Reading 12

Identity in the Camps

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz. A scientist, he also went on to write powerful poems and memoirs about his experiences in the camp. In the following passage, he describes his first days as a prisoner in Auschwitz.

In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they would not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.

We know that we will have difficulty in being understood, and this is as it should be. But consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute for the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.

Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term “extermination camp,” and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: “to lie on the bottom.”

Häftling [prisoner]: I have learnt that I am Häftling. My number is 174517; we have been baptized, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.

The operation was slightly painful and extraordinarily rapid; they placed us all in a row, and one by one, according to the alphabetical order of our names, we filed past a skillful official armed with a sort of pointed tool with a very short needle. It seems that this is the real, true initiation: only by “showing one’s number” can one get bread and soup. Several days passed, and not a few cuffs and punches, before we became used to showing our number promptly enough not to disorder the daily operation of food-distribution; weeks and months were needed to learn its sound in the German language. And for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin.1


  • 1 : Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 26–28.

Connection Questions

  1. What stands out to you in this account of being imprisoned in Auschwitz? Why is it important to hear the voices of survivors? 
  2. According to Primo Levi, what happened to the identities of prisoners in the camps? What connections do you see between the themes of identity that are explored in Chapter 1, The Individual and Society, and Levi’s observations about identity in this reading?
  3. How did being imprisoned in Auschwitz change the identity of Levi and other prisoners? What is the significance of losing one’s name and becoming a number?
  4. What might Levi mean by “the double sense of the term ‘extermination camp’”? Who or what was exterminated in these camps?

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