Auschwitz was abandoned by the German SS guards on January 18, 1945 and it was ten days before Soviet troops arrived to rescue the prisoners. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, who was a prisoner at the Monowitz labor camp in the Auschwitz complex. In 1947, Levi wrote a poem entitled “If this is a man,” which is included in a book published in America under the title Survival in Auschwitz, the Nazi Assault on Humanity.
Chapter 17 of the book is entitled, “The Story of Ten Days.” This is the story of what happened during the ten days that the prisoners were on their own, without the Germans to keep order and feed them. There are some surprising revelations in this chapter.
Primo Levi had come down with scarlet fever on January 11, 1945 and he had been put into the hospital at Monowitz, so he was not able to join the march out of the camp on January 18, 1945. He wrote that he was being treated in the hospital with sulpha drugs.
There has been a lot of speculation about why some of the prisoners stayed in the three Auschwitz camps (Auschwitz I, Birkenau and Monowitz) instead of following the fleeing Germans on January 18, 1945. The Holocaust experts believe that the prisoners were marched out of the camp for the purpose of killing them so that they could not testify about the gassing of the prisoners. They believe that the prisoners joined the march for fear that they would be killed if they stayed behind.
Levi wrote that there were “rumours which had been circulating for some days: that the Russians were at Censtochowa sixty miles to the north; […] that at Buna (Monowitz) the Germans were already preparing to sabotage mines.”
Strangely, Levi did not mention anything about the Germans blowing up the gas chambers at Birkenau. Levi was a prisoner at Monowitz and perhaps he didn’t know what was going on at Birkenau.
In the “Author’s Preface” to the book, the first sentence reads: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination…” Primo Levi was never in the Birkenau camp, so he apparently never knew that 450,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed and burned there in only 10 weeks, starting in May 1944.
Levi had arrived in Auschwitz in January 1944. He had been captured by the Italian Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943, according to his book. He wrote that he had fled into the mountains to help set up what “should have become a partisan band affiliated with the Resistance movement Justice and Liberty.” Levi thought that “the admission of my political activity would have meant torture and certain death.” Remarkably, he wrote that he “preferred to admit my status of Italian citizen of Jewish race.”
So on the first page of Chapter 1 in his book, Levy reveals that he thought he would be killed if he admitted to being a partisan, but not if he admitted to being a Jew. Yet on page 20, he wrote, with regard to the selections for the gas chamber, that “later a simpler method was often adopted of merely opening both of the doors of the wagon without warning or instructions to the new arrivals. Those who by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber.”
Levi wrote in Chapter 17 that the day before the Monowitz camp was to be evacuated, a Greek doctor who was a prisoner himself came to the hospital and told the prisoners that “all patients able to walk would be given shoes and clothes and would leave the following day with the healthy ones on a twelve mile march.” The others would remain in the hospital with assistants to be chosen from the patients who were the least sick. When Levi asked the doctor what would happen to the sick prisoners, the doctor said that “probably the Germans would leave us to our fate: no, he did not think that they would kill us.”
Levi did not believe the doctor. He wrote that the doctor “made no effort to hide the fact that he thought otherwise. His very cheerfulness boded ill.”
Levi himself had no choice; he was too sick with scarlet fever to join the march. He was in the ward for patients with infectious diseases. Even if he had wanted to go on the death march, he would probably not have been allowed to go, for fear of infecting the other prisoners with scarlet fever. Elie Wiesel was also in the hospital in Monowitz and he chose to go on the march out of the camp.
After the Germans left with 60,000 of the prisoners on the night of January 18th, the last distribution of soup was given to the sick prisoners the next morning. After that, the prisoners were on their own with no one to cook for them and no one to take care of the central heating plant. It was 5 degrees below zero.
On page 157 of the paperback edition, Levi wrote that around 11 p.m. on Jan. 18th, “One could hear the roar of the aeroplanes. Then the bombardment began.” I knew that Monowitz had been bombed several times, but I didn’t know that there were bombs dropped on the very night that the march out of the camp began.
Here is a quote from page 157:
After a few minutes it was obvious that the camp had been struck. Two huts were burning fiercely, another two had been pulverized, but they were all empty. […] The Germans were no longer there. The towers were empty.
This quote describes the situation after the air raid:
“No more water, or electricity, broken windows and doors slamming to in the wind, loose iron sheets from the roofs screeching, ashes from the fire drifting high, afar. The work of the bombs had been completed by the work of man: ragged, decrepit, skeleton-like patients at all able to move dragged themselves everywhere on the frozen soil, like an invasion of worms.”
After the Germans left, the prisoners in the hospital had nothing to eat except potatoes and turnips. There were no Germans to bake the bread and cook the soup. There was no clean water and the prisoners had to drink melted snow.
On Jan. 22, the hospital patients went exploring in the SS camp that was immediately outside the electric barbed wire fence. Levi wrote that the camp guards must have left in a great hurry because the prisoners found plates half full of by-now frozen soup, and mugs full of frozen beer, along with a chess board with an unfinished game.
Throughout the book, Levi had written that there were constant selections made in the hospital. The patients who didn’t get well in a hurry were sent to the gas chambers. In Chapter 17, Levi wrote about a seventeen year old Dutch Jew who “had been in bed for three months; I have no idea how he managed to survive the selections.” This was Levi’s second time in the camp hospital; he had previously been hospitalized for an injured foot. In his book, Levi didn’t speculate on why he had not been selected for the gas chamber while he was hospitalized.
By Jan. 23rd, all the potatoes had been eaten. The next day, Jan. 24, the prisoners in hut 14 of the hospital “organized an expedition to the English prisoner of war camp.” There they found “margarine, custard powders, lard, soya bean flour, whiskey.” It was a mile to the English POW camp and Levi and the other sick prisoners were not strong enough to walk there, even though they were starving and were desperate for food.
The Soviet soldiers finally arrived at Auschwitz on Jan. 27th and set up a temporary hospital. There were 12 prisoners in the infectious ward at Monowitz and only one of them died during the ten days after the Germans left. Another prisoner in this ward died a few weeks later in the Russian hospital.
Here is Levi’s famous poem, “If this is a man”:
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
In conclusion: This is not a book review, but I must say that I found Levi’s attitude about his imprisonment to be very arrogant. He criticizes the smallest details about his treatment. He couldn’t stand the “infernal” German music. The playing of the German song “Rosamunda” particularly irritated him. Regarding the playing of music, he wrote “the Germans created this monstrous rite.”
Levi didn’t like “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans.” He refers to “the degenerate German engineer” of the train that was taking him to Auschwitz. Why was the engineer of the train “degenerate?” He had allowed water to be drawn from the engine to bathe a three year old girl who was on the train.
Levi had been arrested because he was a member of the Resistance. As an illegal combatant, he could have been executed under the rules of the Geneva Convention. There was a war going on. Yet Levi expected to be treated as if he were at a resort.
At one point, Levi asked if the new arrivals would be given back their toothbrushes. The prisoner, whom he had asked, told him in French: “you are not at home.” Levi wrote “And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone: you are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney.”
He is critical of the signs and pictures showing the prisoners how to keep themselves clean. He doesn’t like it when he is repeatedly warned not to drink the tap water. His general attitude is that he hates the Germans even though he was treated well under the circumstances.
I learned from the Wikipedia entry about him that when Levi began to write this book, he wrote the chapter about the Ten Days first. Apparently, his most vivid memory of his time in the camp was when he had scarlet fever and there were no German doctors to take care of him, and no Germans to keep order and hand out food to the prisoners. He then began to understand the reason for the strict discipline in the camp.
The place where Primo Levi was imprisoned was the Auschwitz III labor camp, known as Monowitz; it was near a factory called the Buna Werke because it was a factory for making synthetic rubber.
The Monowitz industrial complex was built by Auschwitz inmates, beginning in April 1941. Initially, the workers walked from the Auschwitz main camp to the building site, a distance of 4 to 6 kilometers each way. By 1942, barracks had been built for the prisoners at Monowitz.
The Buna Werke was built in May 1942, six kilometers from the main Auschwitz camp, by the German company called IG Farbenindustrie. At first, it was one of the 40 sub-camps of the main camp, but in November 1943, the Buna sub-camp became Auschwitz III with its own sub-camps.
Monument in honor of the prisoners who died at Monowtiz
The monument to the prisoners who died at Monowitz, shown in the photo above, is located across the street from the ice hockey rink on the eastern side of the town of Oswiecim. According to a book entitled “Auschwitz 1940 – 1945” which I purchased at the Auschwitz Museum, there were 30,000 prisoners employed by the IG-Farbenindustrie factories at Monowitz, who died during a 3-year period.
Bomb shelter for the SS guards at Monowitz
The photo above shows the ruins of a bomb shelter which the Nazis built near the Monowitz factories. The people on the left in the photo are Polish residents, not tourists. Note the street sign on the left; this building is on an ordinary city street in the town of Monowitz. The Allies began bombing Monowitz in August 1944.
The barracks where the prisoners lived at Monowitz have all been torn down and replaced by houses.
Barracks at Monowitz, July 1944
In the photograph above, Heinrich Himmler is on the far right; the man in civilian clothes, who is shaking hands, is Max Faust. The barracks for the prisoners are shown in the background; prisoners from the main Auschwitz camp were transferred to the Monowitz barracks at the end of October 1942.
The Polish village of Monowice, which was called Monowitz by the Germans, is 4 kilometers from the site of the factories. Some of the old factory buildings are still standing, although now abandoned, while others are still in use as factories. The concrete wall around the factories, with its distinctive curved posts, can still be seen along the road from Oswiecim to the Krakow airport.
The Monowitz sub-camp was known as Bunalager (Buna Camp) until November 1943 when it became the KL Auschwitz III camp with its own administrative headquarters. Auschwitz III consisted of 28 sub-camps which were built between 1942 and 1944. This area of Upper Silesia was known as the “Black Triangle” because of its coal deposits. The Buna plant attracted the attention of the Allies, and there were several bombing raids on the factories.
When you enter the town of Oswiecim, coming from the Krakow airport, the fence is the first thing you see that tells you that the area around this town was once the home of Nazi forced labor camps, where the Jews worked as slave laborers. The fence stretches for miles and behind it are some factories, built by the Germans, that are still being used today. The factories and the ruins are off limits to visitors; the tour groups do not visit the ruins, and even the private tour guides refuse to take visitors there.
While he was a prisoner at Monowitz, Primo Levi met Lorenzo, an Italian who was a worker at the camp, not a prisoner. For six months, Lorenzo gave Primo extra bread each day, patched up shirts and even wrote a postcard for him to Italy.
Primo Levi as a young man
Regarding his survival at Auschwitz III, Levi wrote on page 132 of his book:
“If there is any point in trying to understand why I should be the one to be saved, out of so many thousands of others, I believe that it was primarily because of Lorenzo. And not necessarily because of his material help. It was much more because his treatment of me, his simple behavior and kindness, reminded me every day that there is still a humane and just world on the other side of the barbed wire fence; that outside the camp there are people with a heart, and that there are pure values; that not everything is corrupt and cruel; that a world without hatred and fear exists out there. It is true that all those are vague at the moment, distant and incomprehensible, but it is worth making the effort to survive in order to get back there.”