Friday, July 3, 2009

Comparing Auschwitz

It's very difficult to get away with comparing books, particularly if the books are not all that similar. Somehow, though, as I finished reading Primo Levi's "If This is a Man" ("Survival in Auschwitz" in the U.S.), I found myself thinking a number of things which led me to some comparisons. Reading this powerful account of Auschwitz made me wonder how "If This is a Man", written in 1946, was not required reading for me at any point while many other Holocaust memoirs and stories were. Following that train of thought, I pondered over books that are frequent class reads: "Night", by Elie Wiesel and the ubiquitous "The Diary of Anne Frank" or its various poor variations (the play version that my class suffered through, for instance, was terrible).

Anne Frank quickly falls into another category. Hers is a diary, childishly written and focusing (understandably) on her small world. It's the story of hiding. Levi and Wiesel's accounts fall into a different but shared category of survival in the work camps, specifically Auschwitz. One is by a living author, a man who has received the Nobel Peace Prize and whose work was picked as an Oprah book club choice. The other author is a suspected suicide case (on which Wiesel actually commented with a famous quote), a man whose writing appeared only relatively late in his life (the exception being the aforementioned book), and enjoys little fame in the U.S. (though he curiously enough appears to be much more popular than Wiesel in the U.K.*).

The main difference between their books, though, is in the actual content. Wiesel's account is almost literary: it's an emotional read where he presents the story in simple, touching phrases. Levi's memoir, meanwhile, is factual. Instead of delving into the emotional turmoil of Auschwitz, he presents the way prisoners "lived" there, highlighting various aspects of survival in the camp, from stealing to friendships. Levi writes rather intellectually and almost distantly, keeping himself fairly far, for the most part, from the actual goings-on. "Night" is clearly about Wiesel's own personal views.

The reason for comparing these two books is stupid. So I've heard of "Night" my entire life and only now encountered the strength and importance to Levi's words in "If This is a Man". Yes, many very bad novelizations and memoirs are taught around the world during Holocaust units over the calm brilliance of Levi's writing. "Night" is fairly ignored in the U.K. and in the U.S. "If This is a Man" continues to be minor. The comparison serves only to highlight how some books achieve fame in different ways and how their popularity is so completely contrasted. Perhaps there is a reason why Levi is not taught and Wiesel is. Perhaps there is only room for one such memoir and between the two, "Night" was picked. But it seems to me like these books come as complimentary to each other. First comes Primo Levi with the facts of life in Auschwitz and then comes Elie Wiesel, filling in the missing emotion from Levi's account.

The conclusion from comparing incomparable works is simple. Each book deserves its own attention and fame. Each seeks to present a different side of Auschwitz, different literary tactics and very different lives. Attempting to justify the popularity of one over the other proves to be pointless: both books are excellent and special - and must be read.

*Based on,,, and sales ranks, number of reviews and number of ratings


  1. Astute observations. I love both books and read everything Levi published before he died, as well as about half of Wiesel's books. But those two books speak volumes about endurance and survival.
    Must reads for everyone, as you say.

  2. Coincidentally, you might find interesting the article in the most recent New York Review of Books, online here: in which the author makes some very interesting points about Holocaust materials. He observes that since most of the Jews in the east died (i.e., Poland and Russia), whereas there were more West Europeans who escaped, the literature about the Holocaust has been very skewed toward western experiences and atrocities. Even with respect to Auschwitz, he notes that most Jews did not die there, but rather in the Polish killing camps and in Soviet Union Einsatzgruppen aktions, but that Auschwitz is more known and seen as the center of evil again because of western European Jewish survivors who came from there. The same situation obtains with respect to the Soviet Union, from which several authors have gained popularity in the West (such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn) so that westerners think most atrocities took place in the Gulags. On the contrary, many Gulag internees survived; it was in the "breadbasket" of the Soviet Union that Stalin concentrated his extermination efforts to get rid of ethnic non-Russians as well as the kulaks and other "undesirables."

    So the point of all this, is that whereas both Wiesel and Levi are special and deserve readers (especially Levi whose memoirs have the added value of literary excellence), they do not represent the whole of the Holocaust experience by any means, and not only because they are memoirs of individuals. Neither man was an Ostjuden; they differ in class and education and religious outlook from the bulk of people who were exterminated.

    My personal preference to combine a variety of memoirs with a variety of overview histories, to get a more balanced picture. Comparing one person's perception of pain to another's is so difficult - even in your particular example, Levi who could be said to have had it "easier" than Wiesel is also the one who could no longer stand being alive.

    There are also a number of compendia - each chapter representing a different person's experience - that really gives you a panoply of perspectives. My personal favorite is "New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America" by Dorothy Rabinowitz but it is no doubt out of print these days.

    Anyway, just thought in my long-winded way you would like to know about the New York Review article! :--)

  3. but with 1.4 million killed in auschwitz, isn't it somewhat legitimate to see the camp as the "center of evil" of the holocaust? also, weisel was from romania which hardly counts as a western european country.

  4. I recently bought Night and thought it would be pair nicely with Arnost Lustig's Lovely Green Eyes, which I read a few weeks ago. So I am looking forward to that. I'd also like to read If This is a Man and your comparison here is useful as I get ready to do that - thanks.

  5. Thanks for visiting mine.

    Auschwitz books are a difficult read - I read The Kindly Ones a few weeks back and it was almost too harrowing - as I found Levi also. But its good to be reminded, and regularly, of the depths to which humans can sink.

    Could I recommend Richard Zarco's The Seventh Gate - you might enjoy it (oops, that's something I should never do - recommend a book as its a sure way to finding that everyone else hates it)


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