Inside the Nazis' most notorious death camp - Features - Books - The Independent

Inside the Nazis' most notorious death camp

Primo Levi's earliest account of the Holocaust was not a memoir or a novel but a document detailing what happened inside the Nazis' most notorious death camp. Compiled in collaboration with a fellow survivor at the request of their Soviet liberators, the Auschwitz Report is a work of extraordinary restraint and lucidity. As it appears for the first time in English, we tell the story of how it came to be written, and publish extracts

On 27 January 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated what was left of the network of concentration, labour and extermination camps near Auschwitz (Oswiecim) in southern Poland. The first part of the camp they stumbled upon was Buna-Monowitz (Monowice), or Auschwitz III, a satellite of the central Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, which was run by the Nazis in collaboration with the industrial-chemical corporation IG Farben.

Until days earlier, 12,000 enslaved labourers, mostly Jews, had been kept there in appalling conditions. Among the several hundred sick and dying left behind by the retreating Nazis were two Italian Jews, both from Turin: 46-year-old doctor Leonardo De Benedetti and 25-year-old chemistry graduate Primo Levi.

De Benedetti and Levi had arrived in Auschwitz on the same train convoy, probably in the same cattle-truck, almost exactly 11 months earlier, on 26 February 1944, after a horrific four-day journey from a detention camp at Fossoli in central Italy. They had first met at Fossoli in early 1944, after being arrested in December 1943 in different parts of the mountains north and west of Turin. De Benedetti was picked up by Italian militia near Como with his wife, Jolanda, after they had failed to find sanctuary in Switzerland (other members of his family group, including his ailing mother, had been allowed in).

Levi had been arrested after a brief and (as he portrayed it) rather amateurish few weeks as an anti-fascist partisan in the Valle d'Aosta. Of the 650 men, women and children crowded into the closed wagons of that train at Fossoli with De Benedetti and Levi, only 24 were to survive. De Benedetti's wife, separated from him on arrival in Auschwitz, was murdered by gas within hours, as were 525 others. De Benedetti and Levi were "fortunate" (both used the word) to be selected for labour and transferred to Monowitz, where they were disinfected, tattooed and numbered, respectively, 174489 and 174517.

Every story of survival in Auschwitz is a story of extraordinary circumstance, of hard-fought infinitesimal advantage (an extra sip of watery soup, a matching pair of shoes, an hour out of the cold), rare reliance on others, and, above all, immense luck. Levi's and De Benedetti's stories are no exception. Even among fellow prisoners, Levi later wrote, the Italian Jews - the "174,000s" - were known as frail and naive, all lawyers and graduates, doomed in the crushing camp conditions of hard labour, violence and filth. Worse, De Benedetti was by all rights too old to survive here, even to be here at all. And he was never able to find work as a doctor, one of the (relatively) more comfortable and protected positions within the camp world. Yet, through force of character and through extraordinary good fortune - he had been selected for the gas chambers on four occasions, struck with swollen legs, unable to walk let alone work, only to be saved by prisoner-doctors - he was still alive in January 1945. Levi was fortunate in other ways, no less extraordinary: as we know from If This Is a Man (1947), he found companionship in the resourceful Alberto (Dalla Volta), and received precious scraps of food and support from Lorenzo (Perone), an Italian "voluntary" labourer in the civilian work camp attached to the Buna plant. Perhaps most remarkable of all, as he describes in Moments of Reprieve (1981), he fell sick with scarlet fever precisely as the Germans were evacuating the camp and leaving only the sick behind. His companion Alberto was not so "lucky": he had immunity from a childhood bout of scarlet fever and so was taken on the infamous death march out of Auschwitz towards Germany. He never returned.

After liberation, survivors were moved into the main Auschwitz camp by the Soviets, and, from there, on to transit camps nearby. In March 1945, Levi and De Benedetti both reached the camp at Katowice, to the north of Auschwitz. As Levi recounts in his vivid second book, The Truce (1963), they would stay there, under the disorderly but humane control of the Russians, for nearly four months, waiting for the war to end and for some path homeward to open up amid the devastation of postwar Europe and its millions of "displaced persons". De Benedetti set himself up as a highly popular camp doctor, and Levi offered himself - he was a "doctor" of chemistry, after all - as his lab assistant and junior clerk.

Towards the end of their time in Katowice, Levi fell gravely ill with pleurisy and De Benedetti's skill as both medic and black-marketeer saved his life. Meanwhile, the Soviet authorities were undertaking a massive information-gathering exercise on Nazi crimes and they looked to survivors, doctors especially, for information on conditions in the concentration camps. At some point in the spring of 1945, then, De Benedetti and Levi drafted a short report on Auschwitz III for the Katowice Command.

The report is a collaborative document, written, as the Italians say, "four-handedly" (a quattro mani). There is little external evidence to suggest who wrote what, but we can speculate with some confidence on the basis of style, comparison with Levi's later works, and the distinct experiences and expertise of the two authors. Thus, De Benedetti must have been largely responsible for the strictly medical section detailing the six pathologies most prevalent in the camp (although the last category, "work-related conditions", draws on Levi's experience) and perhaps also the description that follows of the workings of the infirmary at Monowitz. Levi's hand seems more apparent in the opening and closing parts, where we learn about the train journey and arrival, about living, eating and working conditions in Monowitz and, towards the end of the report, about the selections and the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

For what it tells us about Levi and the future work of this remarkable writer; for its status as a very particular historical document of the early reckoning with what we now call the Holocaust; and for its moving enactment of a lifelong friendship born in suffering; for all these reasons, Auschwitz Report feels like essential reading. Essential in the sense of necessary (it was Saul Bellow who first described a book of Levi's as "necessary"); but essential also in that the report captures something of the essence of the concentration camp experience, reduced to a core of physiology and pathology.

In his posthumously published collection On the Natural History of Destruction, WG Sebald - a writer whose work is shadowed by the Holocaust at every turn - contrasts certain over-wrought accounts of the Allied fire-bombings of German cities with what he calls the "concrete memory" of contemporary medical reports. He mentions a 1945 document entitled "Findings of Pathological and Anatomical Investigations After the Raids on Hamburg in 1943-45", and compares it to the diary of Michihiko Hachiya, a Hiroshima doctor. These, more than any literary elaborations, are the "natural histories" of 20th-century destruction; and the "Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz - Upper Silesia)" belongs precisely in this company. Set against writings such as these, Sebald says, literary fiction "knows nothing"; and, quoting Elias Canetti: "If there were any point in wondering what form of literature is essential to a thinking, seeing human being today, then it is this."

By Robert SC Gordon

The Auschwitz Report, By Primo Levi

As soon as the train reached Auschwitz (at about 9pm on 26 February 1944) the trucks were rapidly cleared by a number of SS men armed with pistols and equipped with batons, and the passengers were forced to leave their suitcases, bundles and rugs alongside the train. The company was immediately divided into three groups: one of young and apparently able-bodied men, comprising 95 individuals; a second of women, also young - a meagre group made up of only 29 people - and a third, the most numerous of all, of the children, the infirm and the old. And, while the first two were sent separately to different camps, there is reason to believe that the third was taken straight to the gas chamber at Birkenau, and its members slaughtered that same evening.

The first group was taken to Monowitz, where there was a concentration camp administratively dependent on Auschwitz, and about 8km away from it, which had been set up towards the middle of 1942 in order to provide labour for the construction of the "Buna-Werke" industrial complex, a subsidiary of IG Farbenindustrie. It housed 10,000 to 12,000 prisoners, even though its normal capacity was only 7,000 to 8,000 men. The majority of these were Jews of every nationality in Europe, while a small minority was made up of German and Polish criminals, Polish "politicals", and "saboteurs".

The "Buna-Werke", intended for the production on a vast scale of synthetic rubber, synthetic gasoline, dyestuffs and other by-products of coal, occupied a rectangular area of about 35sq km. One of the entrances to this industrial zone, completely surrounded by high barbed-wire fences, was situated a few hundred metres from the Concentration Camp for Jews, and a short distance from this, and adjoining the periphery of the industrial zone, was a concentration camp for English prisoners of war, while further away there were other camps for civilian workers of various nationalities. We should add that the production cycle of the "Buna-Werke" was never initiated; the starting date, originally fixed for August 1944, was repeatedly postponed because of air raids and sabotage by Polish civilian workers, right up to the evacuation of the district by the German army.

Monowitz was therefore a typical "ArbeitsLager". Every morning, the entire population of the Camp - apart from the sick and the small labour force assigned to internal work - would file out in perfect ranks, to the sound of a band playing military marches and cheerful popular songs, to reach their places of work, up to 6 or 7km distant for some squads. The route would be covered at a rapid pace, almost at a run. Before the departure for work, and after returning from it, the daily ceremony of the roll-call would take place in a special square in the Lager, where all the prisoners had to stand in rigid formation, for between one and three hours, whatever the weather.

As soon as they arrived at the Camp, the group of 95 men was taken to the disinfection unit, where all of its members were immediately made to undress and then subjected to a total and painstaking depilation: head hair, beards and all other hair quickly fell away beneath scissors, razors and clippers. After which they were put into the shower room and locked up there until the following morning. Tired, hungry, thirsty, half asleep, amazed by what they had already seen and worried about their immediate future, but anxious above all about the fate of the dear ones from whom they had been suddenly and brutally separated a few hours earlier, with their minds tormented by sombre and tragic forebodings, they had to spend the whole night standing up, with their feet in the water that trickled from the pipes and ran over the floor. Finally, at about six the following morning, they were subjected to a complete rub-down with a solution of Lysol and then to a hot shower; after which the Camp clothes were handed out, and they were sent to get dressed in another large room, which they had to reach from the outside of the building, going out naked into the snow with their bodies still wet from their recent shower.

The winter outfit of the Monowitz prisoners consisted of a jacket, a pair of trousers, a cap and an overcoat of woollen cloth in broad stripes, plus a shirt, a pair of cotton underpants and a pair of foot-cloths, a pullover and a pair of boots with wooden soles. Many of the foot-cloths and the underpants had obviously been made out of the "tallit" - the sacred shawl with which Jews cover themselves during prayers - retrieved from the luggage of some of the deportees and made use of in this way as a mark of contempt.

By the month of April, when the cold, though less severe, had not yet gone, the thick clothing and pullovers would be withdrawn and trousers and jackets replaced by similar articles in cotton, also with broad stripes; and only towards the end of October would the winter garments be distributed again. However, this no longer happened in the autumn of 1944 because the woollen suits and coats had reached the end of any possibility of re-use, so the prisoners had to face the winter of 1944-45 dressed in the same thin clothes as during the summer months, with only a small minority being given a light gabardine raincoat or a pullover.

Having spare clothes or underwear was strictly forbidden, so it was practically impossible to wash shirts or underpants; these items were officially changed at intervals of 30, 40 or 50 days, depending on availability and without the possibility of choice. The new underwear was not actually clean, of course, but simply disinfected by steam, because there was no laundry in the Camp. It usually consisted of short cotton underpants and of shirts: always cotton or some other thin cloth, often without sleeves, always of a disgusting appearance because of the many stains of all kinds, and often reduced to rags. Sometimes instead one would be given the jacket or trousers from a pair of pyjamas, or even some article of female underwear. The repeated disinfections weakened the fibres of the cloth, removing all resistance to wear and tear. All this material represented the shoddiest part of the linen seized from the members of the various transports which, as is common knowledge, flooded ceaselessly into the station at Auschwitz from every part of Europe. Coats, jackets and trousers, whether summer or winter, were distributed in an unbelievably bad condition, covered with patches and impregnated with filth (mud, machine oil, paint). The prisoners were personally obliged to see to repairs, although they were not provided with either needles or thread. Permission for an exchange was obtained with extreme difficulty, and only when any attempt at repair was clearly impossible. Foot-cloths could not be exchanged at all, and their replacement was left to the initiative of each individual. It was forbidden to own a handkerchief, or indeed a scrap of cloth of any kind.

The boots were made in a special workshop inside the Camp; the wooden soles were nailed to uppers of leather, leatherette, or cloth and rubber, taken from the shoddiest of the footwear obtained from incoming convoys. When they were in good condition they provided reasonable protection against the cold and the wet, but they were completely unsuitable for marches, however short, and were the cause of epidermal ulcers of the feet. Anyone in possession of boots that were the right size and a matching pair could count himself lucky. When they deteriorated they were repaired innumerable times, beyond any reasonable limit, so new footwear was very rarely seen, and the sort usually handed out did not last for more than a week. Bootlaces were not distributed and substitutes were contrived by each individual from twisted paper cord, or from electric flex when it was possible to find any.

Hygienic and sanitary conditions in the Camp actually appeared at first sight to be good: the paths and avenues that separated the various "blocks" were well-maintained and clean, in so far as the mud of the road surface permitted; the outsides of the "blocks" were of well-painted wood, and the insides had floors diligently swept and washed every morning, with the three-storey bunks, the so-called "castles", perfectly aligned and the blankets on the pallets completely flat and smooth. But all this was only the outward appearance, the reality was very different; in fact the "blocks", which should normally have housed 150 to 170 people, were always crammed with not less than 200, and often as many as 250, so that two people had to sleep in almost every bed. In these conditions, the cubic capacity of the dormitory was certainly less than the minimum needed for respiration and oxygenation of the blood. The pallets consisted of a sort of palliasse more or less filled with wood-shavings, reduced almost to dust from long use, and of two blankets. Apart from the fact that these were never changed, and not subjected, except very rarely and for exceptional reasons, to any disinfection, they were mostly in a dreadful state: threadbare from very long use, torn and covered in stains of every kind. Only the pallets most in view were provided with more decent covers, almost clean and sometimes even attractive; these were the pallets on the lower tiers and nearest the entrance door.

Naturally these beds were reserved for the minor "hierarchs" of the Camp: the squad Kapos and their assistants, the aides of the block Kapo, or simply the friends of the one or the other. This explains the impression of cleanliness, order and hygiene which greeted anyone entering a dormitory for the first time and giving the inside a superficial glance.

In the structure of the "castles", the supporting beams and the planks on which the pallets rested, lived thousands of bed-bugs and fleas which gave the prisoners sleepless nights; nor were the disinfections of the dormitories with nitrogen mustard vapour, which were carried out every three or four months, sufficient for the destruction of these guests, which continued to vegetate and multiply almost undisturbed.

Against lice, on the other hand, a war to the death was waged in order to avert the onset of an epidemic of petechial typhus; every evening on returning from work, and with greater strictness on Saturday afternoons (devoted, among other things, to the shaving of heads and beards, and sometimes also of body hair) the so-called "louse inspection" would be carried out. Every prisoner had to strip and subject his garments to a meticulous examination by the specially appointed inspectors, and if even a single louse was found on a deportee's shirt, all the personal clothing of every inmate of the dormitory was immediately despatched to be disinfected, and the men were subjected to a shower, preceded by a rub-down with Lysol. They then had to spend the entire night naked, until their clothes were brought back from the disinfection hut in the early hours of the morning, soaking wet.

However, no other prophylactic measures were put in place against infectious diseases, even though there was no shortage of these: typhus and scarlet fever, diphtheria and chickenpox, measles, erysipelas, etcetera, not counting the numerous skin infections, such as tineas, impetigo and scabies. It is quite astonishing, given such disregard for the rules of hygiene and with people living in such close proximity, that rapidly spreading epidemics never broke out.

One of the greatest risk factors for the transmission of infectious diseases was represented by the fact that a significant percentage of prisoners were not provided with a mess tin or a spoon; consequently three or four people in succession would be forced to eat from the same container or with the same implement, without having had the chance to wash it.

The food, inadequate in quantity, was of inferior quality. It consisted of three meals: in the morning, straight after reveille, 350g of bread would be distributed on four days of the week and 700g on the other three, giving a daily average of 500g - an amount which would have been fairly reasonable if the bread itself had not indisputably contained a very large quantity of dross, among which sawdust was much in evidence; also in the mornings there would be 25g of margarine with about 20g of sausage or a spoonful of jam or soft cheese. The margarine was distributed on six days of the week only, and later this was reduced to three. At noon the deportees received a litre of turnip or cabbage soup, completely tasteless due to the absence of any kind of flavouring, and every evening after work a further litre of a slightly thicker soup with a few potatoes or now and then some peas and chickpeas, but this too was completely devoid of any fat to flavour it. One might infrequently find a few shreds of meat. To drink, half a litre of ersatz coffee, without sugar, was distributed morning and evening; only on Sundays was it sweetened with saccharin. There was no drinking water at Monowitz; the running water in the washrooms could only be put to external use, since it was river water, which arrived at the Camp neither filtered nor sterilised and was therefore highly dubious. It was clear in appearance, but of a yellowish colour if seen in any depth; its taste was between the metallic and the sulphurous.

The prisoners were required to take a shower two or three times a week. However, these ablutions were not sufficient to keep them clean as soap was handed out in very parsimonious quantities: only a single 50g bar per month. Its quality was extremely poor; it consisted of a rectangular block, very hard, devoid of any fatty material but instead full of sand. It did not produce lather and disintegrated very easily, so that after a couple of showers it was completely used up. After showering, there was no way of rubbing down one's body or of drying it since there were no towels, and on coming out of the bath-house one had to run naked, whatever the time of year, the atmospheric and meteorological conditions or the temperature, as far as one's own particular "block", where one's clothes had been left.

The work to which the great majority of prisoners was assigned was manual labour of various kinds, all very demanding and unsuited to the physical condition and the abilities of those condemned to it; very few were employed in work which had any connection with the profession or trade they had practised in civilian life. Thus, neither of the present writers were able to work in the hospital or in the chemical laboratory of the "Buna-Werke", but were forced to share the lot of their companions and undergo labours beyond their strength, sometimes working as navvies with pick and shovel, sometimes unloading coal or sacks of cement, or doing other sorts of very heavy work, all of which naturally took place out of doors, winter and summer, in snow, rain, sun or wind, and without clothing that provided adequate protection against low temperatures or bad weather. This kind of work, moreover, always had to be carried out at the double and without any breaks except for an hour, from noon till one, for the midday meal; woe betide anyone who was caught being inactive or standing at ease during working hours.

'Contempt for hygienic, therapeutic and humanitarian principles': life inside the Auschwitz hospital

In order to be allowed into the hospital, the patients judged by the clinic doctors to be worthy of admission had to report a second time the following morning, immediately after reveille, to undergo another, very cursory examination by the doctor in charge of medical services; if he confirmed the need for hospitalisation, they would be sent to the shower room. There they would be shaved to the last hair, then made to take a shower, and finally they would be sent to the relevant section of the hospital. To get there, they would have to go outside, covered only by a wrap, and walk 100 to 200 metres in this state, whatever the season and whatever the atmospheric and meteorological conditions.

In the various clinical wards, the doctor in charge, assisted by one or two nurses, would perform his morning round without personally going up to the patients' beds; rather, it was they who would have to get out of bed and go to him, excluding only those who were completely prevented from doing so by the seriousness of their condition. In the evenings, there would be a rapid follow-up examination.

In the surgical wards, the dressings would be applied in the mornings, and since the dormitory was divided into three aisles and each aisle was treated in turn, it followed that each patient received treatment only every third day. The dressings were secured with paper bandages which tore and came apart in the course of a few hours; so the wounds, whether septic or not, were always left exposed. Only in rare and exceptional cases would dressings be secured with adhesive plaster, which was used with the utmost frugality on account of its scarcity.

Medication was reduced to a minimum; many products, even the most basic and commonly used, were totally absent, while of others there was only a meagre amount. Every so often, the dispensary was given new blood by the receipt, on the arrival of new convoys of prisoners, of various quantities of the most disparate products and the most diverse proprietary drugs - many of them useless - discovered in the luggage confiscated from the new arrivals; but all in all, requirements were always far in excess of supply.

The staff were recruited entirely from among the deportees themselves. The doctors were chosen, subject to examination, from among those who had declared on entering the Camp that they had a degree in medicine, with priority going to those who were fluent in German or Polish. Their services were rewarded with improved rations and better clothing and footwear. The orderlies and nurses, on the other hand, were picked without any criterion of previous professional experience; for the most part they were striking physical specimens who had obtained their positions - naturally very much sought after - thanks to their friendships and connections with doctors already in post, or with members of the hierarchy of the Camp. It followed that, while the doctors, on the whole, displayed a reasonable competence and a certain degree of civility, the auxiliary staff distinguished themselves by their ignorance of, or contempt for, every hygienic, therapeutic and humanitarian principle; they went so far as to barter part of the soup and bread intended for the patients in exchange for cigarettes, items of clothing and other such things.

The patients were often beaten for trivial offences; the distribution of rations took place in an irregular way, and when it came to prisoners who were found guilty of more serious faults - such as stealing bread from their companions - the customary punishment was the immediate expulsion of the culprit from the hospital, and his immediate return to work, preceded by the administration of a certain number of blows (usually 25) to the back, delivered very energetically with a tube of rubberised cloth. Another type of punishment was being forced to spend a quarter of an hour on a rather high stool with a very narrow seat, balancing on tip-toe, with the legs bent at the knees and hips and the arms held out horizontally in front at shoulder height. Usually the patient would lose his balance after a few minutes because of muscular fatigue and bodily weakness and tumble to the ground, to the great entertainment of the nurses, who would make a circle round him, mocking him with jeers and gibes. The fallen man would have to get up, reascend the stool and take up his position again for the allotted time; if, because of successive falls, he was no longer capable of doing so, the remainder of the punishment would be made up with a certain number of lashes.

The Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi is published by Verso, £9.99. To order the book (with free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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