13 Matching Annotations
  1. Jun 2023
    1. la carica di Pikolo, vale a dire di fattorino-scritturale, addetto alla pulizia della baracca, alle consegne degli attrezzi, alla lavatura delle gamelle, alla contabilità delle ore di lavoro del Kommando

      The character of Pikolo is introduced by listing his roles as part of the workforce and hierarchy in the camp.


    2. «perciò»

      The causative connector in inverted commas aims at highlighting the perverted logic regulating life in the Lager. Levi repeatedly noticed this disturbing lack of consequentiality, which prevented the prisoners from deducing from observation what the expected behaviour was, which in turn translated into a constant state of insecurity and danger: ‘ogni congettura è arbitraria ed esattamente priva di ogni fondamento reale’. Pikolo’s privileged condition follows another ‘fierce law’ of the Lager: ‘a chi ha, sarà dato; a chi non ha, a quello sarà tolto’.


    3. un allarme aereo

      Air raid sirens were a common occurrence in Monowitz from the summer of 1944. Air raids gave prisoners a chance to escape, to meet and speak to fellow prisoners, to steal food, to gain some respite from their labours and the torment of the Kapos. Some prisoners welcomed the air raids as a sign that the Third Reich was obviously nearing its end. The air raids also frightened their tormentors, the SS guards.

      There were large scale air attacks by the US Air Force against the I. G. Farben synthetic oil plant in Monowitz on 20 August, 3 September, 18 December and 26 December 1944, and on 19 January 1945, the day after the beginning of the evacuation of the camp. During the raid of 20 August, seventy-five prisoners were killed and a hundred and fifty injured; on 3 September, three hundred people, including SS and prisoners, were killed or injured. The high number of prisoner casualties was in part due to I. G. Farben employees forbidding prisoners to take cover in makeshift shelters.


      Subcamps of Auschwitz project

    4. rancio

      The system of rationing reached its extreme in the Nazi Lager. Nonetheless, Levi and many of his companions had already experienced the dilemmas of provisioning in the context of war and the violent repression enacted by the Salò Republic. This situation of scarcity and black market profiteering proved acute in the Valle d’Aosta to which Levi and his family had fled, along with many draft evaders and foreign Jews from the Balkans. When Levi joined his partisan comrades in the Col de Joux, they likewise experienced the challenges all partisans faced: how to safely secure supplies without alienating the local population or risking capture.


    5. la carica di Pikolo

      With the chapter ‘I sommersi e i salvati’, Levi introduces the theme of Prominenz into his reconstruction of life in the Lager. From here on, Levi highlights the web of political relations structuring the concentration camp, wherein power circulates despite and as a function of the persecutors’ will to domination (Forti 2014). A web of relations following the gregarious dynamics of the human--animal as ‘social animal’ (see the conviction ‘every stranger is an enemy’ in the Preface) tends to establish hierarchical forms of cohabitation.

      However, Levi also inspects such a ‘hierarchy of Prominenz’ from an ethical perspective: the ‘saved’ enter the circuit of Prominenz by assuming a certain ethical posture, that is, by calibrating their privilege either with solidarity towards their fellow inmates (such as Alberto or Lorenzo) or with a will to power and prestige that becomes blind towards his fellows’ oppression (such as Alfred L, Elias, Alex or Frenkel).

      Pikolo is no exception: like any other human figure of salvation in SQ, he is initially presented to readers for his ethical value. The first part of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ describes Pikolo’s story of salvation: he obtained his privilege shrewdly as he understood the voids of power that could be filled with his collaboration. However, he does not use his privilege to increase the oppression of those located in the lower ranks, such as Levi, but works instead to share the advantages his higher position affords him. It is not by chance that Pikolo’s decision to ask Levi to help him to carry out a convenient job that day also, and unconsciously, creates the condition for one of the most intense and memorable dialogues of our literary tradition. If Dante’s verses could resound in Auschwitz and, with them, a moment of hope and mental wellbeing (‘it is doing me good’), it is because of a simple and small act of solidarity that we can never take for granted wherever privilege rules.


    6. il Pikolo

      In this same paragraph, the ‘Pikolo’ is said to be a ‘fattorino-scritturale, addetto alla pulizia della baracca, alle consegne degli attrezzi, alla lavatura delle gamelle, alla contabilità delle ore di lavoro del Kommando’, and three paragraphs later Levi adds that ‘la carica di Pikolo costituisce un gradino già assai elevato nella gerarchia delle Prominenze’.

      Whereas the other titles mentioned in this chapter - Vorarbeiter; Kapo - identify recognised positions within the hierarchy of the Lager, Pikolo, according to the testimony of Jean Samuel, was the invention of Primo Levi: ‘Pikolo was not a camp job. The term was coined for me by Primo Levi. I was the only Pikolo. Of course, all the Kapos had helpers, often very young people, sometimes as young as twelve, who served as their assistants, doing everything they asked, including prostitution. The Kapos’ lovers, their sexual victims, were called “Pipel”. I escaped all that’ (Samuel, Dreyfus 2015, 37; my translation).

      Jean’s testimony also raises questions about the spelling of this term. In a letter he sent to Levi on 13 March 1946, Jean signed his name with his title and identification number from Auschwitz, ‘Picolo ex 176.397’, amending the spelling to ‘Piccolo’ in subsequent correspondence (Franceschini 2017, 268). Moreover, Levi replied to Jean’s letter with a note dated 24 May 1946, attached to which was an early draft of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, which differs in some ways from what would become the published version, including identifying Levi’s conversation partner as ‘Jean detto Piccolo', a spelling that corresponds to that adopted in the draft of the chapter that Levi sent to Anna Foa on 14 February 1946 (269). Beginning with the first edition of SQ, however, the spelling of Jean’s title was changed to ‘Pikolo’. Fabrizio Franceschini argues that Levi adopted this term, with its new spelling, from its common usage in northern Italian (and possibly also in Vienna in German usage) to refer to shop boys and other minor functionaries (272-79).


    7. Vorarbeiter

      The Vorarbeiter, or foreman, was responsible for supervising the prisoners’ labour. This was a privileged position within the Lager, for which extra food rations were provided (Megargee 2009-2012, 200). A study of another camp reports that those ‘employed as foremen (Vorarbeiter) represented the most hateful attitudes towards Jews’ (4), a finding that might inform our understanding of Levi’s account of Auschwitz. In SQ, Levi discusses the Vorarbeiter in the chapter ‘Il lavoro’, where he explains the discriminatory power that the role affords: ‘Il Vorarbeiter ha distribuito le leve di ferro a noi e i martinetti ai suoi amici’ (OC I, 44).

      For confirmation of the violence with which this power was enforced, we can consult the archives of the United States Holocaust Museum, which contain the contents of a talk given to members of the French Army in October November 1945 in which the deportee Henry Cogenson testified that: ‘As for Kapos and Vorarbeiter, mostly German, Russian or Polish “common criminals”, they, like the SS, never knew when to stop; after having been hit by others when they were simple inmates, they returned the favor on their peers now that they were given a smidgen of power. It was rather common to bring back to camp in the evening a comrade who had been struck during the day and was unable to withstand the blows’. The Auschwitz Museum online hosts images of the armbands worn by the Vorarbeiter, and of the whips they used to beat prisoners. We might also compare Levi’s account with that contained in the Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s 1946 collection of short stories Pożegnanie z Marią (This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, 1967), wherein the Vorarbeiter Tadeusz is a frequent protagonist.


    8. Passa Frenkel, la spia

      In developing the concentration camp system in the 1930s, amongst other methods, the SS used prisoner spies to undermine prisoner solidarity, and to uncover resistance and escape plans and other perceived prisoner infringements. The spies would be given increased food rations and other “luxuries” in return for supplying information on prisoners to Kapos or SS guards.

      Being a prisoner spy was not without risk. If the occasion arose, prisoners sometimes took the opportunity to rid themselves of a spy.


      Subcamps of Auschwitz project

    9. gamella

      Levi’s reference to the bowl is significant. The bowl was the most important possession of the concentration camp prisoner. No bowl, no food. If you lost your bowl or had it stolen, you either starved or stole somebody else’s bowl. At night in the barracks, you slept with your bowl safe in your hand or under your body.

      The bowl is life.


      Subcamps of Auschwitz project

    10. Passò una SS in bicicletta

      This sentence suggests Sunday afternoon bicycle rides and walks with family in bourgeois pre-war Germany. Levi’s subsequent use of the SS man’s first name in the next sentence (‘È Rudi’) also suggests a relatively relaxed atmosphere, as if Levi sees a friend on that Sunday afternoon ride or walk.

      The picture painted of a quant Sunday afternoon bicycle ride is highly ironic. By 1943, Germany was struggling to keep its armed forces and economy operating. There was a serious lack of fuel for the vehicles of the Wehrmacht and the factories of the Third Reich. Resort was made to the use of the horse and bicycle for transport, wood gas for powering automobiles, and, above all, there was rationing. Synthetic oil production was seen as an alternative to overcome the lack of access to natural resources, including oil. I. G. Farben, the giant German chemical conglomerate, took the decision in 1941 to build a synthetic oil plant at the village of Monowitz, near Auschwitz, utilising the slave labour from the Auschwitz camps and the local abundance of coal and water. As the war progressed and the fuel shortage worsened, the importance of the synthetic oil plant at Auschwitz surged. This was visible in the increasing number of Auschwitz prisoners assigned to work at the I. G. Farben plant, and the creation of a Monowitz sub camp of Auschwitz in 1942 and, subsequently, an independent camp, Auschwitz III–Monowitz in 1943. By 1944, ten thousand Auschwitz prisoners were housed at the concentration camp Auschwitz III–Monowitz, working solely for I. G. Farben.

      ‘Rudi’ is riding his bike as there is little petrol for vehicles, even for the SS and the concentration camps, and even at the plant supposedly producing synthetic oil.


      Subcamps of Auschwitz project

    11. Alex, il Kapo

      For Levi, Alex, the Kapo, was one of the most fearsome individuals in the Monowitz camp, even more so than the SS men. The SS had developed and honed the concentration camp system, starting in 1933 in Dachau. They developed the system to control and eventually break the prisoners. One of the methods used was to introduce camp prisoner functionaries who would have total powers over other prisoners. This had the benefits of reducing SS manpower needed to administer the camps but also of breeding division in the prisoner community.

      The Kapo was the most feared of all prisoner camp functionaries. He was responsible for prisoner roll calls, overseeing the prisoner barracks, and supervising the prisoners at work. He literally had power of life and death over the prisoners. The Kapos were originally chosen from the German criminals (‘green triangles’) incarcerated in the concentration camps from the 1930s. They were chosen for their brutality and because they were German, and therefore separate from Jews, gypsies, and foreign political prisoners increasingly incarcerated in the concentration camps from 1941. Later in the war, Kapos were also chosen from the other prisoner communities including Jews, who could be equally as brutal as the German criminal Kapos.

      Levi was correct to be afraid of ‘Alex, il Kapo’.


      Subcamps of Auschwitz project

    12. sigaretta

      Levi explores the economy of cigarettes and smoking in the chapter of SQ entitled ‘Al di qua del bene e del male', where he explains that ‘Mahorca’, a low-quality tobacco, is officially distributed in the canteen in exchange for the coupons provided to the best worker, but because those coupons are distributed infrequently and inequitably, the tobacco is also sold unofficially in the Market, ‘in stretta obbedienza alle leggi dell’economia classica’, with the resulting booms and busts in price (OC I, 200-01). Because it can be exchanged for more food rations, newer clothing, and other vital necessities, ‘[f]ra i comuni Häftlinge, non sono molti quelli che ricercano di Mahorca per fumarlo personalmente; per lo più, esce dal campo, e finisce ai lavoratori civili della Buna’. That Deutsch is smoking during this work detail is thus a sign of his status and position within the camp.


    13. Häftling

      Levi introduces the term ‘Häftling’ (pl. Häftlinge), German for ‘detainee’ or ‘prisoner,’ in the chapter of SQ entitled ‘Sul fondo,’ wherein he recounts his arrival in Auschwitz, a camp designed to produce ‘un uomo vuoto, ridotto a sofferenza e bisogno, dimentico di dignità e discernimento’, so that ‘Si comprenderà allora il duplice significato del termine «Campo di annientamento»’ (OC I, 152). It is immediately after offering this reflection that Levi provides the term used to denote this ‘uomo vuoto’: ‘Häftling: ho imparato che io sono uno Häftling. Il mio nome è 174 517; siamo stati battezzati, porteremo finché vivremo il marchio tatuato sul braccio sinistro’ (ibid.). Later in the same chapter, Levi explains the distinction between ‘Häftlinge privilegiati’ and ‘comuni Häftlinge’ and describes how the various groups of prisoners are distinguished: ‘Tutti sono vestiti a righe, sono tutti Häftlinge, ma i criminali portano accanto al numero, cucito sulla giacca, un triangolo verde; i politici un triangolo rosso; gli ebrei, che costituiscono la grande maggioranza, portano la stella ebraica, rossa e gialla’ (OC I, 158).