Sunday, November 1, 2009

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz

This is one of those books that I have known about for a long time, and of which my wife spoke very highly. Now that I have lots of free time, I added it to my reading list.

I've read a lot of books about the Holocaust; it is one of the great sobering events of the 20th century; a reminder that all those antique ideas about human nature being essentially flawed, were right. But I have never read such a personal account by a survivor.

Levi was a Jewish Italian chemical engineer. That he survived the Holocaust is one of those combination of fortuitous events. Italy, as long as Mussolini was running it on his own, was relatively tolerant of Jews. For Mussolini's Fascism, nationalism meant that being an Italian was what mattered, regardless of religion or ancient origins. Only after the collapse of Mussolini's government, and Germany's creation of a puppet Fascist government in the north of Italy in 1943, were Italian Jews rounded up for extermination. Levi managed to hide out as a member of a guerrilla organization until 1944, when he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz.

Levi was also fortunate that labor shortages in the German war machine were becoming sufficiently severe by this point that he was kept alive to work. It is terrifying to imagine what would have been the outcome of World War II if the Nazis had decided that winning the war was more important than exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. The Nazis wasted enormous resources killing people that could have helped them win the war.

Because Levi was a chemical engineer, at one point he was moved from the enormously physically demanding labor outdoors into a laboratory, where he worked on the development of synthetic rubber. Just the reduced calorie demands of being inside where it was warm, I suspect, played a major part in Levi's survival.

Levi's account describes the tremendous brutalization that camp life created--a society where deprivation of essentials (such as soap, for examples), and the absence of any legal system for resolving disputes created. For those who read Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and have been ever since thrilled at the prospect of a spontaneous, self-governing order without the ugliness of government--sorry, but I'm skeptical. Levi's book describes a society that internally was free to engage in spontaneous, self-governing order--and where you did not dare leave your spoon or cup unattended, because another inmate would likely steal it.

To be fair, there were aspects to the way that the SS enforced rules that would certainly encourage the worst in people: severe deprivation; severe punishments for theft--except from other inmates. I wonder how much of this was simply a consequence of SS unconcern for the inmates, and how much was an intentional effort to promote the worst possible behavior, so as to justify treating inmates like animals. It strikes me that if the hard left in this country ever achieves full control, they will do their best to create a system that will consciously seek to destroy Christian values by creating a system that promotes greed, sexual immorality, hurting family members, and theft. Before you say, "Oh, too late! They already have," consider how much worse it would be if the hard left were completely free to set all the rules and laws. It could be much worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment