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Primo Levi's Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About "Survival in Auschwitz"

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While I was in the camp the need to tell the story was so strong that I began to describe my experiences there, on the spot, in that German laboratory laden with freezing cold, the war, and vigilant eyes; and yet I knew that I would not be able under any circumstances to hold onto those haphazardly scribbled notes. As soon as I returned to Italy, I felt compelled to write, and within a few months I wrote Survival in Auschwitz. Some 15 years later, I wrote The Reawakening, which is the natural continuation of its older brother. I have been asked many questions about those books, which I propose to reply to here.

In your books there are no expressions of hate for the Germans, nor the desire for revenge. Have you forgiven them? 

I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans. If I accepted it, I would feel that I was following the precepts of Nazism, which was founded precisely on national and racial hatred. I must admit that if I had in front of me one of our persecutors of those days, certain known faces, certain old lies, I would be tempted to hate, and with violence too; but exactly because I am not a fascist or a Nazi, I refuse to give way to this temptation.

I believe in reason and discussion as the supreme instruments of progress. Thus, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm and sober language of the witness, not the lamenting tones of the victim or the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be more credible and useful the more it appeared objective, the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon. No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterwards) that he has become conscious of the crimes and the errors, and is determined to condemn them, to uproot them from his conscience and form that of others, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

Did the Germans know what was happening? 

How is it possible that the extermination of millions of human beings could have been carried out in the heart of Europe without anyone’s knowledge?

The world in which we Westerners live today has grave faults and dangers, but when compared to the countries and times in which democracy is smothered it has a tremendous advantage: everyone can know everything about everything. Information today is the “fourth estate.” In an authoritarian state it is not like this. There is only one Truth, proclaimed from above. The newspapers are all alike; they all repeat the same one truth. Propaganda is substituted for information. It is clear that under these conditions it becomes possible (though not always easy: it is never quite easy to do deep violence to human nature) to erase quite large chunks of reality.

Still, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was one of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics. The whole country knew it, knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.

It is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later in the camps: the methodological industrialized extermination on a scale of millions, the gas chambers, the cremation furnaces, the vile despoiling of corpses—all this was not supposed to be known, and in effect few did know it, up to the end of the war. Among other precautions, in order to keep the secret, only cautious and cynical euphemisms were employed by the official language: one did not write “extermination” but “final solution,” not “deportation” but “transfer,” not “killing by gas” but “special treatment.” Not without reason, Hitler feared that this horrendous news, if it were divulged, would compromise the blind faith that the country had in him, as well as the morale of the fighting troops.

And yet varied sources of information were available to most Germans. Knowing and making things known was one way of keeping one’s distance from Nazism. But most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread—those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.

Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts? 

These are among the questions most frequently put to me. They must spring, therefore, from some particularly important curiosity or need. My interpretation is optimistic: today’s young people feel that freedom is a privilege that one cannot do without, no matter what. For them, consequently, the idea of prison is immediately linked to the idea of escape or revolt. The concept of escape as a moral obligation is constantly reinforced by romantic literature, by popular literature, and by the cinema, in which the hero, unjustly (or even justly) imprisoned, always tries to escape, even in the least likely circumstances—and his attempt is invariably crowned with success. Perhaps it is good that the prisoner’s condition, the condition of non-liberty, is felt to be something improper, abnormal, like an illness that has to be cured by escape or rebellion.

Unfortunately, this picture resembles very little the truth about the concentration camps. Only a few hundred prisoners tried to escape, for example, from Auschwitz; of those, perhaps a few score succeeded. Escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The prisoners were debilitated, besides being demoralized, by hunger and ill-treatment. Their heads were shaved, their striped clothing was immediately recognizable, and their wooden clogs made silent and rapid walking impossible. They had no money, and in general they did not speak Polish, the local language; nor did they have contacts in the area, which was unfamiliar to them. On top of all that, fierce reprisals were employed to discourage escape attempts. Anyone caught trying to escape was publicly hanged (often after cruel torture) in the square where the roll calls took place. When an escape was discovered, friends of the fugitive were considered accomplices and starved to death; all the other prisoners were forced to stand for 24 hours; sometimes the parents of the “guilty” were arrested and deported to camps.

The SS guards who killed a prisoner in the course of an escape attempt were granted special leaves. As a result, it often happened that an SS guard fired at a prisoners who had no intention of escaping, solely to qualify for leave. This fact artificially swelled the official number of escape attempts recorded in the statistics. As I have said, the actual number was very small, made up almost exclusively of a small number of “Aryan” (that is, non-Jewish) Polish prisoners who lived not far from the camp and consequently had a clear goal and the assurance that they would be protected by the population. In the other camps things took place in a similar way.

As for the lack of rebellion, the story is somewhat different. First of all, it is necessary to remember that uprisings have been definitively verified in certain camps: Treblinka, Sobibor, even Birkenau, which was one of the Auschwitz dependencies. They did not have much numerical weight. Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they represented, rather, examples of extraordinary moral force. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way, and consequently in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner. This is not all that surprising: only at first glance does it seem paradoxical that the people who rebelled were those who suffered the least. Even outside the camps, struggles are rarely waged by the oppressed. The people in rags do not revolt.

In the camps for political prisoners, or where political prisoners were in the majority, the conspiratorial experience was not uncommon, and often resulted in quite effective defense activities, rather than in open revolt. Depending upon the camps and the times, prisoners succeeded, for example, in blackmailing or corrupting the SS, thus curbing their indiscriminate power; in sabotaging the work of the German war industries; in organizing escapes; in communicating via the radio with the Allies and furnishing them with accounts of the horrendous conditions in the camps; in improving the treatment of the sick, substituting prisoner doctors for the SS ones; in “guiding” the selections, sending to death spies and traitors and saving prisoners who survival had some special importance; in preparing, even in military ways, to resist in case the Nazis decided, with the Front coming closer, to liquidate the camps (as in fact they did decide).

In camps with a majority of Jews, like Auschwitz, an active or passive defense was particularly difficult. The prisoners were, for the most part, devoid of any kind of organizational or military experience. They came from every country in Europe, and spoke different languages. They had suffered greater starvation, and were weaker and more exhausted than the rest; they often had behind them a long history of hunger, persecution, and humiliation in the ghettos. The length of their stays in the camps were tragically brief. They were, in short, a fluctuating population, continually decimated by death, and renewed by the endless arrival of new convoys.

You may wonder why the prisoners who had just gotten off the trains did not revolt, waiting as they did for hours (sometimes for days!) to enter the gas chambers. I must add that the Germans had perfected a diabolically clever and versatile system of collective death. In most cases the new arrivals did not know what awaited them. They were received with cold efficiency but without brutality, invited to undress for “the shower.” Sometimes they were handed soap and towels, and were promised hot coffee after their showers. The gas chambers were camouflaged as shower rooms, with pipes, faucets, dressing rooms, clothes hooks, benches, and so forth. If prisoners showed the smallest sign of knowing or suspecting the imminent fate, the SS and their collaborators used surprise tactics—intervening with extreme brutality, with shouts, threats, kicks, shots; loosing their dogs, which were trained to tear people to pieces, against people who were confused, desperate, weakened by five or ten days of traveling in sealed railroad cars.

Thus the statement that has sometimes been made—that cowardice kept the Jews from revolting—is absurd and insulting. Let it suffice to remember that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were tested on a group of 300 Russian prisoners of war—young, army-trained, politically indoctrinated, and not hampered by the presence of women and children—and even they did not revolt.

I would like to add one final thought. The deeply rooted consciousness that you must not consent to oppression, but instead must resist it, was not widespread in fascist Europe, and it was particularly weak in Italy. It was the patrimony of a restricted circle of politically active people. But fascism and Nazism had isolated, expelled, terrorized, or destroyed these people outright. You must not forget that the first victims of the German camps, in the hundreds of thousands, were the cadres of the anti-Nazi political parties. Lacking their contribution, the popular will to resist sprang up again only much later.

Did you return to Auschwitz after the liberation?

I returned to Auschwitz twice in 1965, and in 1982. I didn’t feel anything much when I visited the central camp of the Auschwitz complex, which consisted of some 40 camps. The Polish government has transformed it into a kind of national monument. The huts have been cleaned and painted, trees have been planted and flower beds laid out. There is a museum in which pitiful relics are displayed—tons of human hair, hundreds of thousands of eyeglasses, combs, shaving brushes, dolls, baby shoes—but it still remains, eternally, a museum, something static, rearranged contrived. To me, the entire camp seemed like a museum. As for my camp, called Monowitz, about seven kilometers to the east of Auschwitz, it no longer exists. The rubber factory to which it was annexed, now in Polish hands, has so grown that it occupies the whole area.

I did, instead, experience a feeling of violent anguish when I entered the Birkenau camp, which I had never seen as a prisoner. Here nothing has changed. There was mud, and there still is mud, or suffocating summer dust. The blocks of huts (those that weren’t burned when the war reached and passed this area) have remained as they were—low, dirty, with drafty wooden sides and beaten earth floors. There are no bunks but bare planks, all the way to the ceiling. Here nothing has been prettied up. With me was a friend of mine, Giuliani Tedeschi, a survivor of Birkenau. She pointed out to me that on every plank, 1.8 by two meters, up to nine women slept. She showed me that from the tiny window you could see the ruins of the cremation furnace. In her day, you saw the flames issuing from the chimney. She asked the older women: “What is that fire?” and they had replied: “It is we who are burning.”

Face-to-face with the sad evocative power of those places, each of us survivors behaves in a different manner, but it is possible to describe two typical categories. Those who refuse to go back, or even to discuss the matter, belong to the first category, as do those who would like to forget but do not succeed in doing so, and are tormented by nightmares, and those who have instead forgotten, dismissed everything, and begun again to live, starting from zero. I have noticed that in general all of these are individuals who ended up in the camps through bad luck, that is, without a precise political or moral commitment. For them the suffering was a traumatic experience but devoid of meaning, like a misfortune or an illness. The memory is for them a kind of extraneous thing, a painful mass that intruded into their lives, which they have sought (or still seek) to eliminate.

The second category is composed of ex-political prisoners, or those who possessed at least a measure of political preparation, or religious conviction, or a strong moral consciousness. For these survivors, remembering is a duty. They do not want to forget, and even more they do not want the world to forget, because they have understood that their experience was not meaningless, that the camps were not an accident, an unforeseen historical happening.

Why do you speak only about German camps and not the Russian ones as well?

I can bear witness to the things that I endured and saw. My books are not storybooks. In writing them I limited myself strictly to reporting facts of which I had direct experience, excluding those I learned later from books or newspapers. For this reason I do not generally speak about the Russian camps. Fortunately I was never in them; and so I can only repeat the things I have read, which is to say the same things known to everyone interested in the subject.

Still, I do not want to, nor can I, evade the duty, which every man has, of making a judgment and formulating an opinion. Aside from the obvious similarities between the German camps and the Russian camps, I think I can observe substantial differences. The principal difference lies in the finality.

The German camps constitute something unique in the history of humanity, bloody as it is. To the ancient aim of eliminating or terrifying political adversaries, they set a modern and monstrous goal, that of erasing entire peoples and cultures form the world. Starting roughly in 1941, they became gigantic death machines. Gas chambers and crematories were deliberately planned to destroy lives and human bodies on a scale of millions. The appalling record belongs to Auschwitz, with 24,000 dead in a single day, in August 1944.

The Soviet camps were not and are not, certainly, pleasant places, but in them the death of the prisoners was not—even in the darkest years of Stalinism—expressly sought. It was a very frequent occurrence, and it was tolerated with brutal indifference, but basically it was not expressly intended. It was a by-product, rather, of hunger, cold, infections, hard labor.

In this lugubrious comparison between two models of hell, I must also add the fact that one entered the German camps, in general, never to emerge. No outcome but death was foreseen. In the Soviet camps, a possible limit to incarceration always existed. In Stalin’s day many of the “guilty” were given terribly long sentences (as much as 15 or 20 years), but hope of freedom, however faint, remained.

From this fundamental difference, others issue. The relationships between guards and prisoners were less inhuman in the Soviet Union. They all belonged to the same nation and spoke the same language, they were not graded “Supermen” and “Non-men” as they were under Nazism. The sick were treated, though inadequately. Confronted with overly hard work, an individual or collective protest was not unthinkable. Corporal punishment was rare, and not too cruel. It was possible to receive letters and packages with foodstuffs. Human personality, in short, was no denied, and was not totally lost. As a general consequence the mortality figures were very different under the two systems. In the Soviet Union in the harshest periods, around 30 percent of those who entered died. This is an intolerably high figure. But in the German camps, mortality amounted to between 90 and 98 percent.

It is possible, finally, to picture a socialism without prison camps; in many parts of the world it has been realized. A Nazism without camps, however, is unimaginable.

How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained? 

It can be said that anti-Semitism is one particular case of intolerance; that for centuries it had a prevailingly religious character; that in the Third Reich it was exacerbated by the nationalistic and military predisposition of the German people and by the “differentness” of the Jewish people; that it was easily disseminated in all of Germany—and in a good part of Europe—thanks to the efficiency of the fascist and Nazi propaganda, which needed a scapegoat on which to load all guilts and resentments; that the phenomenon was heightened to paroxysm by Hitler, a maniacal dictator.

But these commonly accepted explanations do not satisfy me. They are reductive—not commensurate with, nor proportionate to, the facts that need explaining. In rereading the chronicles of Nazism, from its murky beginnings to its convulsed end, I cannot avoid the impression of a general atmosphere of uncontrolled madness. Thus I prefer the humility with which some of the most serious historians confess to not understanding the furious anti-Semitism of Hitler and of Germany back of him.

Perhaps one cannot—what is more, one must not—understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain. Understanding a proposal or a form of human behavior means containing it, containing its author, putting oneself in his place, identifying with him. No normal human being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and the endless others. This dismays us, but at the same time it provides a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words and their deeds cannot be comprehensible to us. They are nonhuman words and deeds, really counter-human, without historic precedents, difficult to compare even with the cruelest events of the biological struggle for existence.

The war can be explained, but Auschwitz has nothing to do with the war; it was not an episode in it, nor an extreme form of it. War is always a terrible fact, to be deprecated; but it is in us, it has its rationality, we “understand” it. There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred. It is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man, it is a poison fruit sprung form the deadly trunk of fascism, although outside and beyond fascism itself. If understanding is impossible, however, knowledge is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again: even our consciences.

For this reason, it is the duty of everyone to meditate on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that Hitler and Mussolini, when they spoke in public, were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were “charismatic leaders”; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the credibility or the soundness of the things they said, but from the suggestive way in which they said them. And we must remember that their faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is well to regard all prophets with suspicion. Yet it is clear that this formula is too simple to suffice in every case. A new fascism, with its trail of intolerance, abuse, and servitude, can be born outside our country and imported into it, walking on tiptoe and calling itself by other names; or it can loose itself from within with such violence that it routs all defenses. At that point, wise counsel no longer serves, and, and one must find the strength to resist. But then, too, the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago, can serve as support and warning.

This interview was translated from Italian into English by Ruth Feldman.