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Chapter Course Reader

EURO 3300 Chapter Notes - Chapter Course Reader: If This Is A Man, Primo Levi, Monowitz Concentration Camp

European Studies
Course Code
EURO 3300
Roberta Cauchi- Santoro
Course Reader

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Thursday February 2nd, 2017
If This Is A Man – Primo Levi:
1. The Journey:
I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943 I was 24, with little wisdom, no
experience and a decided tendency encourage by the life of segregation forced on me for
the previous 4 years by the racial laws to live in an unrealistic world of my own, a world
inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female friendships
It had been by no means easy to flee into the mountains and to help set up what should have
become a partisan band affiliated with the Resistance movement Justice and Liberty.
Contacts, arms, money and the experience needed to acquire them were all missing. We
lacked capable men, and instead we were swamped by a deluge of outcasts, in good or bad
faith, who came from the plain in search of a non-existent military or political organization, of
arms, or merely of protection, a hiding place, a fire, a pair of shoes
Three Fascist Militia companies, which had set out in the night to surprise a much more
powerful and dangerous band than ours, broke into our refuge one spectral snowy dawn and
took me down to the valley as a suspect person
During the interrogations that followed, I preferred to admit my status of ‘Italian citizen of
Jewish race’
As a Jew, I was sent to Fossoli, near Modena, where a vast detention camp, originally meant
for English and American prisoners-of-war, collected all the numerous categories of people
not approved of by the new-born Fascist Republic
At the moment of my arrival, at the end of January 1944, there were about 150 Italian Jews in
the camp, but within a few weeks their number rose to over 600…There were also about 100
Jugoslavian military internees and a few other foreigners who were politically suspect
On 20 February, the Germans had inspected the camp with care and publicly and loudly
upbraided the Italian commissar for defective organization of the kitchen service and for the
scarce amount of wood distribution for heating; they even said an infirmary would soon be
opened. But on the morning of the 21st we learned that on the following day the Jews would
be leaving. All the Jews, without exception. Even the children, even the old, even the ill. Our
destination? Nobody knew. We should be prepared for a fortnight of travel. For every person
missing at the roll-call, 10 would be shot
And night came, and it was such a night that one knew that human eyes would not witness it
and survive. Everyone felt this: not one of the guards, neither Italian nor German, had the
courage and come see what men do when they know they have to die
All took leave from life in the manner that most suited them. Some praying, some deliberately
drunk, others lustfully intoxicated for the last time. But the mothers stayed up to prepare the
food for the journey with tender care, and washed their children and packed the luggage; and
at dawn the barbed wire was full of children’s washing hung out in the wind to dry. Nor did
they forget the diapers, the toys, the cushions and the hundred other small things which
mothers remember and which children always need
Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our
enemies to assist in our destruction. The different emotions that overcame us, of resignation,
of futile rebellion, of religious abandon, of fear, of despair, now joined together after a
sleepless night in a collective, uncontrolled panic. The time for meditation, the time for
decision was over, and all reason dissolved into a tumult, across which flashed the happy
memories of our homes, still so near in time and space, as painful as the thrusts of a sword
With the absurd precision to which we later had to accustom ourselves, the Germands held
the roll-call. At the end the officer asked ‘Wieviel Stuck?’ The corporal saluted smartly and
replied that there were 650 ‘pieces’ and that all was in order. They then loaded us onto the
bus and took us to the station of Carpi. Here the train was waiting for us, with our escort for
the journey. Here we received the first blows: and it was no new and senseless that we felt
no pain, neither in body nor in spirit. Only a profound amazement: how can one hit a man
without anger?
There were 12 goods wagons for 650 men; in mine we were only 45, but it was a small
wagon. Here then, before our very eyes, under our very feet, was one of those notorious
transport trains, those which never return, and of which, shuddering and always a little

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Thursday February 2nd, 2017
incredulous, we had so often heard speak. Exactly like this, detail for detail: goods wagons
closed from the outside, with men, women, and children pressed together without pity, like
cheap merchandise, for a journey towards nothingness, a journey down there, towards the
bottom. This time it is us who are inside.
The doors had been closed at once, but the train did not move until evening. We had learnt of
our destination with relief. Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at
least implied some place on this earth
Among the 45 people in my wagon only 4 saw their homes again; and it was by far the most
fortunate wagon
There was a long halt in open country. The train started up with extreme slowness, and the
convoy stopped for the last time, in the dead of night, in the middle of a dark silent pain
On both sides of the track rows of red and white lights appeared as far as the eye could see;
but there was none of that confusion of sounds which betrays inhabited places even from a
distance. By the wretched light of the last candle, with the rhythm of the wheels, with every
human sound now silenced, we awaited what was to happen
The climax came suddenly. The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with
outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give
vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit up by reflectors. A little
beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to
climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was
swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself
with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper
A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment they
moved among us, and in subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us
rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian…‘How old? Healthy or ill?’ And on the basis of the reply
they pointed in two different directions
Everything was as silent as an aquarium, or as in certain dream sequences. We had
expected something more apocalyptic: they seemed simple police agents. It was
disconcerting and disarming. Someone dared to ask for his luggage: they replied, ‘luggage
afterwards’. Someone else did not want to leave his wife: they said, ‘together again
afterwards’. Many mothers did not want to be separated from their children: they said ‘good,
good, stay with child’. They behaved with the calm assurance of people doing their normal
duty of every day. But Renzo stayed an instant too long to say good-bye to Francesca, his
fiancée, and with a single blow they knocked him to the ground. It was their everyday duty
In less than 10 minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group…Thus, in an
instant, our women, our parents, our children disappeared. We saw them for a short while as
an obscure mass at the other end of the platform; then we saw nothing more.
Instead, two groups of strange individuals emerged into the light of the lamps. They walked in
squads, in rows of three, with an odd, embarrassed step, head dangling in front, arms rigid.
On their heads they wore comic berets and were all dressed in long striped overcoats, which
even by night and from a distance looked filthy and in rags. They walked in a large circle
around us, never drawing near, and in silence began to busy themselves with our luggage
and to climb in and out of the empty wagons
We looked at each other without a word. It was all incomprehensible and mad, but one thing
we had understood: This was the metamorphosis that awaited us. Tomorrow we would be
like them
2: On The Bottom:
The journey did not last more than 20 minutes. Then the lorry stopped, and we saw a large
door, and above it a sign, brightly illuminated: Arbeit Macht Frei, work gives freedom
We climbed down, they make us enter an enormous empty room that is poorly heated. We
have a terrible thirst. The weak gurgle of the water in the radiators makes us ferocious; we
have had nothing to drink for 4 days. But there is also a tap and above it a card which says
that it is forbidden to drink as the water is dirty. Nonsense. It seems obvious that the card is a
joke, ‘they’ know that we are dying of thirst and they put us in a room, and there is a tap, and
Wassertrinken Verboten
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