Intellectual Survival in Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Struggle

Primo Levi was arrested and brought to Auschwitz along with six hundred and fifty other people.  Only one hundred and fifty people were allowed into the prison camp of Auschwitz, however.  The remaining five hundred and fifteen people were immediately killed in gas chambers.  Levi happened to be one of the survivors.  All the same, the kind of survival experienced by most people in Auschwitz, as described in Levi’s autobiographical book, Survival in Auschwitz, merely consisted of breathing, eating, and sleeping – the fulfillment of basic human needs – in an extremely humiliating environment.

     Once Levi had entered the prison camp of Auschwitz, he was stripped naked and his head was shaved.  He was presented with a striped uniform and an identification number.  Moreover, the food that he was given was always insufficient to meet his consumption needs.  Thousands of his fellow prisoners died because of starvation, but Levi survived.  Of course, he was determined to survive, which is the reason why he never protested against the work that was forced upon the prisoners.

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  He knew that disobedience of any kind was ended quickly with beatings, if not death.

     While countless fellow prisoners of his lost their lives to disease in Auschwitz, Levi was fortunate to have been sent to an infirmary in order to recover at the time he had suffered an injury.  Although there were no medicines available to him, Levi was able to rest at the infirmary before returning to work.  All the same, it was not manual labor that seemed to have helped him survive as much as his intellectual pursuits.

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  Levi held a Chemistry degree which allowed him to work indoors in the Chemistry Command.  While a large number of his fellow prisoners working outdoors suffered and died in their inadequate winter clothing, Levi survived because he was educated enough to perform a highly skilled indoor job.

     Thus, the most important reason for Levi’s survival seems to have been his intellectual life.  Psychology of aging is advanced enough in our times to inform us that longevity is strongly associated with intellectual pursuits.  Levi was a thinker, although he writes: “It was better not to think (32).”  The author of Survival in Auschwitz also mentions that thinking may be a source of keeping sensitivity alive.

Sensitivity is a concept that is intimately connected with humanness.  So, although Levi writes that thinking could be “harmful, because it keeps alive a sensitivity which is a source of pain,” the reader is made to believe in the benefits of thinking for Levi’s life in Auschwitz (171).  Furthermore, the author meditates on language.  He writes that the prisoners talked a lot in the camp.  It can be inferred from this memory of Levi that he must have continued to develop his thinking through his conversations.

     Seeing that people who are brain dead are considered dead, the body is not as important in survival as the brain, although the brain cannot survive without the body.  Still, there are people who are paralyzed in their bodies but have working brains.  Regardless of the real meaning of survival in religious, philosophical and medical thinking combined – the fact remains that the survival of Levi was largely due to his working intellect.

He had to contemplate passing a Chemistry exam.  Moreover, he could have died during winter if he had not been accepted for work at Chemistry Command.  While many of his fellow prisoners may have survived simply by breathing, eating, and sleeping, and many others died; the survival of Levi seems to have been dependent on his intellect.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Intellectual Survival in Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Struggle. (2017, Mar 20). Retrieved from

Intellectual Survival in Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Struggle essay
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