Survival in Auschwitz (77-116)
Chapter 8. This Side of Good and Evil (77-86)
What is the difference between the brand of capitalism driving Auschwitz’s economy and that which occurs normally in the outer world? What is necessary for survival in both worlds?
p. 77 If you were a prisoner, how could you turn a quick profit if you knew that a Waschetaushen was imminent?
pp. 79-83 How does one create kombinacja in the mahorca market?
pp. 79-83 Describe other businesses which prisoners embrace in order to make a profit.
Chapter 9. The Drowned and the Saved (87- 100)
What happens to the moral judgment of an individual when life is reduced to its primordial situation? Can Socrates’ conception of morality survive in Auschwitz?
Is even raising the question of good and evil among the victims at Auschwitz fair?
See Witness 5’s deposition in The Investigation by Peter Weiss.
In his moral universe, Levi distinguishes between “The Drowned” and The Saved”.
What checks and balances exist in society which prevent our full exposure to the brutality of natural selection? (What checks and balances exist in society to prevent our full exposure to the ups and downs of the market?) [QUOTE 88] When those checks and balances are removed (in a time of crisis), what happens to the weak, the innocent, the children, the ‘good’? What would Malthus say?
Remember the first rule of the Lager: “To he that has will be given; from he that has not will be taken away."
pp. 88-90 Describe how most inmates at Auschwitz sank into the state of ‘musselmen’. [QUOTE 90]
We have seen how the dehumanization of the prisoners at Auschwitz sought quickly to rob the prisoners of their identities. Reeling from this assault, those who for various reasons could not ‘turn a profit’ quickly deteriorated into the state of ‘musulmen’. Listless and indifferent, the living dead, like Zull Achtzen, could drag you down with them if you were unlucky enough to be made a work partner with them.
Whoever does not know how to become an 'Oranisator', 'Kombinator' or 'Prominent' soon becomes a musselman. To sink is the easiest of matters: just follow all the rules and try your hardest at work. You will be overcome before you can adapt, You don't learn German, you can't figure out the bizarre logic of camp life; your body decays and you become exhausted. The end. An anonymous mass of non-men continually renewed and always identical, the divine spark dead within them. To Levi, they are the image of the ultimate evil of this time.
What would Voltaire say about this destruction of the innocent? (Natural vs. Moral Evil) Is there any moral basis for understanding natural selection, or is it simply a natural force, like an earthquake or a tsunami?
pp. 90-92 Carefully read Levi’s descriptions of the saved. What did they have to do to survive? Which ones achieve ‘salvation’ in a moral as well as physical sense?
pp.92-93 How did Schepschel survive?
He found a simple kombinacje, making braces from broom handles and wires, he dances for the Slovak prisoners, he has no qualms about betraying an accomplice. He is lucky.
pp. 93-95 How did Alfred L. survive?
Disciplined and methodical, he gains a humble job cleaning the Polish workers' pots, yet he keeps his appearance neat and clean and tailors his rags to give himself the appearance of a prominent. To be judged powerful is to become so. When opportunity knocked, and the Chemical Commando was formed, his moment came. He got the job and used his position to suppress any potential rival. (Remember Steinlauf’s advice?)
pp. 95-98 How did Elias Lindzin not only survive but happily thrive in the lager?
The dwarf, a human battering ram, a born acrobat with amazing strength: he was ideally suited to success in this environment. "a parahuman"; "an atavism"- different from our modern world and better adapted to the primordial conditions in the camp. Physically indestructible yet certifiably insane, he thrives but would wind up incarcerated in the outside world.
pp. 98-100 What was Henri’s strategy for survival?
Eminently civilized and sane, he speaks many languages and possesses great a superb education in science and the classics. His theory: organization, pity and theft; his method: seduction: he sympathizes with you and cultivates pity for himself, thereby makes himself everyone's best friend, even the Germans; the cunning and incomprehensible Serpent
But what of Alberto?
p. 57 What talents make Alberto the ‘acme of survivors’?
He understood quickly that life is war; he entered the battle immediately, using all his intelligence and intuition; he picked up languages quickly and spoke sign 'gesture' language eloquently; he was everyone's friend YET he did not become corrupt! “The strong and peace loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted.”
And what of Resnyk?
p. 65 What is Resnyk’s story? Why does it belong in what Primo calls ‘a new Bible’?
It is unknown because he told it in French which Primo could not understand, but Primo knows that it is like all the others’: simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. “Are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?”
And what of Jean the Pikolo?
Chapter 11. The Canto of Ulysses (109-115)
The allusion: In Canto 26 of The Inferno, Dante and Vergil come upon the 8th ditch, agleam with flickering fireflies, flames moving along the gullet of the ditch, each a sinner guilty of having given false counsel. Dante stands on a bridge over the ditch and nearly falls in. Vergil says, “within the fires are the spirits: each swathes himself with that which burns him.” Ulysses is within the divided fire, his fork linked with that of Diomedes. The two lament their creation of the Trojan Horse, but that is a deception from their true sin. Dante is standing the Odyssey on its head, for nothing, not home, son, father or wife could conquer in him the longing to explore more of the world. Wanderlust drives him to leave home again and travel beyond the pillars of Gibraltar, a gate beyond which humans are forbidden to go. (Dante’s idea is partly inspired by the voyage of the Genoese brothers Vivaldi who sailed past Gibraltar in 1291 and were never heard from again.) His speech inspires his men to follow their star. “Consider your origin; you were not meant to live as brutes but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” At midlife, Dante has come to the mountain of purgatory, the end of the inferno. He is criticizing rhetoric: the use of language as an end in and of itself in the pursuit of self interest.
p. 109 Why is cleaning the inside of the petrol tank a luxury job?
pp. 110-111 How has Jean the Pikolo been able to maintain a charitable concern for others while engaging in the same struggle for survival which has erased others’ morality? Is concern for others part of his survival strategy; is he like Henri?
His skill at making his Kapo look good by doing all of his work has enabled him to earn a position of influence with him. Jean is fluent in French and German, and he is constantly burnishing his understanding of all languages.
pp. 111-115 What do Jean and Primo do during their ‘leisure’ time? How is leisure time essential to the function of moral traits like civility and aesthetic experiences like the pleasure of poetry?
Jean asks Primo to teach him Italian. They speak of home. They speak of language, and Primo struggles to find the perfect words to translate for Jean the greatest poetry in the Italian language. “It is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand…” And then they speak of the lessons of the greatest literature. We are men, made for experiences that the animals are not: the joys of reason in the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.
How might this chapter be essential to your understanding of the memoir’s overall meaning? In The Divine Comedy, the ‘Canto of Ulysses’ tells of how Dante emerged from the Inferno to stand at the base of Mt. Purgatory. What must be purged from our natures before true humanity can be manifested? Or what luxuries must exist before civilized traits can emerge in our societies?
Remember the lesson Dante is teaching us about Ulysses’ sin. It is right, and utterly human, to pursue knowledge, but to employ language to persuade others to act in your interest is a misuse of a gift for communication. Jean uses his gift for language charitably. He shares with others out of the pure desire to learn. That is human nature in its purest goodness.
Charity is purely gratuitous. The good has no purpose beyond itself. This moment gives Primo a glimpse into the reason why both Auschwitz and God may exist. Could he have achieved this understanding of the very best qualities of human nature in any other place?
Chapter 10. Chemical Examination (101-108)
How did Primo secure this prominent position, thus enabling his chance at survival?
Primo is not given the opportunity to be interviewed initially, but he is called back in the afternoon.
pp. 104-06 Describe the encounter with Dr. Pannwitz. How does the look that Pannwitz gives Levi explain for him the essence of the insanity of the Third Reich?
He looks at Primo as if he is looking into an aquarium at a fish: does this fish have a utilizable element before I destroy it?