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The Dehumanization of Primo Levi and Other Holocaust Prisoners

Devin Hughes
History 102
Dr. Kruckeberg
There has never been a question in any historical scholars mind as to just how
evil the Third Reich and its leader Adolf Hitler were. Hitler ruthlessly built a base of
political power in Germany with the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi
Party), and then declared himself the undisputed leader of the nation. Once he ascended
into absolute power over the German nation, Hitler began to systematically unite the
German population, through propaganda and force, into a cult of hatred against the
Jews, homosexuals, and all of Western Europe. Hitler preached, to the German people,
that Germanys humiliating defeat in World War I was brought about by the Jews. He
blamed the unjustness of the Versailles Treaty on a Jewish conspiracy to control the
world. He believed that it was the destiny of pure-blooded Germanic people, or Aryans,
to overthrow this evil Jewish conspiracy.
To accomplish this feat, Hitler denied Jews German citizenship. He began to set
up concentration camps. He required all Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and political
enemies within his area of control, as well as those under control of his allies to be sent
to these concentration camps as a source of slave labor. As war broke out, even Allied
Prisoners of War were enslaved for this purpose.
This is where we are introduced to the Italian Jew, Primo Levi. In his account,
Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi was captured on December 13, 1943 by Italian
fascists. He along with many others were brought together and from the very first roll
call of his imprisonment began to notice that in the eyes of the Nazis they were not
human when they were referred to as pieces. The captives were crammed into
boxcars of a transport train and sent, in darkness, towards Auschwitz. And in this
manner the dehumanization of Primo Levi and the other captives begins.
From the very beginning Levi tells us that there is not much will to live in the
car. He describes the group as a common sample of humanity. The moment that
Levi and his fellow prisoners get off the train they are questioned about their age and
health, no doubt simply to weed out which of the captives would be useful and which to
murder immediately. Levi makes mention of the Nazis attitudes about this whole
ordeal, claiming they acted as if it was their everyday duty. Primo Levi says that at
the time they didnt know the fate of the other five hundred or so captives, he later
learned that they were all dead within the next two days.
Those lucky enough to pass the first inspection were taken into the camp,
through the infamous gate reading Arbeit Macht Frei, or work gives freedom. They
are then brought into a dark cold room and given orders to remove all of their clothing
and shoes, and are then shaved and have their heads sheared removing all hair. The
prisoners are then left alone, naked and cold, in dark room, standing in water as if they
are mere animals not humans. As humans we are naturally inhibited about nudity, the
origin of which can be traced to the book of Genesis, to force people to stand naked in
front of friends, neighbors, and even strangers takes away a fundamental human
comfort. When they are finally given clothes to wear, they are no more than mere rags.
To treat people in this manner the Nazis clearly do not view them as humans but as
animals, nothing more than a tool to work for them.
The captives are given a tattoo on the arm of a number; this number is now all
they are known by. The Nazis took away the one thing that, as humans, defines who we
are. They took away the name theyve been known as for their entire lives and replace
it with a number, like a serial number on a tool. The captives know that they are
nothing more than a piece of inventory to their captors. To take away the only thing
that gives a person any individuality is to take away their hope, their will to live; in my
opinion this is the most horrendous thing that you can do. To take away a persons
hope is a fate worse than death and a fate that would cause its bearers to often welcome
After all of this the prisoners were then assigned to a work squad, known as a
kommando. Primo Levi quickly discovers that not all prisoners have equal standing
within the camp. The camp is made up of a strict hierarchy of power; at the top is the
German SS soldiers who run the camp, beneath them are the civilian workers in the
camp who have no real authority but are not subjected to the brutality that the other
prisoners face, then there are the Kapos who are technically prisoners but are essentially
overseers of the commando, next are the prominenze or aristocracy, then are the
German criminals, followed lastly by the Jews.
This hierarchy is partly responsible for the destruction of civil morality within
the inmates of Auschwitz. The Kapos, being no more than privileged prisoners, are
incredibly cruel to the rest of their kommando because they have to be in order to keep
their position; a position that gives them a far better chance of survival. In much the
same way the prisoners are constantly strategizing just to keep themselves alive, which
often times meant to abandon any humanistic morality. For the prisoners thievery was
common, and was an effective means of survival. To steal your neighbors shoes,
spoon, or bowl was the potential to trade for extra rations. And having extra rations to
provide you with the energy to work could mean the difference in life or death when it
came time for selections for the gas chambers. Levi gives several examples of the
strategies that some would use to protect their interests, as well as their lives. In order
to gain an upper hand for consideration for a position as Kapo, one inmate would trade
anything he could to keep his clothes clean. The reason being clean clothes earned him
a bit of respect amongst the other prisoners; those who were respected were far more
likely to gain a position of importance, thus increasing their chance of survival.
Another inmate, named Henri, was able to play on peoples emotions; he used his
ability to get into good graces with the right people thus earning extra rations, and even
was admitted to the infirmary whenever he wanted. Levi said he was able to see that
Henri used those in power to protect him like they were his pawns, and had no real
affection for them. For someone to be reduced to a level where no morality exists,
where the only ethic is to survive at any cost, they must put all humanity aside. They
must act as animals and rely on their shrewdness and instincts. It is scary to say but the
adage of survival of the fittest is proven as truthful for humans as it is for animals in
these camps.
Even though the Nazis took everything from the captives that could possibly
give them the will to survive, these prisoners did so anyway. How were they able to
find a will to live even through all of the dehumanizing that they went through? The
best way to answer this comes from one passage in the book. An inmate asks Levi why
he has chosen not to bathe, to which Levi replies Would I be any better off? Would I
please someone more? Would I live a day, an hour longer? The other inmates reply is
inspiring. He says Because the Lager is a machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not
become beasts; even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to
survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to
save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves
deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we
still possess one power and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last- the
power to refuse our consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty
water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because
regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect without dragging
our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.
This one quote shows that, regardless of the situation, the human spirit can survive.