Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man)(1947)
by Primo Levi
"The Holocaust" is a synonym for genocide. It differed from genocides of the past in its sheer scope and ambition, as well as in its use of modern industrial technology to exploit and kill its victims. Going to Hebrew school in Northern California during the 1980s and 90s as I did involved learning A LOT about the Holocaust. In fact, learning about the Holocaust is the thing I associate most with the Jewish religion. I'm not sure that was really a good move on the part of my local reform synagogues. We're talking about education that started when I was in kindergarten and lasted until my 13th birthday. That is the time period where I was learning to associate the cold blooded murder of six million people, including many of my religious kin, with the religion of my family.
I remember thinking distinctly (and still kind of feel this way) that the Holocaust is in fact a rebuke to the very concept of God, and certainly a counter-argument to any contention that God is anything other than a really mean deity. Despite being innundated with Holocaust related information, we were never provided Primo Levi's excellent Holocaust survival memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (known most elsewhere as If This is a Man.)
Levi, already in prison in fascist Italy for his anti-fascist activities, was removed to Auschwitz in February 1944. His late arrival at Auschwitz certainly accounts for the fact that he survived. The horrific, chilling moments during Survival in Auschwitz start on page one, with a description of his transportation from Italy to the camp in over-stuffed cattle cars, continue through the arrival and initiation at the camp, with Levi matter-of-factly describing how arrivals were almost randomly sorted into two groups, one for the work camps, and the other for the gas chamber. Although the gas chambers lurk in the distance, Levi was spared any direct encounter with the actual machinery of death.
Life in the labor camps was no picnic, and maybe the most chilling process described was the use of a culling mechanism to free up space when the camp got overcrowded. Some of Levi's experience weren't unique to the Holocaust, and fit within the larger genre of 20th century prison camp memoirs. Survival in Auschwitz is one of maybe only three actual memoirs to make it into the 1001 Books list. I wonder if maybe that will change in future versions of the list. I wouldn't argue with the inclusion of Survival in Auschwitz, but it seems like there might be many more non-fiction memoirs worth including.