Primo Levi's Use of Poetic Language to Promote Cross-Cultural Understanding in "Survival in Auschwitz"

By Kristina S. Ten
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Though the Holocaust ended nearly a lifetime ago, the systematic extermination of two- thirds of Europe’s Jewish population has left immutable memories that continue to manifest themselves within each new generation of citizens worldwide. The subject itself remains taboo in many circles, surpassing lines of faith and race alike in both its inability to be justified and the terrifying likelihood of its reoccurrence. In Caren S. Neile’s “Poetry after Auschwitz,” the author asks: “Again and again the expression ‘unspeakable horror’ appears in discussions of the period. How, one might ask, is it possible to speak of what has been deemed unspeakable?”

Neile poses the same question that writers, readers and, most directly, Holocaust survivors have been attempting to answer for the past sixty years. When it comes to an era so devastating and a word – Holocaust – so rightfully laden with feelings of shock, dread and shame, how is a writer to go about addressing the events and their repercussions with both honesty and sensitivity? Moreover, how can a memoirist, a survivor of the crimes themselves, put forth a historically accurate account without tainting facts and meanings with fervor and other remnants of his or her memory? Decades of post-war literature have produced a variety of potential answers, with the “strictly facts” approach of high school history books on one end of the spectrum and the passionate, albeit sometimes abstract, appeals of poetry on the other. Advocates and authors of the former prefer the clarity of dates and statistics in light of the importance of conveying the truth, while poets and lyrical writers may insist that the emotions that accompany the experience remain, irrevocably, part of the complete truth of the Holocaust.

Aristotle said, “Poetry is more philosophical and of higher value than history; for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular” (Poetry America). Primo Levi, the Jewish- Italian author of Survival in Auschwitz, seems to favor this approach as well, using poetic and literary devices to recount his time in the concentration camp before the 1945 liberation. However, this poetic style does not take away from the historical credibility of the author and his experiences; rather, it allows readers to engage more closely within these experiences, ultimately serving as a unifying text for people of all ages, backgrounds and denominations. Levi’s use of language, universal truths, metaphors, allusions, and absurdity throughout his memoir allow the horrors of the Holocaust – though very particular to its direct victims and survivors – to become universal, revealing aspects of humanity that are steadfast between nations and generations, over oceans and time alike.

Poetry (“poetry” is used throughout this essay as more or less an opposite to the standard text found in historical textbooks) is often identified as a language of its own, capable of exceeding the limits of all others, and an ideal means for communicating the human condition to all people. Perhaps Levi’s most noticeably recurring device throughout Survival in Auschwitz is his inclusion of the variety of European languages used within the camp – all with very little, if any at all, accompanying translation. Levi shifts from his native Italian to phrases, both in and out of dialogue, in German, Polish, French and Yiddish. This informs readers that in the camp, unless you were German, your background could not protect you: each prisoner’s past experiences and accomplishments were equalized by erasure upon their arrival at the camp. In fact, as they were no longer considered “men” (or “human”), each prisoner hardly had a past life at all. Beyond being ostracizing, this absence of a shared language could often prove dangerous, a matter of life or death: “The confusion of languages is a fundamental component of the manner of living here: one is surrounded by a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before, and woe betide whoever fails to grasp the meaning” (38).

Levi’s use of many languages with no common translation allows readers to see through the author’s eyes during his time at Auschwitz, to feel his sense of abandonment and exclusion and to better understand the lack of human connection as a direct result of the absence of a shared language. Conversely, this device can also reveal moments of deep human connection, as with the common recognition of the word “bread,” which almost instantly became synonymous with the word “life” itself: “bread-Brot-Broid-chleb-pain-leehem-keyner” (39). While reading certain passages, readers may feel frustrated, confused or panicked just as Levi did at the time, though of course on a much smaller and safer scale. Nevertheless, if the ultimate knowledge comes from experience, Levi’s method of bringing readers into the atmosphere of the Holocaust through his words surely promotes the discovery, rather than the obstruction, of the highest truth.

Levi continues to make his particular experience universally accessible by including universal truths among his own anecdotes and accounts of interactions. Most members of post- war generations would admit they could not even imagine the horrors of the Holocaust; though feelings of guilt and disgust are hard to avoid when reading post-war literature, Levi does well to avoid alienating his readers by including bits of recognizable truth that virtually everyone can relate to on some level. These are the passages that border on philosophical, with statements like “Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable...the certainty of death opposes it” and “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one” (17,150). These concepts, though considered true so widely that few would aim to argue, are not the sort of facts found in strictly historical accounts of war. They deal with the emotional beyond the rational and allow for clearer understanding of the mental and physical suffering endured by Levi and other survivors.

“To be a Jew is to know that words strive after the reality but can never adequately capture the human situation,” says Neile. “What is the word in an age when Jews were condemned to death as a people, condemned simply because they were Jews? Where is the 'word' then? What does literature signify in the face of such total condemnation? (“Poetry after Auschwitz”). When one word or image will not suffice to describing the “indescribable” events of the Holocaust, many post-war authors turn to metaphors and allusions to draw comparisons between a foreign, inaccessible act or idea and something readers may be more familiar with. Here, Levi’s lyricism bridges the gap between one reader’s mind and the next, and the various meanings each may draw from a particular phrase or passage. Many metaphors in the text serve as comparisons between the prisoners of Auschwitz and different animals. In today’s society, people of all races and genders have the right to vote, same-sex marriage is slowly but surely being recognized around the world, and it may be hard for present and future generations to understand the concept of the “subhuman being.” Levi’s man-to-animal metaphors illustrate the point that, not so long ago, some men were very seriously considered inferior, others superior, and others yet not “men” at all.

This hierarchy was the basis of Hitler’s eugenics program and was subsequently implemented in Auschwitz and other camps across the continent. Levi states that in the work camp, “we [the prisoners] are only tired beasts” (44). He later goes on to explain the Kapos’ treatment of the Jewish inmates: “some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load almost cart-drivers do with willing horses” (67). Though animals are considered inferior to humans to this day, Levi later provides an even greater example of the levels of degradation and dehumanization faced by prisoners in the camp by drawing comparisons to various inanimate objects and materials. In one passage, Levi describes a scene with the camp nurse: “he stoops to press on my tibia with his thumb, and shows the other [nurse] the deep impression that his finger leaves in the pale flesh, as if it was wax” (49). Here, Levi is made out to be nothing more than a corpse or an anatomical model of something nearly human but not quite. On page 16, Levi describes his first role call ceremony, during which the German corporal looked about the lines of prisoners and announced that “there were six hundred and fifty ‘pieces,” the Jews now nothing more than units for some brief and largely inconsequential use.

Where a historical account might simply tell readers about the perceptions and treatment of Jews by Germans and other authorities in the camp, Levi and other writers with a more poetic prose are able to show these interactions through words and images readers can understand. However, Levi does look towards history at points in the text to allude to both fact and myth for readers to use as points of reference for understanding certain events and emotions. When Levi stands before Doktor Pannwitz to perform the chemical examination, he says he “feel[s] like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx” (105). On page 107 he compares Alex to the devils of Malabolge, a reference to Dante. Levi goes on to discuss the latter elaborately in Chapter 11: The Canto of Ulysses, where he extends the metaphor of Auschwitz as hell and the prisoners as dead or dying souls. These allusions are used to the same end as the aforementioned metaphors, in hopes of fostering a clear and open understanding of the Holocaust from the survivor's point of view, and in a sense rewriting a more inclusive, interactive history. In “Primo Levi’s Sense of History,” Stuart Woolf writes, “What [Levi] offers the reader is a highly literary history of humanity, in which the stories of the Bible and of classical mythology stand out. It is as if it were a universal history, to be read as a search for origins, like German sagas, in is possible to find traces of ancient civilizations which had disappeared since time immemorial.”

Along with the aforementioned literary devices, Levi’s tone and use of absurdity and irony throughout the memoir are essential to the text’s ability to compel and communicate to all readers, particularly those beyond his own generation. Though he sometimes breaks into sweeping physical descriptions and goes off on philosophical tangents, for the most part Levi’s narrative tone is fairly matter-of-fact, raw with some evidence of restraint. Though a highly sentimental, impassioned or guilt-ridden tone would certainly be justifiable considering the subject matter, these narrations would make readers feel uncomfortable and excluded. It is a widely understood today that the Holocaust was horrifying beyond comprehension, and by omitting such claims and tones from his memoir, Levi displays a trust in the reader’s intellect and compassion. Instead, Levi opts for an honest tone that is so sincere as to break at points of absurdity, showing the author’s own incredulity at the memoir’s contents and inviting readers to reach a new level of understanding. These moments of absurdity allow readers a glimpse into Levi’s particular case, his psyche and instinctive reactions to certain events in Auschwitz. On the other hand, a sentimental tone would be permissible but useless, as readers would only feel an expansion of the pity and shame they may already have been anticipating from a piece of post- war literature.

Throughout his stay in Auschwitz and throughout the memoir, Levi begins to accept merciless psychological abuse and constant, excruciating physical pain as the status quo of the camp, treating smaller injustices like great blessings. For the overwhelming majority of readers who have not been through a similarly, impossibly trying experience, Levi’s musings seem completely absurd. Though absurd or irrational comments like these may hinder the credibility of some authors, in this case they only serve to strengthen the reader’s understanding of Levi’s mindset before, during and after his time at the camp. On page 45 of the text, the author says (in a tone that could be read as either genuinely grateful or deeply sarcastic – here I prefer the former, assuming the latter is a defense mechanism that disappeared early during his time in Auschwitz): “I only receive two blows on the head, of the sort that do no harm but simply stun.” On the following page, after explaining the gas chamber selection process in Ka-Be, Levi says: “All this because we, fortunately, belong to the category of ‘economically useful Jews.’” In the same scene, the author “rejoices” with his friend over having been told he has “a good wound” (47).

In today’s world, one of doctors, medical advancements and the luxury of self-diagnosis through websites like WebMD, “a good wound” would be considered an oxymoron. Similarly, the “momentary pleasure” of “bodies resting” that Levi and his fellow prisoners felt while “piled up on top of each other like dead men” is an image and feeling virtually unattainable to those who have not experienced such all-encompassing exhaustion (119). However, through these tone changes, Levi’s form is able to match his content as all strive to pull readers as close into the experience – and the revelation of the truth – as possible.

There will always be an enormous portion of the Holocaust that we cannot and will not understand. Perhaps many of us will be grateful for this oblivion, the blissful absence of firsthand knowledge of the world’s worst crimes against humankind; crimes at the hand of human nature itself. Nevertheless, it remains our responsibility to understand as much as possible, to recognize the villains and the victims and to find, at the core of each, a man. Italian director of Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, once said, “As a turning point in humanity, [the Holocaust] belongs to everybody in the world. It is a part of humanity” (“Holocaust”). Nothing is more human than to hope, a feeling that cannot be qualified by the dates and statistics in history books. Levi ends Survival in Auschwitz not with a booming testimony or conclusive point, but rather with a small, quiet sense of hope – hope, perhaps, than his work will join other post-war literature in an exploration of human nature and human error, and the deplorable consequences that can result if human beings do not strive to understand one another.


“Holocaust.” WikiQuote. 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. Touchstone Edition. Trans. Stuart Woolf. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996.

Neile, Caren S. "Poetry after Auschwitz: Emotion and Culture in Fictional Representations of the Holocaust." Innovation: The European Journal of Social Sciences 10.4 (1997): 405-417.  Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

Poetry America. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

Woolf, Stuart. "Primo Levi's sense of history." Journal of Modern Italian Studies 3.3 (1998): 273. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

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