Follow TV Tropes


Literature / If This Is a Man

Go To
"Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter."
Opening poem

Se questo è un uomo (USA title - Survival in Auschwitz). The first part of the memoir of Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived The Holocaust, originally published in 1947, and followed by The Truce, which describes his difficult Homeward Journey.

The short book details the year Levi, who was a member of the Italian anti-Fascist Resistance before his arrest, spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp, from February 1944 until the liberation. Many people draw comparisons with Elie Wiesel's Night, though Levi's book is more straightforwardly autobiographical in nature.

The book was later adapted into a one-man teleplay called Primo, by Antony Sher, which was broadcast on HBO and The BBC.

Provides Examples of:

  • Autobiography: Written by Primo Levi about the time he spent in Auschwitz-Buna.
  • Chummy Commies: As many of the non-Jewish prisoners are Soviet prisoners-of-war or civilians (as racial captives), some of whom are communists, and other European communists (as political captives).
  • Deadly Euphemism: "Up the chimney", "lie on the bottom", "swallowed by the night" among others.
  • Face Death with Dignity: The attempted saboteur who is calm and resolute as he is publicly hanged.
  • Honor Among Thieves: The Greeks of Salonica are notorious thieves and black marketeers who keep to themselves, but nonetheless earn the respect of the other inmates as, despite their relatively powerful position, they are never brutal to others.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: Primo himself, who graduated with top honours in chemistry at the University of Turin, and who is able to secure a position in the camp laboratory due to his performance in a chemistry exam – which he has to take in German, while half-starved and freezing.
  • La Résistance: Levi was a member of the anti-Fascist resistance before his arrest, though this does not feature heavily in the narrative.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Elias Linzen, a muscular dwarf who easily manages twice or thrice the burdens assigned to him.
  • Public Execution
  • Scars are Forever: The infamous numbers. Levi had his engraved on his tombstone after his death.
  • Secular Hero: Primo, a lifelong atheist. Not that the Nazis cared for such distinctions.
  • Survivor Guilt: After every selection, the survivors are ashamed to look at those who have been chosen for the gas.
  • Think Nothing of It: Lorenzo, the Italian civilian who provides Primo with extra food and clothes, does it at great personal risk, and doesn't even want to be thanked.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: Levi notes in the afterword that Jean seems to have forgotten most of the year he spent at Auschwitz-Monowitz.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Among the Eastern Europeans; the Italian Jews had difficulties integrating with the rest of the camp because they couldn't speak this.
  • You Are Number 174517: One prisoner in particular is known only as "Null Achtzehn" (Zero Eighteen), as he never responds when asked for his real name, and Primo even suspects he may have forgotten it.
  • You No Take Candle

The sequel contains examples of:

  • All Just a Dream: In the end, Primo writes that he'd have a recurring nightmare for a long time, in which he wakes up and realizes that he's still in Auschwitz, and everything that happened since was just a dream.
  • Action Girl: Presumable Olga, as she was formerly a Croat partisan. Several women in the Red Army would also count.
  • Arc Words: "There is always war", by Mordo Nahum.
  • Chummy Commies: As in the preceding work, but turned on its head: previously the occupant of Nazi-run extermination camps, Primo (and other Jews and camp survivors) are now occupants of Soviet-run refugee camps. Fortunately, the two arrangements are fundamentally different, both in intent and operation. Most of the novel is set in various military-managed refugee camps, ending at Starye Dorogi in the USSR proper, and are genuinely for refugees rather than prisoner: relaxed security (almost to the point of absurdity), reliable food (a feast compared to Auschwitz, he notes), and a toleration of autonomy, self-expression, and even trouble-making of the occupants. Even more so, Primo sees the victorious Soviets, of various nationalities, as having little in common except their shared stark contrast with the Germans: they are bureaucratically inefficient rather than ruthlessly efficient, surprisingly evenhanded versus brutally hierarchical, and behind their militarized exterior, possess fairness and "certain kindness inherent to their race" but very little talent for orderly management (and little concern over that lacking). His worst experiences and harshest critiques of the Red Army are relatively mild, especially next to his clear fondness for certain individuals, like teenage Soviet soldiers or the military women employed as doctors or secretaries for the camp management, and it's hard not to see his overall picture as very positive, especially when one considers the attitude of the time which was unfriendly to his opinions.
  • Dirty Commies: In the appendix, Primo laments the autocratic tactics (particularly censorship) employed in the USSR that had come to infamy in under the Nazis in Germany, though (with the publishing of the expose The Gulag Archipelago) he refutes the comparison between the Soviet labor prison system (and prisons in the Colonial world) and the German extermination camps like Auschwitz, arguing that while they were still deplorable and lethal for many inhabitants, even at their worst they lacked the deliberate mission of extermination, and by the 1980s had downscaled to the thousands (according to Amnesty International) and still allowed prisoners to communicate via letters and packages, in stark contrast to Auschwitz (as he had witnessed it), with its over ninety percent mortality rate and massive scale of millions. He characterizes them as "[standing] out as an ugly stain on Soviet Socialism...[but] be regarded as a barbaric legacy from the czarist absolutism from which the Soviet rulers have been unable or have not wished to liberate themselves..." though emphasizes his view as a survivor of Auschwitz.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Of the 650 people who were transported to Auschwitz from Fossoli internment camp, only Primo, Leonardo and Cesare live to return home.
  • The Homeward Journey: This almost picaresque novel narrates the tortuous return from Auschwitz to Italy. It's very convoluted since the Soviets don't know what exactly do with these survivors and their handing over of these people is postponed for months as they are relocated first in Ukraine, then in Belarus.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: A considerable number of inmates who survived to the liberation were nonetheless beyond the help of the unprepared Russians, succumbing to various maladies shortly afterwards.
  • Yanks with Tanks: Primo's first personal encounter with the U.S. Army (in Austria, having been transported in a Soviet refugee train) is highly memorable, being bathed and sprayed with insecticide "...DDT, an absolutely novelty to us, like the jeeps, penicillin, and the atomic bomb, which we learnt about soon afterwards."

Alternative Title(s): The Truce