Tag Archives: Holocaust

Book Review: Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi (4/5)

30 May

I read Night and The Diary of a Young Girl very close to each other a few years back and it got me to add this book to my list as well. I received it as a Christmas gift a few years ago but it lingered on my shelf for a while. A trip to Las Vegas seemed like as good a time as any to dive into it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-old chemist and “Italian citizen of Jewish race,” was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi’s classic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic cruelty and miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion, and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit.

This is a survival story, no question about it. Levi focuses on how he lived in the camp and how he survived when so many around him didn’t make it. He talks about the right amount of work to do, the good jobs to get, the ways to pass examinations. He details how the trading system worked and what tools were essential and how to get them, how to make them. It felt like a survival story more than a Holocaust story to me. The Nazi officers were not consistent characters but Levi’s bunk-mates and trading partners were.

Levi painted vivid pictures of other prisoners. He gave us details about ones who were like him, ones that were unlucky, and ones that couldn’t survive. I felt he pained a vivid picture of himself, too. For me, the most impactful part was when he detailed the other men in the quarantined room with him before liberation. The teamwork they demonstrated was incredible. Finally, it was about the survivability of the group and not the individual and that really shone through.

Levi was the only major character in the story and I liked how he portrayed himself. He was smart and was able to use that intelligence to get him a good position. But a good position didn’t mean comfort, it meant more opportunities. He stole and traded and schemed to get more food. He used that job to survive and to help his friend survive. There was no enduring, you had to find a way to make things better for yourself.

It was hard to relate to Levi and the characters in the story because his story is so extreme. I think that’s why it’s important. It’s important to remember that humans did this to other humans because they thought some were less than others. It highlights what happens to us when we do this to each other and why we can never let this happen again. It’s the un-relatability of his story that’s so important.

Primo Levi
Author photo courtesy of the Paris Review

The final scenes in the infirmary spoke to me most. In history, I’d heard that those who were ill were left behind and liberated soon after. The days-long delay and the horror it brought was never mentioned before. The number of men who died waiting for freedom astounded me and I was so sad to hear about them.

The book was non-chronological and that confused me at times. I would question what job Levi was doing or how long he had been in the camp when something happened and I’d be confused for a few pages before I found a landmark. I understand that this book was not written in chronological order on purpose; it’s written to detail the different steps taken to survive. It’s a small gripe, but it’s really the biggest one I have.

We should not have to survive the treatment of other humans. Abused women and children, prisoners, and Holocaust victims have survived things that no person should have to. We have the ability to take away the freedom of others. But we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t have to be ‘survived’ by others in the way Levi had to survive.

Writer’s Takeaway: Levi told a story with impact. He didn’t sugar-coat anything or leave out any detail that might be embarrassing. His candid telling is why this is so powerful and wonderful and scary and tragic. I think memoir should always be like this. Otherwise, we might not learn something essential.

The book was impactful, though I did find myself confused and tuning out at times because of the time jumps. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Primo Levi Blog- Survival in Auschwitz through a Christian Perspective
Primo Levi’s reflection on humanity in crisis: Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a man) | Literaturesalon’s Blog
An Encapsulating Analysis of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz | Vivid Incandescence
Survival in Auschwitz | Posthegemony

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Meeting Author Steve Luxenberg

30 Jun

You might not have heard of author Steve Luxenberg if you haven’t been following me long, but for me, meeting him was kind of a big deal. Steve is the author of Annie’s Ghosts, a book I read for two different book clubs which gives you the chance to look at my book review and both book club reflections. So yeah, I was excited.

The event was an embarrassingly long time ago (March 21) and I’m sorry that I’m only getting this posted now. This draft has been sitting in my folder for much too long. There was a moderator who was part of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace organization; a group that grew out of Germany after World War II which sends youth abroad to work for understanding and peace as a result of Nazi actions during the war. The panel consisted of Steve Luxenberg (Washington Post) and Dana Nemeth, Director of the Wood Co. Historical Center and Museum in Bowling Green, OH. Dana was selected because of her work with the asylum in her county.

It’s interesting to me how different it is to see a fiction writer versus a non-fiction writer. A fiction writer talks about process and inspiration whereas a non-fiction writer talks about their topic even further and maybe touches on how they do their research. A lot of this post will reflect Steve’s research and ideas.

Me and Steve Luxenberg

Me and Steve Luxenberg

Steve says that his book is ultimately about identity. He felt that Beth lost her identity by denying her sister for so long, Annie carries her identity as a physical deformity with her at all times, and that he gained an identity through his research into his family. I can see this as a theme and I think it’s interesting that in a book I perceived as being about mental illness and family, Steve saw something more universal in his writing. That showed me that no matter what you think a book is about, the author might think something completely different. His perception might be different because it deals with his own family so directly. Steve talked about how writing about your own family and friends can be challenging because you’re presenting this person to your readers in a manner in which they can be judged. What if the readers don’t like your family? There was one woman in the audience who really didn’t like Steve’s mother and said so. I think this would be hard for me to deal with, but Steve took it in stride. He told me later that, “All readers are right.” So the woman who disliked Beth, and another who thought she was strong are both right. We as writers just have to choose who we’ll listen to and make sure to bring the scene to life as much as possible. Steve recommends remembering to bring the five senses into each scene to give the reader an experience.

Anna Oliwek is a distant cousin of Steve who he found living in Michigan. Anna is actually in  the Portraits of Honor gallery for Michigan Holocaust Survivors so you can check out her profile. Her son, David, attended the event and Steve recognized him, thanking him for coming and thanking his mother for helping him so much in his research. It was really cool.

The Portraits of Honor memorial is one of many that are active to this day. Another that was mentioned was the Shoah Foundation, which has visual memories of the Holocaust such as video and photos. It was mentioned that Steven Spielberg is active in this memorial. The host location for the event was the Holocaust Memorial Center and they strive to bring in speakers and events like this, Steve, and many others, to continue remembering those who lost themselves to the Holocaust.

Returning to mental illness, it was brought up that a small film is in the making that will focus on Eloise and what happened to those that lived there. The film is supposed to be filming currently in the actual location in Westland, MI. You can read more about it here.

As when I meet any author, I asked him the same question; “I want to be a writer. What should I do?”

Steve gave me my favorite advice; “Read.” When you read, recognize when something works and think to yourself, “Why?” When something doesn’t work, ask yourself the same question. By knowing what does and doesn’t work in books you read, you’ll know what will and won’t work in your own writing. I try to do this in my book reviews, giving a few points about what I thought was unique about the book or why the style wasn’t my favorite. I hope those help you all as well.

Until next time, write on.

Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

26 Sep

Yet another book done!  If anyone’s counting, that’s a total of 53 for the year, well on my way to a goal of 70.  I’m trying to get ahead a bit before NaNo because that’s going to slow me down.

I read this book because I love historical accounts and because I’d never read it before.  I know, shocking.  It was never required in high school, though I do remember an ex-boyfriend who read it and raved about it.  I didn’t much respect his literary preferences then or now, but when my husband said something similar, I knew that this book must be something special.

Night by Elie Wiesel, translated by Marion Wiesel

I knew nothing about this book when I went to read it except that it was about the Holocaust.  I actually looked for it in the fiction section and had to use the library computer to find it in the non-fiction audiobooks.  Night is Wiesel’s account of the Holocaust that he survived and how harrowing of a journey he endured.  Wiesel was an adolescent when he entered the camp and only survived the first day by lying about his age.  He wrote this book (and the second two of the trilogy) years after his release and freedom.

Wiesel and his family live in Romania until they are rounded up in 1944 with the other Jews from their ghetto.  They are taken to Auschwitz where Wiesel and his father are separated from his mother and sisters, never to see them again.  He is put in a forced labor complex to sort electrical parts.  When the front starts to move closer to Auschwitz, the military moves the prisoners Buchenwald in central Germany.  The death rate on the move is over 90%.  Those who are left behind in the Auschwitz hospital ward are liberated 3 days after the SS leave.

Without spoiling the ending, I’ll conclude my summary by saying Wiesel just barely makes it out alive and is obviously shocked for life by the ordeal.  He spent his entire life fighting for human rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his efforts.  This book was published in 1955 and he lives to this day in New York City.  He is 95 years old.

The style Wiesel uses is very sparse in details.  He says that he’d rather write too little than too much.  One thing that Wiesel does concentrate on is feelings, emotions, and reactions.  He talks about how he feels about his father’s illness and what he remembers of it rather than describe the physical maladies his father endured.  The emotional reacting is what I feel was so compelling about Wiesel’s writing.

Much of Wiesel’s message came in the Nobel Acceptance Speech that was included in my copy.  He talks about how all people in our world should be treated like people; with fairness and justice.  At a young age, Wiesel was confounded as to how he was not worthy of the basic necessities of life.  He wants his book to move people to see that all humans, no matter how they are precised by some, are worthy of basic care.

Another theme my husband brought to my attention is Wiesel’s fight with God throughout the novel.  He starts as a devout young Jewish boy and quickly wonders why the God he loves would put his own people through such suffering and death.  Wiesel looses his faith along with most of the prisoners; they stop preying and lose respect for the rabbis.

One question that Wiesel raises is “How did the world not respond?”  If I remember my world history classes well, it wasn’t that no one responded, it’s that no one knew.  Had the world been aware of what the SS were doing to the Jews, would everyone have stood idly by and continued fighting the war for political power and control?  Or would the concentration have changed to human rights and the freedom of the captured Jews?  WWII brought about international criminal tribunals and later the ICJ.  Reaction to what happened in Auschwitz and elsewhere was extreme and severe.  I’d like to think that human concentration during WWII would have shifted from defeating Hitler to liberating the Jews had the world been aware of what was going on.

Wiesel has fought for awareness of human oppression and I think he would agree with me on this point.  If the public and political leaders are aware of problems, then we can fight against them.  Awareness must then lead to action.

This raises the issue of “slactivism” which is a term referring to those who raise awareness of an issue and do nothing to help solve it.  It will usually refer to those who re-tweet something or post on Facebook about how bad a situation is.  I think Wiesel is probably disgusted by these people because of all the forceful action he has taken toward change.  I heard author Thrity Umrigar speak and she said that protests for change are only effective when a person puts their physical safety at risk.  I loved this analogy.  March on Washington= physical risk.  Re-Tweeting about the “Kony 2012” movement= slactivism.

Writer’s Takeaways: I mentioned before that Wiesel’s focus on emotions, feelings, and reactions made this book come to life for me.  I think that’s true of all literature.  Other than that, I don’t want to recommend being a part of mass human extermination so following his life path is not recommended.  Wiesel’s passion and strong belief make him a very compelling writer.  He teaches us all to write from our hearts.

Four out of Five.  Highly recommended.