I came to this book with ‘Arbeit macht frei’ ringing in my ears from a recent TV documentary, as it happens within a few pages the ironwork sign that is ‘Work makes freedom’ rears its ugly head with a morbid predictability.
The unknown is probably the most terrifying aspect of this book, the idea of not knowing where or when or what anything carries with it deep undertones that resonate against the basic instincts of humanity. This is furthered by the knowledge of history that allows the reader a terrifying insight into Levi’s destiny, the level of human naivety is explained in often bizarre but completely understandable circumstances.
The story is told honestly from a first hand account. In that respect the focus tends towards the daily running of a concentration camp rather than the genocide for which it is synonymous. It’s about day to day survival, the wooden shoes, the constant toil and unimaginably inhuman conditions. Some aspects of daily life are depicted throughout in unrelenting detail, the striped prisoners shirt and trousers being a good example. The process of replacing a button involves finding one, then a needle and thread to sow it on with, all which will need to be exchanged for the already scarce daily ration of soup.
One of the most shocking aspects of everything that is forced upon the prisoners is the humiliating nature of dehumanization, the process of reducing of a body people to a level far below that of the lowest animal imaginable. For me personally the idea of adults being forced to stand naked in front of each other is for some reason particularly harrowing. Compared to the idea of death itself nudity shouldn’t really be an issue, but I’ve always thought that if humans are stripped of the simple modesty that clothing affords then a collapse in dignity and self respect results. It’s this simple lack of dignity and respect that reduces the characters in the book to the sub human.
Death is never far away, whether it be through simple exhaustion or the grotesquely whimsical nature of selection, the destiny of which is left in no doubt whatsoever. The prisoners submissive resignation in the face of death being the result of a continuous cycle of starvation and grinding brutality, the likes of which formed a pivotal point surrounding ideas of humanity in the 20th century.
The cold also features heavily. The prisoners anticipate winter like it will probably be the one in which they wont survive, day after day of forced labour in freezing conditions often being too much for a starved and essentially naked person. The nature of the cold is beyond the comprehension of the reader, and as with many other aspects of daily life the levels extend beyond the descriptive abilities of any human language.
The fine detail also describes the absurdity of the situation in which the prisoners find themselves. For instance, on arrival they are left naked in a dark room a foot deep in freezing water, thinking that this is for them to bathe they ask for their tooth brushes. Not an unreasonable request given their knowledge at the time, but an utterly insane and even a darkly humorous one in an historical context.
The book also serves as a fascinating insight into the basics of a market economy, the swapping of lumps of bread for a homemade spoon or bowl without which one cannot eat the merge daily ration. The supply, demand and availability of obscure items like a broom, piece of cotton, matchsticks or string. Influence also plays a great part in the mini economy as well as the day to day survival effort, it’s all about who knows who and what that person can steal or make. Even the smallest contact could somehow put a prisoner one step ahead of the next man, which in turn could mean the difference between life and death. With the everyman for himself nature of survival Levi finds himself questioning the behavior of his own people as he does that of his oppressors.
The second book in this edition, The Truce, is an altogether different vibe that details Levis friendships and scrapes as he journeys back to Italy via Russia and eastern Europe. It is a fascinating account of how humans manage to get by through improvisation, bartering and relentless persistence. His description of his traveling companions and how they deal with the unknown nature of almost everything is warm with humility and humor. Like If This Is a Man, Levi refuses to indulge in self pity and hatred, preferring instead to highlight the more positive nature of the human under pressure
At the end of the book the author answers a number of questions that have been asked over the years, like why the Jews didn’t rebel or refuse to go along with the Nazi solution. A ridiculously naive question that I’ve always posed and to which I now know the answer.
If This Is a Man is without doubt one of the most profound stories I’ve read. The human decency and intelligence displayed in the writing has a deeply moving quality that leaves the reader as inspired as it does horrified. Despite everything that occurred Levi manages to tell the story in fine detail and with a brutal honesty. That he manages this without allowing himself to indulge in an understandable hated of Nazism stands as a testimony to his character, that of a fine example of humanity.