valentina: I know what you mean about not wanting to revisit it. It definitely isn't an easy book.

    Rhinoa: I definitely understand Briar Rose having that effect on you. And that's the thing, isn't it? WW2 is over, but the things described in this book are not just a part of the past.

    Debi: I haven't read that book, but I remember your review very well and I've wanted to read it ever since. I need to gather the courage first, though. And even though I posted that review first, I read Winnie-the-Pooh right after this one. I definitely needed something that would cheer me up, and Pooh worked like a charm!

    Literary Feline: I know...no one should, but so many have and still do.

    Melody: I really think you won't regret it if you do decide to pick it up.

    CJ: I understand, I really do. And yeah, it wasn't just Germany. The Holocaust Museum sounds like a very haunting place. I'd definitely like to visit it if I ever make it over there.

    Bethany: Isn't it? I loved the poem. And I know what you mean.

    Chartroose: Yeah, it's better to pick the right time for this one. I'm going to need to take a break from heavy books for a while.

    Trish: Thank you. It was hard to write indeed - I procrastinated it for days.

    Mariel: Yeah, the fact that the book is so personal really makes it harder. Sort of like Anne Frank's diary, except in that case we never get to actually see the horrors she went through after being discovered.

    Joanna: Me too. And that's it, they do deserve to be read exactly because they are so upsetting.

  14. Loved this post - definately going to look for this book in the library now!

  15. "How can a person harbour this kind of contradiction? How would they explain it to themselves?"
    These two questions seem to be at the heart of the paradox surrounding the Holocaust - I don't have any idea what the answers are (I'm not sure they can be answered at all in any kind of way that would make sense).
    I read this memoir years ago, and it broke my heart - your review broke it again...I dug out my copy and began rereading it yesterday.

  16. This is a very powerful review Nymeth. When I go home next week I'll try to locate my copy of this book; a book which has remained unread for like ten years or so because back then I didn't think I was brave enough to see and feel the war in the eyes of someone who who survived it.

    But I think it is unfair for the survivors if their stories aren't read, aren't felt by those who'd rather remain ignorant of history and the evils that men do. So yes, it's time I read my copy.

    Thank you for being brave enough to read this and for this amazing post.

  17. I haven't read this book, but I did read Night. It is the kind of book that is difficult to read, but at the same time, I think everyone needs to read it. It has always amazed me how seemingly normal people can justify horrific acts such as these. I don't even pretend to understand it.

  18. Michelle, thank you. I hope you manage to find it.

    Ken: I hope you share your thoughts on the book when you're done re-reading it. I'd love to read what you have to say. Btw, I said this in my old post, but in case you haven't seen it...thank you SO much for the link to the Sun Kil Moon show. I LOVE it. Absolutely beautiful.

    Lightheaded: I really look forward to reading your thoughts on this one. You always write such insightful reviews. And I know what you mean... it is unfair to ignore these stories just because they make us uncomfortable.

    Lisa: You're right, in a way it is pointless to try and understand how something like this could have happened. And I felt the same way about Night, and now This is a Man - they need to be widely read.

  19. This sounds powerful. I need to read it and also Elie Wiesel's Night. Have you read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning? After reading those two books I think this would be a good complement.

  20. I read this at university and found myself so angry at the things he had experienced, a large part of this was because it was my forst holocaust book but also because he seemed to not be angry at his persecutors

  21. note on translation: there's a mistake in many english translations of the poem. Line sixteen has been translated as "I commend", which is tantamount to saying "I recommend to you these words"..as the sentence makes sense, this translation probably sounded "softer" than the original. Which is rather harsher: "I command these words to you".

  22. note on translation: there's a mistake in many english translations of the poem. Line sixteen has been translated as "I commend", which is tantamount to saying "I recommend to you these words"..as the sentence makes sense, this translation probably sounded "softer" than the original. Which is rather harsher: "I command these words to you".


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