Humanity: Survival in Auschwitz

While reading Levi’s account of facing death and arriving at Auschwitz, I was presented with complex emotions and deeply troubling scenarios. The last paragraph on page 21 stood out to me for this reason. Levi describes a situation where the German guard in his lorry “courteously” asked each prisoner if they had anything of value to offer him. Levi continued to explain that it was not a requirement, but “a small private initiative of [their] Charon” (Levi, 21). The last sentence reads, “The matter stirs us to anger and laughter and brings relief” (Levi, 21). I found this particularly interesting because it points towards the idea of what little humanity people had left in this situation. I wanted to point out that the guard acted of his own accord to request money and valuables from the prisoners, which was not necessarily a part of his explicit orders. I feel that this brought the prisoners relief because they became fully aware of their situation as they were being robbed of their humanity and treated as “pieces”, just as the guard exercised his humanity to ask for “donations”.

(This is not necessarily a question, rather a conversation-starter on the topic of humanity in Survival in Auschwitz)

Author’s Preface

While starting the reading for Thursday, there was one particular section of his very first page that I found to be very interesting:

“Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.”

(Levi, 9)

I wanted to ask the class if they themselves found this to be true or not, and if so why or why not?

Personally, I believe that Levi is correct. Many people feel threatened by others they do not know, while it seems leaders of countries are timid to make new relations with other countries and their leaders.

Perspective in Olitskaia

I want to focus on Olitskaia’s account because I think it is so incredibly interesting in the way she explores so many different generations of voices of these female prisoners. It gets especially interesting towards the end when she becomes explicitly critical of what she sees as their “baseness and stupidity” (433). Why is she passing this kind of judgment onto these, by all definitions of the word, victims? Why is she so angered by their reactions–it seems as though they’re just trying to get by, holding onto any hope they can, so what makes our narrator so frustrated with them specifically? Is it just the situation she is in? What do you make of the different accounts of the women throughout this piece–what can their perspectives show us about the way of life for not only prisoners within the Communist regime, but other women and people who walk “free”? I put “free” in quotations here because I wonder to what extent their being in prison for seemingly innocuous reasons says about the freedom of everyone under the increasingly paranoid regime. The show trials are another aspect in particular that I think explores this dilemma.

Capitalism = greed?

Mazower’s fourth chapter in dark continent certainly brings up some very interesting points. Debatable and controversial points that’s for sure. Capitalism is definitely useful, as it helped many European countries rebuild their economy after World War 1. The mixture of government banks and private enterprise is very effective in achieving economic stimulus. Strategic government planned financing coupled with the ingenuity of private ownership is a recipe for success. But it would seem that capitalism is not all that perfect. In the global economy many countries were “more concerned with sheltering their own producers” (Mazower 110) than promoting fair trade. Self gain was the number one goal. This begs the question does capitalism and private ownership make us greedy? A contentious point without a doubt.

Marxism and the Economy

After the stock market crash of 1929, the worlds hardships grew. A lack of jobs, production, and consumption were issues that needed to be dealt with. The one system that seemed to do the trick was Marxism. Stalin said that his successful communistic plans “cannot be regarded as an accident”( Mazower 121). Was this system truly what could have shortened the depression and made a large impact on economies quickly?

Indifference to Politics

In the section “Election Campaign in Berlin”, Roth presents interesting ideas about the people of Germany and their near indifference to politics. Though he mentions that their ignoring of political campaigns and propaganda may be based in their own “political convictions”, I don’t believe that’s the case (Roth 189). Later in the section, Roth touches on the everyday distractions of work and pleasure that undermine political campaigns by filling the German people’s time and thoughts with less important ventures. Do you think that this lifestyle ultimately led to Hitler’s rise to power? Is this indicative of the German people’s wishes to have an autocrat take over the government?

It is also important to note that Roth mentions the increasing political extremism in the younger generation on page 192. Does this rise in extremist ideals correlate with the previous questions? Also- does the younger post-war generation have more political standing because of the changing social climate?

Women’s Role in Roth’s Collection

The ways in which women are treated and discussed in parts of Roth’s What I Saw really stuck with me, specifically amongst the sections “Nights in Dives” and “Election Campaign in Berlin.” The contrast of the hypersexualized sex workers and the “offensively” sexless political activists is particularly striking. What do you make of this dichotomy? What do you make of the position of the sex worker in general during this time–how do they fit within the sociopolitical world of Berlin? How does “Nights in Dives” treat them? On the supposed opposite end of the spectrum, how do we parse out the following section from “Election Campaign in Berlin:” 

“You see them at railway stations, the blooming, wheat- blond girls, born to be mothers, but turning into political Furies. They wear shapeless windbreakers, full skirts, and short haircuts. They have unnaturally long strides and absurdly mannish gestures, but nature takes its revenge on them, because as soon as they shout out their “Heil!” or their “Yech!” their voices take on the repellent shrieking edge of hysteria” (Roth, 192).

Why does this section end with this quote? What does this say about women’s perceived role vs. their actual role in German society? How does the physical inspection of these women compare to the physical inspection of the sex workers in the Dives section?


Roth, Joseph. What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 (p. 192). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Refugees of sorts

On page 217 of “What I Saw?”, he says that the people laid down everything for Germany and they gave them nothing in return but punishment. He speaks of the book burnings and the writers that refused to be a part of the Reich’s corps of writers. But he mainly talks about the parts of the lives of the forgotten inhabitants of Berlin and that life goes on for them. I think this gives a more humanistic view of the people of Germany but with the numbers that they have, could a spark of changed that peace? Could one or a few standing their ground, like the writers who were never published because of their morals, have led to a different outcome or would these efforts be squashed by the overwhelming power of the Reich?

Insane Berlin Traffic and Department Stores

Reading the various observations of Joseph Roth, during The Weimar Republic era of Germany was very intriguing to me. I was particularly interested in chapters 14 and 18. Chapter 14 discussed the chaotic nature of Berlin traffic. It would seem that police officers serve little purpose in controlling traffic flow and that roads would need repair everyday. Additionally, motorists and pedestrians seemed to exercise such hostility towards one another. Chapter 18 discusses the ostentatious nature of department stores in Germany. Department stores would be up to fifteen stories high. It is mentioned that “people who dreamed of very large department stores” (Roth 119) only wanted to life themselves above others. I am curious, is the desire for large department stores perhaps people’s longing for a powerful autocracy like the German Empire formally was before 1918? Is the chaotic traffic a representation for how German people feel lost without an autocratic leader? Were the German people looking for a Hitler figure to lead them and show strength post World War 1?

“You’re a good German.”

In Changes at School, Ellen Switzer recalls her encounters with her classmate, Ruth. She mentions that Ruth is a generous person and further describes her personality. Ruth passed out Nazi propaganda to those who would ask her for advice. Then, when confronted by her classmates, Ruth says that they are “good Germans”, but then later, she says:

“Ruth actually came around and apologized to those of us to whom she was no longer able to talk. ‘The whole thing may be a misunderstanding,’ she explained, “Maybe it will all be straightened out later. But meanwhile, Hitler must know what he is doing, and I’ll follow orders.”

Ellen Switzer

I thought it was interesting how quickly Ruth had switched her ideals because one person told her it was acceptable. It also disturbed me that she even turned against her own classmates.