Survival in Auschwitz
An Explanation for the Holocaust Everyone who has taken a history course that goes through the 20th century knows about the atrocities performed in Nazi Germany; 11 million people exterminated and countless others put into concentration camps with unimaginable conditions. But most people do not try to explain how the German soldiers could do these things to other human beings. Primo Levi in his book Survival in Auschwitz attempts to answer this question. He begins by explaining the physical and psychological transformation of the prisoners and how that enabled the Germans to see the prisoners as inhuman and therefore oppress-able.
Levi believes that the Germans treated the Jewish prisoners horrendously because of the prisoner’s inhuman appearances and the German’s beliefs of racial superiority. The immediate effects of the concentration camps on the inmates were both physical and psychological. As soon as they got to the camps, the Jewish prisoners were immediately stripped of their clothes, hair, and name. The only thing Levi had left was a tattooed number on his arm, “already my own body was no longer mine” (Levi 37).
Levi describes this transformation as a loss of identity and the becoming of a phantom, “There is no where to look in a mirror, but our appearance stands in front of us, reflected in a hundred livid faces, in a hundred miserable and sordid puppets” (Levi 26). They were forced into submission by beatings and the ever-present threat of death. The knowledge of imminent death was especially detrimental to the psyche of the inmates, “you are not home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney” (Levi 29).
Although they were beaten and altered physically, Levi believes the most damage happened psychologically. The whole law of the camp was based on keeping the prisoners oppressed and without rights, “This fills me with anger, although I already know that it is in the normal order of things that the privileged oppress the underprivileged: the social structure of the camp is based on this human law” (Levi 44). Levi believes the most difficult part of the concentration camps was not losing oneself.
He realizes that he had already lost parts of his character while he is able to reflect in Ka-Be, “we have learnt that our personality is fragile, that it is much more in danger than our life” (Levi 55). All these things led to a transformation from human to almost inhuman. All these physical and psychological abuses led to the transformation of the prisoners from humans to work slaves. Levi recognizes this when he talks about his appearance, “We are ridiculous and repugnant” (Levi 142).
One reason the Germans were able to oppress the Jewish prisoners was due to their appearance. With shaved heads, long and knobbly necks, incredibly dirty clothes, and a swollen and yellow face (Levi 142), the prisoners were barely human. The fact that the prisoners were beaten and oppressed due to their appearance and smell was not stated explicitly by Levi, but can be shown by his interactions with the lab girls, “They never speak to us and turn up their noses when they see us shuffling across the laboratory, squalid and filthy, awkward and insecure in our shoes” (Levi 143).
Their appearance alone was enough to get treated horribly by the lab girls and surely must have been a reason for the Germans to consciously beat and oppress the prisoners. This reason alone is not enough to explain why the Jews were subject to these atrocities, because all the prisoners came into the camp as individual humans with personalities and normal appearances yet were still treated horribly. This shows that appearance alone was not the only reason for the treatment in the concentration camps.
To explain this, Levi believes that the ability to organize and oppress the Jews was a way for the German soldiers to flex their racial dominance. At the departure and the return march the SS are never lacking. Who could deny them their right to watch this choreography of their creation, the dance of dead men, squad after squad, leaving the fog to enter the fog? What more concrete proof of their victory? ” (Levi 51) This view of social dominance and evolutionary superiority is very in line with the views of the Nazi Party and ordinary Germans.
This hate for the Jews starts with Hitler’s Ant-Jewish propaganda and the implementation of the Nuremberg laws. In “Perish the Jew,” Hitler puts his views of racial superiority into writing, “The Aryan regards work as the basis for the maintenance of the national community as such; the Jew regards work as a means of exploiting other peoples” (Hitler 223). With this writing and other propaganda, Hitler successfully spread a hate for Jewish people across the country. Hitler then created the Nuremberg Laws, which slowly but successfully stripped the Jews of all their rights and made them second-class citizens in Germany.
The Jews slowly became, in the eyes of the German people and the SS, people who could be consciously oppressed and turned into slave workers. Obviously nothing justifies the heinous treatment of Jews in concentration camps, but Levi gives us reasons why he believed the SS were able to treat Jews in this way. He believed that the prisoner’s appearance after a few days, “dirty and repugnant,” could have been a source of the terrible treatment; it is much easier to oppress those who look almost inhuman.
Levi also believed the treatment was just another way to prove racial superiority. The ability to completely suppress and dehumanize the Jews is just another victory for the Aryan race. This idea of racial superiority was around before Hitler and the Nazi party, but Hitler amplified these thoughts to dignify the killing of Jews. It was Hitler and his propaganda that spread and expanded the racist thoughts of Aryan superiority and created the concentration and extermination camps of the Holocaust.