If This Is a Man
Primo Levi was a 25-year-old Jewish chemist from Italy when, in 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz. Life expectancy at the concentration camp for new inmates was around three months. But despite near-starvation, bone-numbing cold and disease, Levi survived. A year after the war, with memories of Auschwitz still brutally fresh in his mind, he wrote If This Is a Man. The book became one of the most important written about the 20th century’s greatest crime. It is a testimony to both the sheer willpower of perseverance and human strength that emerges when people are stretched to their limits, as well as the dark depths to which humanity is capable of sinking.
The book charts the rise of systematic anti-Semitism in Italy after the outbreak of war, before describing the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz itself. What can we learn from this scar on humanity’s record?
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Despite his dreadful plight, Levi never dehumanises the people he describes — including the German guards. The book forces us to acknowledge the necessity of empathy while also confronting the limits of our capacity to empathise.
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The prisoners of Auschwitz are confined physically, but their lack of freedom goes far beyond that. Every day is a numbing routine of work and humiliation, with the possibility of death for stepping out of line.
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In 1987, Levi committed suicide (that was the coroner’s verdict) after jumping from the landing of his third-story apartment in Turin. Many believe his suicide was a result of lingering trauma from Auschwitz. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, at the time: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.”
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Levi’s book is fundamentally a work of testimony. Readers in decades to come will only need to pick up his book to read a first-hand account of one of history’s worst horrors. The most important thing about Levi’s book is that it was written at all.
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