Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Primo Levi, If This is a Man (1947)

The principal message of the Italian-Jewish Primo Levi’s memoir of his survival of the Auschwitz concentration camp is the message conveyed by almost all other Holocaust memoirs: never forget, never again.  His memoir, If This is a Man (1947, English translation by Stuart Woolf 1959), is a manifestation of the author’s desire to record these horrible events to educate others, Jews and especially gentiles, so that the dangers of racism are made so apparent that genocidal events could not happen again. 

In writing his memoir, Levi treated Auschwitz as a human laboratory where he could observe human behaviour under extraordinary circumstances where the struggle for survival was paramount.  One of his most striking observations was the inversion of the natural moral order, where the ethical considerations of the outside world were overturned.  In the camp, it was a struggle of all against all, with little or no solidarity among fellow inmates.  Theft was rampant and there was a struggle for the privileges that increased one’s chances of survival.  In this context, Levi, as a witness, attempted to document the nature of camp life to leave a reliable record of solid testimony to serve as a legacy.  Consequently, the memoir reveals how the inmates learned useful information from the tattooed numbers on the inmates’ arms.  The memoir also conveys the nature of the camp hierarchy, the prevalence of the black market, the complexity of the camp rules, the nature of the infirmary, the behaviour of the kapos, the value of war news to the inmates, and it documents the heroic example of an inmate who was publically executed for resisting his oppressors. 

In addition, a major focus of Levi’s attention was on what it took to survive in Auschwitz.  He noted the value of particular attitudes, like optimism, and a desire to maintain one’s morale and sense of dignity.  He also noted the practical benefits of seeking any form of advantage or privilege to gain additional food, warmth or shelter.   However, despite these efforts, Levi noted that chance could intervene decisively in determining one’s fate.  Nothing was guaranteed.

Levi was also fascinated and horrified by the way that the regime in the camp stripped people of their humanity and identity before it killed them physically.  In this context, he reflected on what are the quintessential qualities that make someone a man rather than something far less.  He believed that these qualities were, firstly, an ethical capacity and, secondly, an appreciation of high culture.  In addition to this, Levi also valued those traits, like aspects of personal style, relationships, and possessions that identify who a person is as an individual. 

In the light of his concerns about the dehumanisation of the inmates and his preoccupation with never forgetting, Levi took great care to identify and name as many individuals as possible so they are remembered as individuals and not treated collectively as grim statistics.  While doing this, Levi used these many concise characterisations to make numerous points about the nature of the camp and the experience of camp life. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: If This is a Man meaning, If This is a Man themes, If This is a Man analysis, If This is a Man notes