Author: Primo Levi
Does suffering have any meaning, and does it teach any lessons? The author of this book is undoubtedly well-placed to address these questions having been both witness to, and victim of, the Nazi concentration camp atrocities of World War II. Captured whilst fighting with the resistance against Italian fascism, he narrates his horrifying experience of deportation and subsequent incarceration at Monowitz and Auschwitz camps. His story is of experiencing ‘the void of bottomless despair‘ in prisons he depicted as ‘the world of death and phantoms‘, where he observed ‘the work of bestial degradation‘ (pages 23, 177 and 187). Believing that there is meaning in every human experience, the author was able to look beyond his ordeal to study ‘certain aspects of the human mind‘ and extract ‘fundamental values‘ from what turned out to be a fortuitous ‘gigantic biological and social experiment‘ (pages 93 and 15). As a scientist and a keen observer of human nature, the author used his unenviable position to accurately document how human beings, captives and guards alike, respond differently to what are arguably the harshest conditions imaginable (page 19).
The book’s description of the extreme circumstances of the concentration camps was very detailed but also dispassionate. The author painted a graphic picture of exceptional cruelty manifesting as brutal beatings and arbitrary killings, ruthless savagery which the author said ‘our language lacks words to express’ (page 32). The barbarism commenced right from the point of deportation when, for every prisoner who was absent at roll call, ten others were shot to death (page 20). The author found the punishments particularly appalling for their deplorable banality, the guards delivering unprovoked blows ‘without display of anger’, and selecting prisoners for the gas chambers with an ‘indifferent air’ and ‘the calm assurance of people doing their normal duty of every day’ (pages 22-26, 59 and 130-136). Such was the nature of the unrelenting torment that the author described it as the ‘demolition of a man‘ below which ‘it is not possible to sink‘ (pages 33). It is however to the author’s credit that he appreciated those guards who did not beat ‘from pure bestiary and violence‘, but meted out their punishments with some measure of empathy, beating them ‘almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations‘ (page 73).
Perhaps the most touching narrative in the book relates to the description of utter misery and despair which permeated every minute of the day-to-day existence of the prisoners. The inexhaustible catalogue of ignominies included the dehumanising tattoos that replaced the personal identity of inmates with bland numbers; the endless and meaningless marches which ‘killed our spirit long before our anonymous death‘; and the extreme hunger which drove them to eat like animals – ‘on our feet, furiously, burning our mouths and throats, without time to breathe’ (pages 75, 78, 80-82 and 61). The prisoners toiled all day ‘in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer’; even the shoes they wore served only as ‘instruments of torture, which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores which become fatally infected‘ (pages 129 and 40). Even nighttime was not a refuge for the suffering of the prisoners because their sleep was tormented by the ‘shapeless nightmares of unheard-of violence‘ from which ‘one wakes up at every moment, frozen with terror, shaking in every limb’ (page 68).
The most insightful observation the book makes concerns the different ways in which the prisoners responded to the situation they found themselves, what the author said was the utter helplessness and hopelessness of an existential ‘struggle to survive‘. The author preceptively defined two contrasting groups of prisoners depending on how they reacted to their travails, and by far the larger group was of the inmates he classified as ‘the drowned‘ – men ‘in decay’ who ‘die or disappear‘ in solitude because ‘nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion‘. These are prisoners he said had lost all hope, and made very little effort to survive. The second group consisted of prisoners that the author labelled as ‘the saved‘ – adaptable people who persevered by relying on their inner strength, will-power, patience, and luck (pages 98 and 144-146). These survivors employed several unconventional psychological strategies to maintain some notion of dignity and humanity in their dire condition, such as simply going through the motions of washing their faces and polishing their shoes (page 47).
Among the survivors, the author extracted many revealing insights about human nature when he identified two extreme survival instincts. At one end of the spectrum are the survivors the author characterised as monsters of insensitivity, people who schemed their way to prominent camp positions, and in the process becoming ‘cruel and tyrannical‘ towards their fellow inmates (pages 93-97). The author argued that these cannot be called men because ‘their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it, under an offence received or inflicted on someone else’ (pages 127-128). At the other end of the scale however are survivors who the author represented as ‘superior individuals‘, people made of ‘the stuff of martyrs and saints‘ who persevered without forsaking their morality (page 98). Symbolic of this group of prisoners was the author’s Italian compatriot Lorenzo, a man whose selfless goodness was symbolised by his giving away a portion of his meals every day for six months (page 125). Lorenzo was instrumental to the author’s own survival, as much for his charity as for his ‘natural and plain manner of being good‘, an attitude that constantly reminded the author that ‘there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage…for which it is worth surviving‘ (page 127). It was thanks to Lorenzo, the author asserted, that ‘I managed not to forget that I myself was a man‘.
Demonstrating remarkable philosophical insight, the author saw beyond his traumatic experience to distil several key recommendations on how to stem the type of prejudice and hatred that led to the holocaust. For example, he cautioned against mindless adherence and obedience to charismatic leaders because this is the root cause of the denial of liberty and equality that Nazism eventually symbolised. He also cautioned against the pernicious creed of perceiving strangers as enemies, a dogma he said everyone should recognise as a ‘sinister alarm-signal‘ (page 15). He also warned about the potential risk of hatred developing in survivors of harsh circumstances, a terrible emotion which may manifest as ‘a thirst for revenge, as a moral capitulation, as denial, as weariness, as renunciation’ (pages 188-189). However, with a commendable generosity of spirit, the author urged people to understand the circumstances which drive the unethical behaviour of those who went through life-threatening conditions, asking rhetorically, ‘how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire‘, this ‘inexhaustible fount of evil‘ (pages 83-92).
This book delves into the human qualities that arise when life is stretched to its most extreme. With the holocaust as setting, it offers a rare perspective of how low human nature can get, and the qualities that mark those who transcend the degradation they find themselves in. The lessons of the book arise from the meaning that such abject circumstances embody with the author eloquently demonstrating how, even in extreme situations, people can illuminate the darkness and give meaning to their suffering. Seeing beyond the grimness of the camps, the author highlighted the elevating qualities that give hope for humanity, thereby encouraging people in similar circumstances to focus on doing the little good they can to overcome overwhelming evil.
The key message of this book, how to face the most challenging of situations, is relevant in healthcare where patients and their carers confront unimaginable physical, mental, and social conditions. The author has extracted lessons from the camp life that are applicable to those looking for meaning in their disabilities and pending mortality. His very understanding and philosophical perspective, unsullied by any feelings of regret or bitterness, is an important lesson for those who have faced any form of hardship. The book’s exploration of compassion in the face of disaster is relevant to health care, and I recommended it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Abacus, London, 1987
Number of chapters: 34
Number of pages: 398
Star rating: 5