In his book Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi uses the phrase “the demolition of man” to refer to the process by which the Nazis attempted to, and largely succeeded in, stripping the inmates of the concentration camps of their humanity.1 This powerful phrase accurately summarizes the process of dehumanization concocted by the Nazi concentration camp authorities; theirs was a process of demolition that began immediately upon arrival in the camp and ended, for approximately 6 million Jews and an additional 6 million others, in death by starvation, gassing, or brutality. Levi's use of the phrase occurs as he describes his initial entry into the camp system. As he describes it, he and those with him had been stripped of all of their possessions to include even their clothes. Their hair had been shaved off. Finally, even their name was taken from them as they were instead given a number, tattooed on their arm, by which they were to be identified. Lacking any properly human identity, they had become nothing more than a number and a prisoner indistinct from the mass of other prisoners.
Clearly reflecting the importance of this point, the subtitle of Levi's book, featured only on the title page, is given as “The Nazi Assault on Humanity.”2 This image of “the demolition of man” or the “assault on humanity,” is one that recurs many times through Levi's book, as well as in other sources on life in the concentration camps.
One example that stands out from the many which Levi offers is the use of a German word, fressen, in reference to the prisoners' meal consumption, that refers to the feeding of animals rather than the proper word for human eating, essen. As Levi points out, however, the word is not used derisively but actually is descriptive of the way that the prisoners are eating, “on [their] feet, furiously, burning [their] mouths and throats, without time to breathe.”3 This is notable because it seems to indicate that the prisoners had, through this process of dehumanization, come to, in some sense, accept their own inhumanity. This is one of the many indicators which Levi provides that the prisoners, after being stripped of their humanity and treated inhumanly, had come to see themselves as something less than or other than fully human. Such an outcome, surely a large part of the aim of the Nazi system, can only be seen as a success of the brutality which was imposed upon the inmates of the concentration camps.
However, there are, on the other hand, many events which Levi describes which capture an image of an enduring humanity that shines through again and again and refuses to be entirely demolished in spite of the inhumanity in which it is buried. One especially moving example is Levi's fight with his own mind to remember the words of Dante's masterpiece The Divine Comedy. As he goes about the daily activities which life in the concentration camps has forced upon him, Levi struggles to recall the lines of poetry that lay buried in his memory. Finally, he reaches a passage which makes him feel as if he had heard “the blast of a trumpet, the voice of God,” reciting:4
Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
The effect of remembering and reciting these lines causes him to “forget who I am and where I am” for just a moment. Remembering, however briefly, that he is a human being and that the circumstances which have been forced upon him are unbecoming of a human being seems to have been a moment comparable to a mystical experience for Levi.
Such religious allusions are sprinkled throughout those passages of Levi's book that focus upon a continuing humanity in the camps or express a desire to return to being a human being in the fullest sense of the word. In the passage on the German words used for eating, for instance, Levi contrasts the way the prisoners ate with the way that human beings are supposed to eat: “seated in front of a table, religiously.”5
The person of Wachsmann, only briefly discussed by Levi, is also notable in this regard. Wachsmann, a fellow prisoner and a rabbi, is described by Levi as “thin, fragile and soft.”6 Levi expresses surprise that such an unlikely figure has survived for as long as two years in the concentration camps and has even retained “an amazing vitality in actions and words.”7 Interestingly, Wachsmann, in spite of the pared down language, exhaustion, and intellectual stifling that predominated in the camps, also “spends long evenings discussing Talmudic questions” with a fellow rabbi.8 The humanly search “after knowledge and excellence” which is described by Dante in the verses quoted by Levi is here again embodied in religious language, this time in a person of religious significance.
This recurrence of religious language in discussions of humanity by Levi seems to point to a nearly divine significance to being human. For Levi, after having his humanity stripped of him, having any experience as a human being is colored in religious language as a sacred event.
This makes for a remarkable contrast with the ideology that led to the concentration camps in the first place. Nazi ideologues like Arthur Rosenberg had attributed a sacred significance one specific group of people: the so-called “Aryan” race. According to Rosenberg, in his The Myth of the 20th Century, “a new faith is awakening today: The faith that blood will defend the divine essence of man; the faith, supported by pure science, that Nordic blood embodies the new mystery which will supplant the outworn sacrament.”9 This, of course, necessarily meant that those who were non-Aryans did not partake in this “divine essence of man” and were, consequently, less than fully human.
Levi provides the reader with a contrast to the Nazi's limited and distorted view of humanity by exhibiting the ways in which such a system as emerged from their ideology both acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy and refutes itself through those small acts of humanity that persist even within such a system. As examples of the former, Levi offers the petty, daily cruelties which prisoners even inflicted upon each other, such as the theft of any unattended item or the withholding of food to those who need it by those who are stronger. Such cruelties are the result of the breakdown of normal social conventions within a dehumanizing system like the concentration camps. As examples of the latter, however, Levi offers figures like Rabbi Wachsmann discussing the Talmud, his own struggle to recite verses of poetry from Dante, and the unexpected kindnesses bestowed upon him by other inmates.
The Nazis, in their systematic “demolition of man,” did a great deal to strip a great many people of their humanity. Stripped of their last possessions and any personal identity, millions of men and women were forced to become numbers and to fall in line with a system that demanded absolute and unquestioning obedience and which forced them into a situation in which they had to struggle for their very existence against their fellow prisoners. A large portion of them died as a result of the brutality they incurred or were put to death in the gas chambers, by hanging, or by some other method. In spite of all of this, however, Levi offers a vision, sometimes faint and other times far more clear, of the endurance of humanity through any circumstances that are forced upon it. Levi's book, and his own life, are testaments to the impossibility of “the demolition of man.”
1 Primo Levi, Survival In Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 26.
2 Ibid., i.
3 Ibid., 76.
4 Ibid., 113.
5 Ibid., 76.
6 Ibid., 68.
9 Arthur Rosenberg, Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1931), 114. Quoted in Karl A. Schleuenes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy toward German Jews, 1933-39 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 52.