Reading the back cover of this book, I see among generally accurate praise the statement that “Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit”. I’ve clearly read a different book.
In my eyes, If This Is a Man remains a lasting testament to the laughable frailness of the human spirit. It is an observation of an experiment—an experiment to see just how far and how quickly a “human” can go to not being human. And it was pretty quick. From the moment the inmates are thrust into the room that barely fits them, stripped naked, and shaved, they degenerate into “phantoms,” “hollow”. They start out as naïve gentlemen and, if they don’t die, transform into ruthless beasts. This is not just a state of nature as Hobbes would image it; it is a regulated state of nature. It is as if the Nazis threw the uncountable numbers of inmates into a huge yet cramped arena, gave them barely adequate provisions and inadequate necessities, and told them to fight to the death. In a sense, this is exactly what they did. Those who did not quickly adapt to the situation died, those who couldn’t discriminate between friends, enemies, and useful tools died, those who stubbornly held on to their “human” spirit died, and a lot of other people died for no particular reason. Only the adaptive, the clever, the ruthless, and, most of all, the lucky, survived. Levi portrays himself as the lucky. He shows many situations throughout the book in which he, in the face of absolute despair, manages to wiggle out due to situations which he had little to no control over (i.e. chance). He gets friends at just the right time, goes to the hospital at just the right time, and has a lot of other things happen at just the right time, the starkest of which is when he lives through a selection with the knowledge that his ticket was probably switched out with someone else’s, whom was then doomed to die because he…was out of luck.
Near the end, we see one of those individuals who, going by that one line in the back cover, possessed an indestructible human spirit. This man was apparently connected to a group of inmates who were still human, a willful few that had somehow managed to actually sabotage a part of the camp. And what happened to this individual and his spirit? He was captured, hanged, and made a show out of as the crowd was forced to march by his corpse. If there was a hero—a Man—in this book, that would probably be him; but he was definitely not a survivor.