'If This Is A Man' by Primo Levi: Book Review

About the Author
Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919. He was a Jewish Italian, although claims in this book that he never pursued vigorous religious activity after his Bar Mitzvah as a teenager. He studied Chemistry and the University of Turin, but his graduation and attempts to find a job were made increasingly difficult by the anti-Semitic laws coming into place in Italy. Eventually he joined an anti-Fascist partisans group and hid in the Alps, but his group were eventually discovered by Fascist militia. If Levi had confessed to being an Italian partisan, he would have been immediately executed; however, admitting he was Jewish, he was sent to Auschwitz-Monowitz (or 'Auschwitz III') in February 1944 and remained there until liberation. Levi wrote many books, autobiographical but also scientific, after the war. He died in 1987 after falling from the third storey of his residental building. General consensus is that he committed suicide.

About the Book
I bought my copy of 'If This Is A Man' from a small, old bookshop in the quiet Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, famed for its bookshops and literary festivals. The edition I have is quite a keepsake: it was printed in 2000 by The Folio Society and comes in its own case. Certainly a worthy investment, I think.

Levi's testimony is different to that of many Holocaust testimonies I have read because of his imprisonment in Monowitz rather than Auschwitz I or Auschwitz-Birkenau. During my trip to Oswiecim, I did visit the former site, but all that remains is one barrack and a memorial - for a little more detail on this, please see my previous post. He talks about the hard labour he endured and his later promotion to working in a chemistry laboratory in the complex, rather than gas chambers and crematoria, of which he fortunately had no experience.
The book is not overly emotional, but the bare facts are laid out. Levi speaks plainly about starvation, death, the lack of sanitary conditions and also factors such as 'organising' (theft), gossip among prisoners and the respect given to older prisoners, whose numbers were smaller. He admits that the camp numbed his emotions; that sometimes dead bodies lay where they were because no one had the strength or particular worry to move them; that more experienced prisoners could be scornful of the 'High Numbers' that asked so many questions. His determination to survive is certainly admirable; in the opening of the book, he even states that it was his 'good fortune' to only be sent to Auschwitz in 1944! Furthermore, his descriptions of those around him, their different characteristics and their ways of coping are interesting cases of individuality and how one copes in the most unthinkable of situations.

This version of the book also contains an Afterword where Levi has answered many common questions. Indeed, on the several occasions I have heard Holocaust survivors speak, the same questions crop up again and again, particularly from school pupils. Levi addresses some of these, such as 'Can you ever forgive the Germans?', 'Have you been back to Auschwitz since?' and 'Why do you think the Nazis hated the Jews so much?' In my opinion, the answers to the eight or so questions are all expertly written, with a sense of neutrality rather than absolute bias and hatred.

Levi asks us to consider 'If This Is A Man'; my concrete answer is yes, that is exactly what he shows himself to be. Throughout the desperate situation he is in and despite some of the shocking truths he reveals, he shows the will to carry on, to muster any dignity he has left and to keep the morale of his fellow prisoners going, whether through talking to them or helping to 'organise' food or materials to share. Yes; and what a man.

Recommended for...
Students of History, Psychology and Sociology would benefit from this, I am sure, but then again, so would anyone who chooses to pick this book up. You will not be disappointed. There is little wonder it is so famous.