On 21 February 1944, the inmates of Primo Levi’s Fossoli, Italy internment camp were transported to Auschwitz (his record number was 174 517) in twelve cramped cattle trucks. Levi spent eleven months there before the camp was liberated by the Red Army. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his shipment, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive. The average life expectancy of a new entrant was three months.

Levi knew some German from reading German publications on chemistry; he quickly oriented himself to life in the camp without attracting the attention of the privileged inmates; he used bread to pay a more experienced Italian prisoner for German lessons and orientation in Auschwitz; and he received a smuggled soup ration each day from Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian civilian bricklayer, imprisoned as forced laborer. His professional qualifications were also useful: in mid-November 1944 he was able to secure a position as an assistant in the Buna laboratory that was intended to produce synthetic rubber, thereby avoiding hard labor in freezing outdoor temperatures. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army, he fell ill with scarlet fever and was placed in the camp's sanatorium (camp hospital). In mid-January 1945 the SS hurriedly evacuated the camp as the Red Army approached, forcing all but the gravely ill on a long death march that led to the death of the vast majority of the remaining prisoners. Levi's illness spared him this fate.

Although liberated on 27 January 1945, Levi did not reach Turin until 19 October 1945. After spending some time in a Soviet camp for former concentration camp inmates, as a result of the Armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces he embarked on an arduous journey home in the company of former pre-1946 Italian prisoners of war from the Royal Italian Army in Russia. His long railway journey home to Turin took him on a circuitous route from Poland, through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany.

 

The Survivor
to B.V.

Dopo di allora, ad ora incerta,
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

Once more he sees his companion’s faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Grey with cement dust,
Nebulous in the mist,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams, their jaws move,
Chewing a nonexistent turnip.
‘Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.’

Primo Levi
4 February 1984 (Translated by Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann)