To Lie on the Bottom
To Lie on the Bottom
There is a reason that World War II and the Holocaust are considered turning points in human history, a point from which everything changed: philosophy, art, music, film, architecture, politics, history, even the very concept of humanity was altered in an often imperceptible way. Something in us died; extinguished by a darkness so all-encompassing and cold that all hope and beauty and reason and love could not survive it, nothing could, not even God himself. This darkness, this ephemeral force worse than death eventually destroyed Primo Levi, but what it couldn’t destroy, was his soul.
His soul witnessed and suffered something worse than death, “a journey towards nothingness, a journey down there, towards the bottom”(Levi, 17) and this tale from the very bottom of hell showed us a side of man never before seen. Dante’s Inferno where there is no God or heaven or right or wrong, but only hunger and despair. A moral hierarchy envisaged by the masterminds of the Final Solution, a cold, remorseless world where the innocent are destroyed and the strong enslaved.
A world guided by the “ferocious law which states: ‘to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away’. ”(88) The hierarchy of this realm is distant from the rest of humanity, a timeless realm devoid of any remnants of what has been or what is yet to be. A barren, flat, colorless landscape scarred by never-ending paths of metal and wood all leading into the maw of a churning, smoke belching monster marked with a grim, foreboding preface “Arbeit Macht Frei, work gives freedom”(22).
This is Auschwitz, a place unlike anywhere else in the annals of human history, “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”(22). In a place where the old, the young, and the weak are swallowed into the night and are gone forever, in a godless place like this nothing is as it should be.
At the top of this mad house lies the most depraved of all, for in this place the insane rule over the sane, and the cold, mechanical fist of the S. S. is law. An extension of the mad-man responsible for this place, they are hand-picked and forged into thoughtless, remorseless killing machines and entrusted with Hitler’s most important goal: the destruction of the Jew. Little is said about these brutal men, they are above the camp and therefore distant from it, the camp to them is merely their work place and “they behave with the calm assurance of people doing their normal duty of every day.
” At times they speak to the prisoners like animals whipping them into attention “in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seem to give vent to a millennial anger”, but during the selections when they decide who lives or dies with the slightest glance they are indifferent and speak “in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone… We had expected something more apocalyptic: they seemed simple police agents.
It was disconcerting and disarming”(19). Levi would soon discover that despite their outward appearance, these cold agents of doom were the most apocalyptic men on earth entrusted with the unspeakable mission of the destruction of his people. Below the SS men in the next rung of hell resided the ‘Prominenz’, inhabitants of Block 7 in which no regular prisoner has ever entered, they were “the aristocracy, the internees holding the highest post”(32).
Below them were the Reichsdeutsche, the Aryan Germans, and the Kapos “they were particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals, installed (following an investiture by the SS command, which showed itself in such choices to possess satanic knowledge of human beings) in the posts of Kapos, Blockaltester, etc”(89).
These individuals established the backbone of authority, doling out punishment with reckless abandon knowing in the back of their heads if they showed the slightest hesitancy or remorse they would be quickly disposed of. Below them resided the rest of the political prisoners and British POW’s who were given special privileges and leniency. Below them resided the Jewish prominents: a sad and notable human phenomenon… if one offers a position of privilege to a few individuals in a
state of slavery, exacting in exchange the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, there will certainly be someone who will accept… When he is given command of a group of unfortunates, with the right of life or death over them, he will be cruel and tyrannical, because he will understand that if he is not sufficiently so, someone else, judged more suitable, will take over his post. Moreover, his capacity for hatred, unfulfilled in the direction of the oppressors, will double back, beyond all reason, on the oppressed; and he will only be satisfied when he has unloaded on to his underlings the injury received from above.
(91) These Jewish prominents were particularly hated by Levi and his fellow Jews and this hatred only served to further distance themselves from the rest of the group. Abhorrent as it may seem to abandon your compatriots and become part of the hated ruling class of the camp; the need to survive overrode any moral dilemma, because “in the Lager things are different: here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone. ”(88) There is no good and evil here because if you are not a prominent you are only ‘the saved and the drowned’.
The saved and the drowned are those at the very bottom of hell with nothing between them and gas chamber, only those deemed capable and fit even survive the first day, the others are exterminated immediately. Most who remain quickly succumb to the all-consuming hunger and exhaustion of the camp, “their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer”(90).
They are the forgotten masses of victims, abandoned by the world to their fate and quickly forgotten; no one remembers their names or their faces for they were condemned by all of humanity to a fate worse than death. “Imagine a man who is deprived of everyone he loves…, his house, his habits, his clothes… everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself”(27).
It’s in this way the Germans destroyed the humanity of a people before killing them further. The drowned are those who are unable to adapt, they sink down deep until it is too late for in this place “to sink is the easiest of matters”(90). After their children, women, and parents have all been swallowed up and everything they possess stolen, most give up. “They follow the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea”(90).
The saved are the few that remain, the ones who still battle for salvation, who have thrown off all moral constraints that hold them back, resolved to fight “against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold and the resulting inertia; to resist enemies and have no pity for one’s rivals; to sharpen one’s wits, build up one’s patience, strengthen one’s will-power. Or else, to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times”(92).
Elias, Schepschel, Alfred L. , and Henri, four very different men, all struggling on the own path to salvation, all willing to do anything; they are not good men, for a good man means nothing in here, all the good men died a long time ago or at least ceased to be good, for only scoundrels remain now. The Germans in a sense created “a gigantic biological and social experiment”(87), an alien world like no other in history, stripped of all moral and ethical boundaries, all reason and justice destroyed, replaced with a twisted, sadistic existence of perceived order masking the uncontrolled debauchery of it all.
From this horror only a few are blessed with the talents needed to survive, some like Elias have “survived the destruction from outside, because he is physically indestructible; he has resisted the annihilation from within because he is insane… he is a survivor… the human type most suited to this way of living(97)…
Henri, on the other hand, is eminently civilized and sane… he is extremely intelligent, speaks French, German, English, and Russian… is perfectly aware of his natural gifts and exploits them with the cold competence of a physic using a scientific instrument… there is nothing in the camp that he does not know and about which he has not reasoned in his close and coherent manner… hard and distant, enclosed in armour, the enemy of all, inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the Serpent in Genesis”(98-100)
Elias and Henri are two sides of the same coin, one physically invincible the other mentally, the rare, extraordinary survivors of a biological experiment gone too far, perfectly molded for the hostile world created to destroy them. They are interesting only in the fact that they are the statistical anomalies of a mathematically-precise extermination process, one which inevitably would destroy even them. Most who survive are not so lucky, not naturally blessed with ability or strength, but simply scratch and claw their way out. They learn quickly, they learn a little German, begin to make alliances with those who have something to offer.
They steal when they can, grabbing anything of value, anything that can be traded for in the ‘Exchange Market’, “where scores of prisoners driven desperate by hunger prowl around, with lips half-open and eyes gleaming, lured by a deceptive instinct to where the merchandise shown makes the gnawing of their stomachs more acute and their salvation more assiduous”(78).
These exchanges are necessary to survive, for to try to live with just the meager sustenance given is impossible, the system was created to destroy them, only by breaking the rules can one hope to survive. Often the saved are assisted by civilian workers or gain the favor of a Prominent who provides them with extra food or clothing. One of the few people Primo Levi’s speaks kindly of in the entire book is such a person, a civilian worker named Lorenzo.
I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there existed a just world outside our won, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving. The personages in these pages are not men.
Their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it… The evil and insane SS men, the Kapos, the political, the criminals, the prominents, great and small, down to the indifferent slave Haftlinge, all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the Germans paradoxically fraternized in a uniform internal desolation. But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation.
Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not forget that I myself was a man. (121-122) Lorenzo represents the last vestige of a better world, a glimpse of sanity and reason that seems to no longer exist. He reminded Levi that there still remained a world outside the Lager, where humanity endured; that someday this world would no longer exist and your life would continue, and all that was thought lost forever would be returned to you. The Holocaust was not decided upon with anger, but with a cold, calculating necessity, hell-bent on destroying every Jew on Earth, to extinguish an entire people. To the Germans the Jews were a disease, a parasitic organism, which required extermination.
The Jews of America and England, the Jews of the Soviet Union and of Spain, the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East, they were all to be dealt with eventually. This is the mindset of the creators of this alien world. The depravity of the camp; its cruel, ordered madness reflected the depravity and evil that emanated from the souls of those wicked men. The SS were their finest pupils, there most willing executioners, those entrusted with the sacred task of the Nazi regime: the destruction of its enemies, a war against all of humanity. The morals and ethics of their creation were the ethics and morals of Hitler himself, of Reinhard Heydrich, of Adolf Eichmann, of Heinrich Himmler, of Rudolph Hess, the masterminds of this unparalleled killing machine.
This is what Primo Levi experienced deep down in the belly of the beast, inside the heart of darkness. The orchestra of the camp that emanated it throughout its boundaries “the perceptible expression of its geometrical madness”(51), the driving force behind this choreography of the dead. The SS instilled the camp with their notorious character, driven by their remorseless zeal, controlled by their obsessive discipline. The camp is as much a reflection of them as they are a reflection of their creators, the men who molded them into hardened killing machines. The lack of morals apparent in the camp derives itself from the lack of morals apparent in the individuals who created and ran it.
The moral codes and fundamental laws of the Lager are based on three basic assumptions which in accordance formed a deranged society: “the privileged oppress the unprivileged”(44) and “to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away”(88), and most importantly the complete inferiority of the Jew. The Jew was nothing, the slaves of the slaves, and everyone acted to continually reaffirm this assertion.
The Kapos, the Blockaltesters, the cooks, the nurses, everyone, even the Jewish prominents constantly reminded the Jews of their inferiority, every rule and regulation instilled it further. For many non-Jews this place is nothing but a prison, they lived in relative comfort with adequate food, clothing, and shelter.
As soon as they enter they are made at ease for at least there are many much worse off than they; they are given special privileges and “are automatically invested with offices as they enter the camp in virtue of their natural supremacy…no ‘Aryan’ Haftling was without a post, however modest”(90-91). For them Auschwitz is but a prison, but to the Jew on the contrary, “the Lager is not a punishment; for us, no end is foreseen and the Lager is nothing but a manner of living assigned to us, without limits of time, in the bosom of the Germanic social organism”(82-83).
This ‘manner of living assigned’ to the Jews has the effect of reducing them to their most basic needs, their dignity and integrity stripped from them. When Levi first arrived he is still a man, cognizant and alive, searching in the distance for his loved ones, “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. 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”(20-21). They are transformed into tired beasts, desperate and alone, aware of only hunger and cold; they show no signs of solidarity or camaraderie, for in the Lager everyone is on his own.
They must shut themselves off from reality to survive; they must dispose of all morality and thought before it destroys them. Only in this way can they survive and even then they are guaranteed nothing. They begin to despise themselves, the sad, pathetic faces they see each day, each a reflection of the other, all reduced to ghosts by the machinations of the Lager. This moral hierarchy based on the depraved morals of madmen, sought to destroy the soul of the Jewish people, to torture them into oblivion. They created a monstrous world, where the weak are crushed and the only escape was through the Chimney. This tragedy beyond all comparison in human history told a story. A story that must be told over and over again, no one should be allowed to forget them.
Their stories are all the same “all full of tragic disturbing necessity… simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? ”(65-66). This new Bible, this new Exodus would renew the life of the Jewish people, and like all the times before they would begin again. They survived “to tell the story, to bear witness… to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization”(41) and with their help the world would be revived, its humanity restored, and that alien world destroyed and those responsible for it punished. The Lager would remain, a stark reminder of “what man’s presumption made of man in Auschwitz. ”(55)
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 11 January 2017
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