If This Is a Man, by Primo Levi

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The holocaust attested that morality is adaptable in severe conditions. Traditional morality stopped to be contained by the barbed wires of the concentration camps. Inside the camps, prisoners were not dealt like humans and thus adapted animal-like behavior needed to survive. The “ordinary moral world” (86) Primo Levi refers in his autobiographical novel Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man or Survival in Auschwitz), stops to exist; the meanings and applications of words such as “good,” “evil,” “just,” and “unjust” begin to merge and the differences between these opposites turn vague. Continued existence in Auschwitz demanded abolition of one’s self-respect and human dignity. Vulnerability to unending dehumanization certainly directs one to be dehumanized, thrusting one to resort on mental, physical, and social adaptation to be able to preserve one’s life and personality. It is in this adaptation that the line distinguishing right and wrong starts to deform.

Primo Levi, a survivor, gives account on his incarceration in the Monowitz- Buna concentration camp. Setting out with his arrest by the fascist militia in December of 1943, the text conforms to Primo Levi’s experience in the succeeding twelve months as an inmate in the National Socialists’ Monowitz- Buna concentration camp, seven kilometers east of Auschwitz. Upon arriving in the camp, the first-person narrator, Primo Levi, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, embarks a world that renders him astonished; simply by making literary notes to Dante’s Inferno can he manage to draw its contours. After the degrading intake procedures, he actualizes that the objective of the place to which they have been brought is the psychological and physical devastation of the inmates. The inmat...

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...sions essential for survival. In order to live peacefully, one must adapt one’s social and behavioral needs. Like the “literalized” accounts of survival by Jean Améry or Elie Wiesel, If This Is a Man has served as a reference for numerous interpretations and reflections in the fields of cultural studies and philosophy.


Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 86.

Ibid. p. 67

Ibid. p. 130

Ibid. p. 47

Ibid. p. 44

Primo Levi: From a letter to the translator of the German version, reproduced in The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 174.

Ibid. p. 83

Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 62.

Ibid. p. 59