Skip to main content

Close Reading of a Title: On Survival in Auschwitz

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
The Ethics of Survival in Contemporary Literature and Culture
  • 310 Accesses


For many years in the United States, Primo Levi’s first book was known by the title Survival in Auschwitz, rather than the Italian original If This Is a Man. This chapter interrogates the meaning behind this unfaithful, but also symptomatic translation. How did this new title contribute to the extraordinary success of the work and in what way did the word “survival” condition its reception? What does it mean to survive not only in Auschwitz but also after Auschwitz? Most importantly, can the two titles shed light on each other, forcing us to ask: is this a life?

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or eBook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD 119.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. 1.

    The full editorial process behind the title has been reconstructed by Michael Rothberg and Jonathan Druker, who reveal that the first British edition of Se questo è un uomo was published in the autumn of 1959 (by The Orion Press), and the title was translated literally: If This Is a Man . But two years later, in the United States, the publishing industry decreed a change: the paperback reprint that appeared in 1961 was retitled Survival in Auschwitz , with the subtitle The Nazi Assault on Humanity; see also Rothberg and Druker (2009, 205).

  2. 2.

    The new version, revised by the original translator Stuart Woolf, is included in The Complete Works by Primo Levi , see Levi (2015).

  3. 3.

    See Agamben (1998).

  4. 4.

    These are the words of the American philosopher and psychologist William James, which appear as the epigraph to Lasch’s book, sparking off its main argument argument; see Lasch (1984).

  5. 5.

    See Bettelheim (1980a). After The Survivor came out, Bettelheim revisited the topic, publishing a long article in The New Yorker (August 2, 1976) in which he responds to Des Pres: “any discussion of survivorship is dangerously misleading if it gives the impression that the main question is what the prisoner can do”. In addition: “One can only wonder at the audacity of Professor Des Pres in speaking about survivors embracing life without reserve when one recalls the many who, because of what happened to them or their parents or children in the camps, have never been able to live anything like a normal life”; see Bettelheim (1980b, 288, 297).

  6. 6.

    Des Pres (1976, 176–177; emphasis in original).

  7. 7.

    The image of the deforming mirror that Levi himself uses comes from an interview with Ferdinando Camon (1989, 19–20): “the concentration camp is a mirror of the external situation, but a distorting mirror. For example, the automatic and inevitable establishment of a hierarchy among the victims is a fact that has not been sufficiently discussed; the fact that the prisoner who gets ahead on the backs of his comrades exists everywhere”. See also the interview with Virgilio Lo Presti (Levi 1997, 49), in which Levi states that “il campo era l’estremizzazione della società, non dico industriale, ma della società tout court” (“the camp was the extremization of society—not industrial society, but society tout court”). It must be said, however, that although Levi encouraged the meaning of the Shoah to be broadened, at the same time he tried to preserve its specificity, never failing to point out that his expanded use of the camp condition was exclusively metaphorical.

  8. 8.

    The bibliography on this issue is massive: some of the most incisive contributions include Traverso (1999), Novick (1999), Postone (2001), and Assmann (2010).

  9. 9.

    This profit did not benefit Woolf though, because he had done the translation with no contract, purely in the interest of making Levi’s text known to English speakers. On the “good sales” promised by the title Survival in Auschwitz , see Goldstein and Scarpa (2015, 94–95).

  10. 10.

    Homer (2001, 256).

  11. 11.

    Des Pres (1976, vii; emphasis in original).

  12. 12.

    The suicide of Des Pres remains controversial: the Madison county medical examiners’ office in New York ruled his death ‘accidental’. Nevertheless, according to other sources and accounts, such as Nathan (2008), Des Pres committed suicide on November 16, 1987. A 1990 article in the Boston Globe reports Des Pres’s death by hanging.

  13. 13.

    Levi (1961, 1:66): “La persuasione che la vita ha uno scopo è radicata in ogni fibra di uomo, è una proprietà della sostanza umana. Gli uomini liberi danno a questo scopo molti nomi, e sulla sua natura molto pensano e discutono: ma per noi la questione è più semplice. Oggi, e qui, il nostro scopo è di arrivare a primavera. Di altro, ora, non ci curiamo. Dietro a questa meta, non c’è, ora, altra meta.”

  14. 14.

    Blanchot (1993, 132). On Blanchot’s decision to confront Robert Antelme’s memoir, see Rothberg (2000, 93–94). For a critique of Blanchot’s reading, see Davis (1997).

  15. 15.

    Antelme (1998, 5).

  16. 16.

    Blanchot (1993, 133). See also Nancy (2006, 126–127).

  17. 17.

    Blanchot (1993, 133).

  18. 18.

    See Simmel (2010).

  19. 19.

    Antelme (1998, 40).

  20. 20.

    Antelme (1998, 39).

  21. 21.

    Antelme (1998, 66).

  22. 22.

    Levi (1961, 1:142). “L’uomo che morrà oggi davanti a noi ha preso parte in qualche modo alla rivolta. […] Morrà oggi sotto i nostri occhi: e forse i tedeschi non comprenderanno che la morte solitaria, la morte di uomo che gli è stata riservata, gli frutterà gloria e non infamia.

    Quando finì il discorso del tedesco, che nessuno poté intendere, di nuovo si levò la prima voce rauca: -Habt ihr verstanden?- (Avete capito?)

    Chi rispose “Jawohl”? Tutti e nessuno: fu come se la nostra maledetta rassegnazione prendesse corpo di per sé, si facesse voce collettivamente al di sopra dei nostri capi. Ma tutti udirono il grido del morente, esso penetrò le grosse antiche batterie di inerzia e di remissione, percosse il centro vivo dell’uomo in ciascuno di noi.

    - Kameraden, ich bin der Letzte!—(Compagni, io sono l’ultimo!)

    Vorrei poter raccontare che fra di noi, gregge abietto, una voce si fosse levata, un mormorio, un segno di assenso. Ma nulla è avvenuto. Siamo rimasti in piedi, curvi e grigi, a capo chino, e non ci siamo scoperti la testa che quando il tedesco ce l’ha ordinato.”

  23. 23.

    See Arendt (1951, 452): “The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous (making it impossible to find out whether a prisoner is dead or alive) robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. In a sense they took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed.”

  24. 24.

    On thanatopolitics and necroresistence, see Foucault (2003, 80). For a selection of recent critical perspectives, see Vatter and Lemm (2014), Mbembe (2003) and Fassin (2010).

  25. 25.

    Gordon (2001, 25): “The central claim of this book is that Primo Levi’s writing, his narrative and other reflections, works its way around ethical issues by figuring out just such a practice of virtue(s), even in the face of the void of Auschwitz.” For the concept of ordinary virtues (and ordinary vices), Gordon refers to Shklar (1984) and to Todorov (1996), who was inspired in his turn by Montaigne. See also Gordon (2004, 37–66). A number of critics have intervened in this territory of moral action. See, for example, Farrell (2013, 87–102) and Lang (2013, 120).

  26. 26.

    Referring to Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor, Gordon invites us to read Levi’s text while allowing the sphere of moral action to shift from the heroic or sanctified life to that of ordinary life (see Gordon 2001) and Taylor (1989).

  27. 27.

    See especially Lang (2013, 121).

  28. 28.

    Levi (1961, 1:82): “Si rinchiudano tra i fili spinati migliaia di individui diversi per età, condizione, origine, lingua, cultura e costumi, e siano quivi sottoposti a un regime di vita costante, controllabile, identico per tutti e inferiore a tutti i bisogni: è quanto di più rigoroso uno sperimentatore avrebbe potuto istituire per stabilire che cosa sia essenziale e che cosa acquisito nel comportamento dell’animale-uomo di fronte alla lotta per la vita.”

  29. 29.

    On the use of the adverb quivi in Levi, see Cases (1997, 5–14). A different intertextual resonance of this adverb comes from Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (1632), as has been noted by Bucciantini (2011, 3–15, 133–135).

  30. 30.

    Butler (2012a, 11, 16). This does not mean that the fight for survival precedes morality, because even under these conditions it was possible to perform sympathetic gestures of solidarity, and we know that Levi insists on these gestures. And yet—it bears repeating—I believe that the critical discourse needs to reformulate the question, or at least consider it from its biopolitical side in addition to its moral aspect. It is important to note that Butler has often written about Levi’s works, especially in the essay “Primo Levi for the Present”; Butler (2012b).

  31. 31.

    Marco Belpoliti (2015, 508) recalls this fact, citing an interview with Giorgio Calcagno and a comment by Lorenzo Mondo. The tercets from Dante that are believed to have inspired Levi are three in number: Inferno X, 1–3; Inferno IV 62–63; Inferno VI 13–15.

  32. 32.

    The epistolary love novel that Levi stopped working on a few months before his death remains unfinished. It was going to be called Il doppio legame (The Double Bond), as noted in the biography by Angier (2002).

  33. 33.

    Levi (2015, 2:2448): “Vorrei invitare chiunque osi tentare un giudizio a compiere su se stesso, con sincerità, un esperimento concettuale: immagini, se può, di aver trascorso mesi o anni in un ghetto, tormentato dalla fame cronica, dalla fatica, dalla promiscuità e dall’umiliazione; di aver visto morire intorno a sé, ad uno ad uno, i propri cari; di essere tagliato fuori dal mondo, senza poter ricevere né trasmettere notizie; di essere infine caricato su un treno, ottanta o cento per vagone merci; di viaggiare verso l’ignoto, alla cieca, per giorni e notti insonni; e di trovarsi infine scagliato tra le mura di un inferno indecifrabile. Qui gli viene offerta la sopravvivenza, e gli viene proposto, anzi imposto, un compito truce ma imprecisato.”

  34. 34.

    Levi (2015, 2:2449).

  35. 35.

    The only time Primo Levi spoke directly about Hannah Arendt and her argument on the banality of evil was in an interview given in April 1979 to Giorgio Segrè, published in the Jewish magazine Ha-Tikwa. Another reference appears in the interview with Marco Vigevani that appeared in the Bollettino della Comunità Israelitica di Milano, XL (5 May 1984). Both the interviews are included in Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, respectively on pages 279 and 213. On the relationship between Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, see Forti (2002).

  36. 36.

    Levi really does enter into a territory forbidden to historians, inviting us to probe the inner life of someone who is different from us; but he does not advance into its furthest reaches the way a novelist or a filmmaker would. These artists have the introspective privilege afforded to them by fiction, which allows them to describe hypothetically the emotions and thoughts of individuals who no longer have the right to be called human beings; see Cohn (1987). A few recent works have taken full advantage of this privilege, giving a human dimension back to the members of the Sonderkommando . These include the Martin Amis novel The Zone of Interest (2014) and László Nemes’s film The Son of Saul (2015), which Georges Didi-Huberman (2015) comments on in a moving, open letter to the director.

  37. 37.

    See Lang (2013, 129): “The Gray Zone is […] beyond or at least outside good and evil but morally significant, at the boundaries of those ethical judgments and yet warranting a place of its own within ethics.” On the gray zone, see also Mesnard and Thanassekos (2010) and Brown (2013).


  • Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Amis, Martin. 2014. The Zone of Interest. London: Cape.

    Google Scholar 

  • Angier, Carole. 2002. The Double Bond: The Live of Primo Levi. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

    Google Scholar 

  • Antelme, Robert. 1998. The Human Race. Translated by Jeffrey Haight and Annie Mahler. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arendt, Hannah. 1951. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Assmann, Aleida. 2010. The Holocaust—a Global Memory? Extensions and Limits of a New Memory Community. In Memory in a Global Age: Discourses, Practices and Trajectories, ed. Aleida Assmann and Sebastian Conrad, 97–117. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Belpoliti, Marco. 2015. Primo Levi di fronte e di profilo. Milano: Guanda.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bettelheim, Bruno. 1980a [1943]. Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations. In Surviving and Other Essays, 48–83. New York: Vintage.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1980b [1976]. Surviving. In Surviving and Other Essays, 274–316. New York: Vintage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blanchot, Maurice. 1993 [1969]. The Limit-Experience. In The Infinite Conversation, trans. and foreword by Susan Hanson, 202–237. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, Adam. 2013. Judging “Privileged” Jews: Holocaust Ethics, Representation, and the “Grey Zone”. New York: Berghahn.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Bucciantini, Massimo. 2011. Esperimento Auschwitz. Torino: Einaudi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Butler, Judith. 2012a. Can One Live a Good Life in a Bad Life? Adorno Prize Lecture. Radical Philosophy 176: 9–18.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2012b. Primo Levi for the Present. In Parting Ways. Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, 181–204. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cases, Cesare. 1997. L’ordine delle cose e l’ordine delle parole. In Primo Levi: un’antologia della critica, ed. Ernesto Ferrero, 5–14. Torino: Einaudi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Camon, Ferdinando. 1989. Conversations with Primo Levi. Translated by John Shepley. Evanston: Marlboro Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cohn, Dorrith. 1987. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Davis, Colin. 1997. Duras, Antelme, and the Ethics of Writing. Comparative Literature Studies 34 (2): 170–183.

    Google Scholar 

  • Des Pres, Terrence. 1976. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in Death Camps. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2015. Sortir du noir. Paris: Les éditions du Minuit.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fassin, Didier. 2010. Ethics of Survival: A Democratic Approach to the Politics of Life. Humanity 1 (1): 81–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Farrell, Joseph. 2013. The Humanity and Humanism of Primo Levi. In Answering Auschwitz: Primo Levi’s Science and Humanism After the Fall, ed. Stanislao Pugliese, 87–102. New York: Fordham University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Forti, Simona. 2002. Banalità del male. In I concetti del male, ed. Pier Paolo Portinaro, 24–38. Turin: Einaudi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended:” Lectures at the College de France, 1975–1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.

    Google Scholar 

  • Galilei, Galileo. 1632. Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo. Firenze: Landini.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goldstein, Ann, and Domenico Scarpa. 2015. In un’altra lingua/In Another Language. Turin: Einaudi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gordon, Robert. 2004. ‘How Much Does a Person Need?’ Primo Levi and the Ethics of Home. In Primo Levi: The Austere Humanist, ed. Joseph Farrell, 37–65. Oxford: Peter Lang.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2001. Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Homer, Frederic D. 2001. Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lang, Berel. 2013. Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lasch, Christopher. 1984. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levi, Primo. 1961. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Translated by Stuart Woolf. New York: Collier Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1997. Conversazioni e interviste 1963–1987. Edited by Marco Belpoliti. Turin: Einaudi.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2015. The Complete Works by Primo Levi. Edited by Ann Goldstein. New York: Liveright.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mesnard, Philippe, and Yannis Thanassekos, eds. 2010. La zone grise: entre accommodement et collaboration. Paris: Kimé.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2006. Robert Antelme’s Two ‘Phrases’. In Multiple Arts: The Muses II, edited by Simon Sparks and trans. Sara Guyer, 126–127. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nathan, John. 2008. Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Novick, Peter. 1999. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Postone, Meishe. 2001. The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century. In Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, ed. Meishe Postone and Eric Santner, 81–114. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rothberg, Michael. 2000. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rothberg, Michael, and Jonathan Druker. 2009. A Secular Alternative: Primo Levi’s Place in American Holocaust Discourse. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (1): 104–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shklar, Judith N. 1984. Ordinary Vices. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Simmel, Georg. 2010. The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays, with Journal Aphorisms. Translated by Johan A.Y. Andrews and Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Todorov, Tzvetan. 1996. Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. Translated by Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Traverso, Enzo. 1999. The Jews & Germany: From the “Judeo-German Symbiosis” to the Memory of Auschwitz. Translated by Daniel Weissbort. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vatter, Miguel, and Vanessa Lemm, eds. 2014. The Government of Life: Foucault, Biopolitics, and Neoliberalism. New York: Fordham University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maria Anna Mariani .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Mariani, M.A. (2021). Close Reading of a Title: On Survival in Auschwitz. In: Freiburg, R., Bayer, G. (eds) The Ethics of Survival in Contemporary Literature and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics