I approached If This Is A Man with a certain amount of weariness. There have been countless films and books and TV programmes about the Holocaust, so what would one more book on the subject present? The answer to that is that If This Is a Man brings a real sense of the horror of Auschwitz to the reader. The figure of 6 million dead almost de-humanises the de-humanised: it is easy to rattle off that figure without actually thinking about the impact of separation, suffering and murder on an individual human being. This book hits the reader with the stark realities of day to day existence within the concentration camp.
Levi describes the nearest thing to Hell. Working to exhaustion in the freezing cold of winter, the beatings to which prisoners have become accustomed, lice and dirt, perpetual hunger and having to go to the 'toilet' several times during the night because of the heavily watered down soup. This latter task involves a hobble through the snow in a pair of wooden shoes (one pair per hut) to use a bucket which, if full, must be emptied by the unfortunate prisoner, who will try in vain not to spill the contents on his feet. Levi puts everything of our lives into the perspective of his as a prisoner. As prisoners slept head to foot next to each other, it was always better to empty the pail than to sleep next to someone who has just emptied it.
Levi deatils the average life expectancy of a healthy human being who does not find himself a niche or with something unique to offer. It is a shocking read, and while desperate to reach the end and find something to be optimistic about, the book held my attention from cover to cover.
At the end of the book are several questions put to the author by his readers (for instance, why did the prisoners not revolt against the Nazis?). The two titles are best read together, but of the two, If This Is Man is the more profound. An essential read for anyone interested in the subject.