#174517- If this is a Man?

At the nursing home in Munich Aliza Kohn was attended by a new young helper Irmgard Schultz. Slowly Aliza was guided to her weekly shower and Irmgaard was attracted to the blue tattoo number on her arm. Irmgaard had tattoos too, but this one didn’t look like a decoration to be proud of. Aliza saw the wondering gaze from the girl and sighed

“You haven’t learned about it in school? Would you like to know more about it”?

“Yes I would”!


Irmgaard admitted. Aliza said that she couldn’t explain it more than she was a Holocaust survivor and everybody coming to the death camps had to have such a tattoo burnt into the arm as an identification. The name was not in function any more at that place. Aliza, like so many other survivors, had never spoken about the horrors she had gone through, but she wanted the girl to read the books by the Italian Jew Primo Levi with the tattoo number 174517. That would explain it all.*

( * The introduction for my story about the impression of Primo Levi’s books is fiction.)

The books are “If this is a Man, “The Truce”, “Survival in Auschwitz” and “The Reawakening.”


Primo Levi was 24 years old in December 1943 when he and some other Italians partisan Jews were rounded up by a fascist militia in the mountains close to his home town Turin in North Italy. He was then sent to Mono Witz-Buna Auschwitz III a camp where the prisoners worked themselves to death in a factory intended to produce synthetic rubber.

  • The Total Humiliation

The travel, locked up cattle transports, took four days and nights in hunger thirst and cold. Upon arrival no one could never know if going out from the door left or right would lead to the imminent death or a more slow coming death.  The reaction to the questions “How old”? or “ill or sick” could be the difference between life and death.

The new comers learnt that questions were never answered.

The word “Selections” was a choice to death and never to survive. But what was the criteria for these selections? Normally it seemed to be those who were too weak to work any more, but sometimes Primo experienced that stronger men than he was selected to the gas chambers.

On arrival they had to stand naked for hours waiting and waiting. Then the total shavings and a fight for the horrible clothes or not fitting rags and wooden clogs. Their names ware exchanged with the tattooed number on the arm. The bottom was reached, the humans were changed into ghosts. They were told that the only possible exit was through the chimney.

They were doomed to death with out the rights of a doomed.

“The selected” were an anonymous mass ever to be re-placed by new-comers.

  • Chances of survival

Primo Levi found that to try to survive as a human being he had to use all skills to manage. The one who does this inadequately would pay a high price.

Those who were able to understand or speak German and Polish had more chances of survival than others. Nothing was ever explained so to understand the orders helped to avoid beatings and other punishments.

Primo was an educated chemist and just as he was almost done as a human being,  working outside with extremely hard work, he was selected to work inside the chemistry factory.

To survive you also had to get hold of some “privileges”. By that he meant that it was not possible to survive if you wanted to keep up the moral standards of normal life outside the camps. The privileged suppressed the non-privileged. The most crowded road to “salvation” was to become a “prominent”. Mostly it was the criminals who gained those positions, but Jews were also able to gain them by using intrigues.

To survive you had to steal things that could be used in exchange of other essential things as spoons or shoes or bread.

“Death begins in the shoes” !

Some one taught him that to survive you had to try to wash yourself and walk upright.

A dangerous working partner was a young and inexperienced person who just worked hard without trying to save his strengths.

All seemed to have nightmares where they told their relatives about their experiences in the camps, but nobody ever listened.

  • The meaning of the number

Those with a small number was highly respected because they had managed to survive so far. They knew the sound of a full latrine bucket and stayed in their bunk bed at night. The more inexperienced had to carry it out side about twenty times a night to be emptied.

When the Germans realized that the Soviet troops were near in February 1945 they became even more cruel and after they left with all prisoners  on forced death march – all beside the sick inmates in the so-called Ka-Be. They were left without heat or food.

Primo Levi 1919-1987

Primo Levi 1919-1987


Primo Levi survives, and one of the reasons was Lorenzo, an Italian worker outside the camp, who shared some of his food with Primo for six months. Primo was left in the Ka-Be because of scarlet fever. He was still very weak but was able to organize some food and a stove to cook the potatoes they found in a hole in the frozen ground. Those more sick than him in other barracks were left to die of hunger, thirst and cold.

His best friend Alberto died on the forced death march. It took Primo about 8 months to get home to Italy. Just before his 70th birthday he threw himself out from the staircase three stores down head first and died instantly.


    • This book is so exceptional. I can’t explain it in any other way that he wrote it so well. I read it in Danish but have just bought it in English too. I can’t read it in the original Italian


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