In 1982, the writer Primo Levi returned to Auschwitz concentration camp. It was forty years since he had been imprisoned there. His journey was filmed for a documentary for Italian television.
Levi had been captured as a resistance fighter in Italy. At first, he was sent to an Italian concentration camp at Fossoli. When this was taken over by the Nazis, Levi was transported by cattle truck to Monowitz—one of the three main camps at Auschwitz—on February 21st, 1944.
Levi had thought they were being transported to Austerlitz. No one had ever heard of Auschwitz. Six-hundred -and-fifty Italian Jews were transported. Forty-five people crammed into each sealed train carriage for five days without food or water.
I remember that our breath would freeze on the car bolts and we would compete in scraping off the frost, full of rust as it was, to have a few drops with which to wet our lips.
Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz for eleven months until the camp was liberated by the Russian army in January 1945. Of the 650 Italian Jews transported to the camp only twenty survived.
In his book Survival in Auschwitz (aka If This Be A Man), Levi wrote of the way he and other prisoners attempted to “adapt”—the man who hummed Mozart; the slave laborer who juggled stones; the prisoner who said he had got the better of Hitler just by being alive.
But adapting was never easy. Even the most trivial of things made it difficult to survive. Shoes, for example. Mismatched pairs would be thrown at the prisoner—one with a heel, one without, one too small, one too big—which made walking impossible. These shoes caused infections—sores that never healed. The prisoners with swollen or infected feet were sent to the infirmary. But as “swollen feet” was not a recognized disease—these men and women were sent to the gas chamber.
In total 1.1 million humans were killed at Auschwitz—90% were Jewish.
One in six of all Jewish people killed during the Holocaust (Shoah) died at Auschwitz.
The ones who adapted to everything are the ones who survived. But the majority did not adapt and died.
Primo Levi Returns to Auschwitz is an Italian documentary made by state TV channel RAI in 1983. Click on “CC” closed captions for the English subtitles.