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The Autobiographical Novel Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi (1958)

 a  “This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap which drips while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens, and nothing continues to happen.”

(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 22.)
 b  “Here I am, then, on the bottom. One learns quickly enough to wipe out the past and the future when one is forced to. A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body. I have already learnt not to let myself be robbed, and in fact if I find a spoon lying around, a piece of string, a button which I can acquire without danger of punishment, I pocket them and consider them mine by full right. On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 36–37.)
 c  “[I]n this place everything is forbidden, not for hidden reasons, but because the camp has been created for this purpose.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 29.)
 d  “In fact, we are the untouchables to the civilians. They think, more or less explicitly—with all the nuances lying between contempt and  commiseration—that as we have been condemned to this life of ours, reduced to our condition, we must be tainted by some mysterious, grave sin. They hear us speak in many different languages, which they do not understand and which sound to them as grotesque as animal noises; they see us reduced to ignoble slavery, without hair, without honor and without names, beaten every day, more abject every day, and they never see in our eyes a light of rebellion, or of peace, or of faith. They know us as thieves and untrustworthy, muddy, ragged and starving, and mistaking the effect for the cause, they judge us worthy of our abasement. Who could tell one of our faces from another? For them we are Kazet, a singular neuter word.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 120–121.)
 e  The reverse is illustrated by the description of a day on which Levi can sate his hunger with additional soup: “At sunset, the siren of the Feierabend sounds, the end of work; and as we are all satiated, at least for a few hours, no quarrels arise, we feel good, the Kapo feels no urge to hit us, and we are able to think of our mothers and wives, which usually does not happen. For a few hours we can be unhappy in the manner of free men.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 76.)
 f  “I have a ticket from the Arbeitsdienst in my pocket, on which it is written that Häftling 174517, as a specialized worker, has the right to a new shirt and underpants and must be shaved every Wednesday. The ravaged Buna lies under the first snows, silent and stiff like an enormous corpse; every day the sirens of the Fliegeralarm wail; the Russians are fifty miles away. The electric power station has stopped, the methanol rectification columns no longer exist, three of the four acetylene gasometers have been blown up. Prisoners ‘reclaimed’ from all the camps in east Poland pour into our Lager haphazardly; the minority are set to work, the majority leave immediately for Birkenau and the Chimney. The ration has been still further reduced. The Ka-Be is overflowing, the E-Häftlinge have brought scarlet fever, diphtheria and petechial typhus into the camp. But Häftling 174517 has been promoted as a specialist and has the right to a new shirt and underpants and must be shaved every Wednesday. No one can boast of understanding the Germans.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 139.)

“Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say ‘hunger,’ we say ‘tiredness,’ ‘fear,’ ‘pain,’ we say ‘winter’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole 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.”[1]


In his autobiographical novel Se questo è un uomo (Engl. If This Is a Man or Survival in Auschwitz), the Italian survivor Primo Levi describes his imprisonment in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. Beginning with his arrest by the fascist militia in December 1943, the text follows Primo Levi’s experience in the following 12 months as a prisoner in the National Socialists’ Buna/Monowitz  concentration camp, 7 kilometers (4 miles) east of Auschwitz. Upon arriving in the camp, the first-person narrator, Primo Levi, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, enters a world that renders him speechless; only by making literary references to Dante’s Inferno can he manage to sketch its contours.  a  After the humiliating intake procedures, he realizes that the goal of the place to which they have been brought is the psychological and physical destruction of the inmates.  b  The prisoner Levi, “Number 174517,” learns more and more about the camp and the inhumane conditions there.  c 


Primo Levi describes minutely and thoughtfully the daily routine, heavy labor, and mistreatment by prisoner functionaries and SS men, the countless harassments extending into every sphere of life that negate everything once taken for granted. His precise depiction of individual incidents and routines enables the reader to infer the futility and horror that characterize the camp and the prisoners’ dealings with each other—and indicates how far the Lager is from a “normality” that exists on a parallel plane. The camp leads him, in Dante’s words, “into the depths,” into a hell. Primo Levi thinks up—expressly from a postwar perspective, from the vantage point of “today, at this very moment”[2]—possible interpretations of his (then) situation.  d  The narrator creates distance, for example, by taking positions expressed as indirect quotations: “Did I not know that […]?”[3] the narrator Levi wonders, looking back at his own misfortune. Sometimes the narrator individualizes his experience from a first-person perspective, but often he writes as one of the group of prisoners (“we”), who, addressed by their numbers and counted in terms of “pieces,” were dehumanized by the SS: “We are only tired beasts.”[4] e  Primo Levi survives the harsh labor detachments until he is accepted into a skilled workers’ detachment in November 1944, to work as a chemist.  f  Until January 1945, he “is allowed” to work in the lab, out of the snow and cold, until he develops scarlet fever and, left behind in the infirmary, witnesses the liberation of the camp by the Red Army.


If This Is a Man takes its title from a poem by Primo Levi, which vehemently calls for keeping alive the memory of the inhumane German concentration camps, of Auschwitz. Primo Levi himself wrote the book, his first literary text and his second text about Auschwitz, after a report on the medical conditions in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, out of a desire “to bear witness, to make my voice heard by […] those who hanged Ultimo [people described in Survival in Auschwitz] and by their heirs.”[5] He raises fundamental questions about the possibility of bearing witness to what is unimaginable. Thirty years later, Primo Levi returned explicitly to these questions, and in I sommersi e i salvati (1986; English: The Drowned and the Saved, 1988) he writes:


“I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion of which I have become convinced little by little, reading the memoirs of others and reading mine at a distance of years. We survivors are only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom.”[6]


If This Is a Man can be seen as a point of departure and reference text for Levi’s entire body of work. Like the “literarized” accounts of survival by Jean Améry or Elie Wiesel, it has served as a reference for numerous interpretations and reflections in the fields of cultural studies and philosophy.


Se questo è un uomowas first published by De Silva in 1947, but it reached a substantial audience only in the second, expanded, edition, published by Einaudi in 1958 and used as a basis for numerous translations into many languages.

(SP; transl. KL)


Benchouiha, Lucie: Primo Levi. Rewriting the Holocaust. Leicester: Troubador, 2006.

Levi, Primo: Si questo è un uomo. Torino: Einaudi, 1958.

Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Levi, Primo: I sommersi e i salvati. Torino: Einaudi, 1986.

Levi, Primo: The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Levi, Primo / de Benedetti, Leonardo: “Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz—Upper Silesia).” In: Primo Levi: Auschwitz Report. London/New York: Verso, 2006, pp. 31–78.

[1] Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 123.

[2] Levi: Survival, p. 103.

[3] Levi: Survival, p. 47.

[4] Levi: Survival, p. 44.

[5] Primo Levi: From a letter to the translator of the German version, reproduced in The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 174.

[6] Levi: The Drowned, p. 83.