Making Sense of Primo Levi's Auschwitz Report

Part I: What is the context of Primo Levi's testimony?

Posted Jul 22, 2019

Throughout the 1990’s I taught Western Civilization at Cooper Union in NYC.  Every semester we read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is a Man).  No doubt it is a masterpiece, not only as a Holocaust testimony but in the canon of Western literature.  Given my experiences with Viktor Frankl’s testimony, Levi’s profoundly honest effort to get Auschwitz “right” appeared heroic to me. 

Therefore, in 2006, when a new publication by Levi appeared in English, it sparked my interest.  I presented a short paper on the book (never published) but reproduced below.  I would be interested to hear if any readers of this post think my interpretation of the Auschwitz Report is correct?

Although best known for his seminal work, Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s memoir was actually his second attempt to articulate the horrors of Auschwitz. His first effort was rediscovered in 1993 by an Italian historian in the back pages of the Italian medical journal Minerva Medica.  The "Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz–Upper Silesia)"—the Auschwitz Report—was co-written by Levi and another Italian Jewish survivor, Leonardo de Benedetti.  Benedetti was 20 years older than Levi and had been transported with him to Auschwitz.  Levi and Benedetti were two of the 24 (out of 650) survivors from the original transport.

Benedetti, whom Levi affectionately called “Nardo,” returned to Turin with Levi after the war and they lived for 40 years in the same neighborhood.  Nardo was a family doctor and their friendship provided consolation while each had periodic bouts of depression.  He died in 1983 at the age of 85.  In a 1983 addenda memorial piece to the report titled “In Memory of a Good Man,” Levi movingly describes his friend’s smile as “… childlike but never unmindful or sad.” He also remarks that “Nardo stood out from all the other survivors by his perseverance in keeping alive the network of solidarity among his fellow prisoners even those far off or in foreign countries.”  

Benedetti was deeply troubled by his survival—few his age did survive, 46—and no doubt the deepest injury was the murder of his wife at Auschwitz; in 1945 in a letter written home, he stated: “I am like a beggar who has lost everything except life.”

The origins of the report stem from a request by the Soviets.  After the Soviet Army discovered the Auschwitz system of camps in January of 1945, Levi and Benedetti were asked to draft a report on the sanitary and medical organization of Auschwitz.  At the time, the pair were working together because Benedetti, a medical doctor, was in charge of the Katowice infirmary and he had appointed Levi his outpatient clerk.

Levi’s biographer, Ian Thompson, described the unique friendship based on their shared experience and that “while Levi was often bewildered by the Soviet confusion of Katowice, the elder Benedetti had some insight into the camp's ‘vodka-swilling command’ because during the First World War he had served as a medical officer in the Russian port of Murmansk.”

The Soviet’s motives for requesting the report likely stemmed from a desire to document the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime, not just for posterity, but also for propaganda purposes. It is unlikely that Levi and Benedetti were aware that the report would be used as propaganda for the Soviet Union.  And no doubt they were grateful that the Red Army had rescued them and provided employment. 

In his introduction to the Auschwitz Report, Robert Gordon points out the “pro-Soviet rhetoric” and attributes it to the fact that the entire generation “had much to be grateful to the Russians for.” However according to Thompson, “It was only 23 years later, when Levi read Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle in 1968, that he understood why the Katowice Command had questioned him so intently on Auschwitz food rations and sabotage prevention. They were seeking information on how to run the Gulag more efficiently, as well as collecting historical data.”

At the request of the Soviets, then, the two collaborated on an account of life in the camps. Gal Beckerman describes the book as “a vision of their year in hell filtered through the language of science,” or, as Robert Gordon remarks in his introduction, the horrific world of Auschwitz reduced to "physiology and pathology.”

The report begins like many early testimonies by describing how the horrors of the camps were already well-known from the “photographic evidence, and the already numerous accounts provided by ex-internees of the various concentration camps created by the Germans for the annihilation of the European Jews,” and then asserts “that there is perhaps no longer anyone still unaware of the nature of those places of extermination and the iniquities that were committed there.”

The Auschwitz Report also contains the well-known narrative of the “selections,” the intense deprivation the prisoners experienced, and the manual labor that intended to be little more than death through work.  The pathologies of the camp are also cataloged: boils, abscesses, ulcers, and other infirmaries; the intense cold, exhaustion, and constant hunger are also depicted.  Nazi “contempt” is captured by the fact that many of the prisoners “foot-cloths and underpants had obviously been made out of ‘tallit’, the sacred shawl with which Jews cover themselves during prayer…” 

Jonathon Derbyshire also notes that Levi repeats many of his observations although “substantially modified in If This Is a Man, including an account of the dangerous work of the 'Chemical Commando' and a description of conditions in the camp infirmary, or 'Ka-Be.'” This raises the issue of the relationship between the Auschwitz Report and his testimony, and Derbyshire points out that “almost all commentators have remarked, it is also the laboratory of a style, one in which Levi … trains his penetrating scientific gaze on the moral and physical squalor of Auschwitz.”

At some point after their repatriation, the friends decided to revise and publish the Katowice report. It eventually appeared in the Turin medical journal about nine months after Levi had begun to write If This Is a Man. Therefore while Levi worked intensely to gain clarity on his experience and give voice to his moral outrage in a credible fashion, it is likely that the Auschwitz Report, with its cautious scientific objectivity, provided him with a model for the profound precision and lucidity he managed.

The Auschwitz Report is also significant because at the same time that Levi and Benedetti were reworking the report after their return to Italy, it appears Levi was hard at work writing his renowned testimony and therefore it is not surprising it is similar in tone.  In a way, this fact makes it a key insight into the “context” of his testimony.

Given the dual authorship, the question arises who wrote what?  Derbyshire points out that “it is almost certain that Benedetti was responsible for much of [the] pathological detail, especially the division of the most frequently occurring diseases in the camp into six categories (dystrophic diseases, gastro-intestinal complaints, diseases due to cold and so on). By contrast, Levi's hand is clearly apparent in a number of disconcerting 'everyday observations' and in the occasional sardonic descriptions.” 

Robert Gordon’s introduction more or less mirrors Derbyshire’s claims and adds the insight that the “touches of irony and sarcasm” are harbingers of the “more varied and sensitive style that If this is a Man will achieve.”  Gordon concludes: “It is the Auschwitz Report, rooted in the ‘scientific’ presentation and analysis of medical data, which is the founding moment, the ur-document [of Levi’s] exceptional voice of reason.”

The Report has generated some controversy.  Jonathan Beckman, a British journalist for the Observer, argued the “exploitative packaging of Auschwitz Report is misleading,” because the Auschwitz Report has been “desperately” swollen to book-length.  It is also “clear that this was written by Leonardo de Benedetti with the assistance of Primo Levi, not the other way around,” and Benedetti was the person behind the publication.  Beckman places responsibility for the excesses on the publisher, claiming “Verso has dolled this up as the work of Levi,” and then asserts that “piggybacking sales on Levi's name is tasteless.”  Beckman concludes that the “contortions of the introduction, which attempts to connect the Auschwitz Report and Levi's later work, are spurious and crass.”

Robert Gordon was correct to respond to Beckman’s criticism with the claim that his “review of the volume is such a mish-mash of bald errors, pompous arrogations and sheer confusions that it is hard to spot the single serious point that lies behind it…”  After clarifying a number of errors in Beckman’s review, Gordon argues that Levi’s contribution to the Auschwitz Report was indeed “substantial: as such it is a work of considerable literary and historical interest.”  Gordon also claims that Levi does deserve “top billing” because he “is established as one of the truly great voices of 20th-century literature and testimony,” and although “commerce comes into the picture, no doubt, but so too do canonization and history.”

Read "Making Sense of the Auschwitz Report" the second part of this series: view here