Sunday, March 18, 2007

The will to live: A comparative essay between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz

Here's another one of the essays I wrote this term. This one is pretty heavy so I hope you enjoy it. Please post comments, and I highly recommend these books.

The will to live:
A comparative essay between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz

The fact that there are people who survived the concentration camps in Nazi Germany is a testament to the resilience of the human soul. Two young men who survived the horrors of the Holocaust at the Auschwitz concentration camp were Elie Wiesel, a teenager from Transylvania, and Primo Levi, a young adult from Italy. At many times throughout their books, they lose faith in their fellow inmates, in themselves, and in G-d. Hopelessness is rampant in the death camps. They survive in spite of their surroundings, and with limited compassion from the outside world. Primo’s intense will to live, and Elie’s passion for the survival of his father, offer a glimpse into the inner workings of the human spirit, and their painful descriptions of the Holocaust act as a warning sign for humanity.

This essay will analyze the experiences of Elie Wiesel as described in his book Night, and will compare and contrast these experiences with those of Primo Levi in his book Survival in Auschwitz. This essay will focus on Elie Wiesel’s naïve optimism and how this optimism crumbles as a result of his horrific experiences. Primo Levi’s more mature, cautious optimism will be discussed. A comparison between Elie and Primo will be made in regards to the fundamental nature of their observations, demonstrating the existence of highly varied reactions to the concentration camps. Elie’s brutal first hours in Auschwitz, seen through a child’s eyes, topple his beliefs and his views of humanity. Primo, on the other hand, is put to work immediately. He is able to take a step back from his daily horrors, and struggles instead with social and psychological questions in his attempt to analyze the world of the camp and to determine the scientific method for survival.

When we start Elie Wiesel’s journey, he is twelve years old, and a frum (Yiddish: “pious”, or “observant”) Orthodox Jew in Sighet, Transylvania. His Hasidic teacher, Moishe, is captured by the Gestapo, subsequently escapes, and warns the people of Sighet. His warning is ignored, perhaps because the religious community in Sighet does not want to believe that G-d would not intervene and would allow them to be taken under Nazi rule. When the Nazis invade Sighet, Elie describes them as being courteous, and “distant but polite”.[1] Elie’s naïve optimism is shared by his community, and daily life quickly returns to normal once Sighet’s Jews are transferred to a ghetto. The pace of Anti-Semitism increases, and Elie talks about sudden changes, curfews and the stealing of valuables from Jewish homes. The deportations also come to Elie as a surprise, and he watches in disbelief as the town’s Chief Rabbi is taken out of town, “It was like a page torn from a book, a historical novel, perhaps, dealing with the captivity in Babylon or the Spanish Inquisition.” [2] Soon after this, Elie and his family are transported by train to Auschwitz. The lack of information that was available to the Jews about the Final Solution is evident as the train arrives at the final destination: “‘Auschwitz.’ Nobody had ever heard that name.” [3] Elie and his father are immediately transferred to Birkenau, where the incinerators are in operation. An inmate at Birkenau scolds Elie and the other new arrivals for their lack of knowledge, “Didn’t you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn’t know? In 1944?” [4] Even if they did know the truth, it is unlikely that they would have accepted it.

The most horrific part of Night is when Elie and his father are walking towards the flames, watching inhumane actions all around them, and they are aware of their imminent death. “Not far from us, flames… were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes… children thrown into the flames… How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent?” [5] He is a passionately religious Jew, but at this moment the atrocities are too much for Elie to handle. He loses his faith in society and in G-d and questions why G-d chooses to be silent. As they walk towards their fate, the men start to chant Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. As Elie painfully recounts, “I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.” [6] Elie considers throwing himself into the electrified barbed wire. With two steps remaining before walking into the pit of fire, Elie and his father are ordered to turn and head to the barracks. Elie describes this chilling moment, “Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.” [7] This was his first night in the concentration camp. In comparison to Birkenau, Elie describes Auschwitz as a convalescent home, even though many more horrific events haunt Elie throughout his time there. There is perhaps only one undying force in Elie. It is the love for his father. He desperately wants to keep his father alive, and although he does waver from this goal, his conscience ensures that he pushes for his father’s survival at almost every moment.

Primo Levi has a less horrific first impression of Auschwitz. Being twenty-four years old and in good health, Primo is immediately assigned to manual labour tasks. Primo hears about the extermination only from a distance, and although he lives in constant fear of selection, he does not see the same kinds of horrific acts face-to-face as Elie Wiesel does. Primo therefore remains emotionally removed from the direct killings, and can focus his mind on developing a strategy for survival. He describes Auschwitz as “a gigantic biological and social experiment” [8], and sets out to study the economic and social systems of the camp, with the purpose of discovering which rules can be exploited for his benefit.

Primo Levi shows foresight into the Nazi’s plans for the Jews and also has a fierce criticism of society. His optimism is more cautious and mature than Elie’s blind optimism. When we start Primo’s story, he has already lived through four years of Anti-Semitism and Nazi racial laws, and he has escaped to the mountains with others. In contrast to Elie, Primo already has preconceived notions of the death camps. As they arrive at Auschwitz, he is taken aback by the relative calm: “We had expected something more apocalyptic: they [the S.S. men] seemed simple police agents.”[9]

Quickly, Primo starts to analyze the workings of the camp and determines his optimal course of action to improve his chances of survival. At first he describes that his instinct for cleanliness disappears, but his fellow inmate Steinlauf tells him, “We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety… to remain alive, not to begin to die.” [10] The idea of self-preservation seems to carry Primo through his time in Auschwitz. He notes that his friend Chajim is employed as a precision mechanic at the camp and that Chajim “is among the few who are able to preserve their dignity and self-assurance through the practice of a profession in which they are skilled.” [11] He views those men who are doomed for selection, the Muselman as the people who have already drowned, succumbing to their own self-pity and despair. On the other hand, he sees the astute Prominents who are also prisoners at the camp, but who have found a way to become useful to the Nazis and less disposable than the common prisoner. He vows to become a Prominent, and eventually secures himself a comfortable job with other chemists and out of the harsh conditions of the manual labour worker. Of the Muselman he says, “Through basic incapacity, or by misfortune… they are overcome before they can adapt themselves… their life is short, but their number is endless… [they] form an anonymous mass… the divine spark already dead within them, already too empty to really suffer.” [12] He is fiercely determined not to suffer the fate of the Muselman, and attributes his survival to a combination of luck and of adaptability.

The two books offer quite a different explanation of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel captures the horrific acts of the Holocaust in a graphic and emotional manner. He is driven by the love for his father, and then by the need to keep his father alive. He explains that the Holocaust was caused by blind optimism - an unwillingness of Jews to believe that humanity could deteriorate to the point that would allow a place like Auschwitz to exist. Primo Levi, on the other hand, is already quite upset with society and has lived through many of the Nazi’s Anti-Semitic laws. He views the Holocaust through the lens of his practical, scientific mind. He analyses the structure of the camps, the Prominents and the camp economic system, and intelligently determines the route he should take that will give him the maximum chance of survival. He is disillusioned with what the Nazis have done, and he implies that the Holocaust was inevitable and that Germans have a “national love of classification.” [13]

In both books, we are given a clear view of the inhumane world of Auschwitz. The authors describe their experiences with intensity, in the hopes that people of our generation can understand how the Holocaust happened. We should never forget this shameful event in history, when the life of a man was reduced to an ‘x’ on a piece of paper. If humanity can learn from the Holocaust, perhaps one day we will all treat each other as equals.

[1] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 9.

[2] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 17.

[3] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 27.

[4] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 30.

[5] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 32.

[6] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 33.

[7] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 34.

[8] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 87.

[9] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 19.

[10] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 41.

[11] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 47.

[12] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 90.

[13] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 156.


Kristen Hansen said...

I really loved this essay! Thank you for posting. It has been one of my life's goal to write an essay on "The Will to Live," that encompasses everything from biology, genetics, religion and attitude. I found this essay really inspiring in my first steps.

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