Essay on Surviving Auschwitz

Essay on Surviving Auschwitz

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From the first sentence of the Preface to Survival in Auschwitz, we learn that Primo Levi attributes his survival in the concentration camp to luck, or his “good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” (9). It was because of luck that Levi had a chemistry background, qualifying him to spend portions of the day during the most brutal months of his last winter in Auschwitz in the chemistry laboratory, and because of luck that he formed and sustained relationships with Alberto and Lorenzo. Levi perhaps considered himself lucky most for having withstood “selection”—the method the camp guards used to choose prisoners to die instantly in the gas chambers. Levi writes, “[t]he fact that I was not selected depended above all on chance” (125).  
Levi understands that selection is an arbitrary process. As Levi comments, “the important thing for the Lager is not that the most useless prisoners be eliminated, but that free posts be quickly created” (129). Selection is so frivolous that Levi and Alberto determine that when René is selected to be sent to the gas chambers and Levi is not, that it was “probable” (128) that this was due to a “mistake with [their] cards” (128). Because selection is a mostly indiscriminate process, Levi understands that prisoners have little bearing on their own survival. The Nazis were determined to kill a certain number of prisoners, and it made little difference to the Nazis which prisoners were sent to die.   It is moments after the selection of October 1944 that the passage takes place.  In this passage we witness the responses of several prisoners to selection, as narrated by Levi. Levi's perception of the situation is shaped by his understanding that survival in the Lager is due to fluke.

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...lection. This choice is not something that Kuhn should be thankful for.
This passage ends with Levi bitterly remarking, “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer” (130). It is through this line that we realize Levi is not condemning Kuhn. Levi does in fact realize Kuhn is an old man, whose body and spirit had been crushed by the Nazis, just as Levi's, and the other prisoners' bodies and spirits, and Kuhn is merely attempting to comfort himself. Besides the fact that the Germans legally considered Kuhn a Jew, we know nothing of Kuhn's religious beliefs and practices, and so his “prayer” could have been a mere secular utterance the way a present day American college student “thanks God” for a snow day. Yet it is Kuhn's “prayer,” and the sentiment it contains, that Levi finds troubling, both for the deceased prisoners, and those prisoners still temporarily living.

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