The integration of Dante's journey through the Inferno in Primo Levi's autobiographical account of Auschwitz

Dear readers, with this somewhat longer blog format, I would like to present in two parts a topic that has always accompanied me during my IES studies. I’m looking forward to your feedback on the format, as it has one foot in academic writing and the other in blog article expression. So, I hope you enjoy this deep dive and feel free to comment on anything that comes to mind or strike up a discussion in the comment section.

Two hells colliding

From today’s perspective, the understanding of the Holocaust and the memory of the horrific events seem unbalanced, even institutionalised (Sodi 1990, p. 83f.). Eyewitness accounts become sites of remembrance, monuments are supposed to remind and admonish us of the past, whereby our perception becomes emotionally distanced and our memory finds no anchorage in our collective psyche (Sodi 1990, p.83). The problem of understanding this, as Heidegger put it, second fall of men has a literary intangibility. Monuments, remembrance days and the strictly fact-oriented logic of historical scholarship have shrouded the memory of the Holocaust in abstraction. This line of thought leads me to take a closer look at an attempt, a mixture of memoir, literary work and scientific observation by Primo Levi.

He presents quite an interesting work in the realm of Holocaust literature. After being rejected multiple times, he finally published his first edition of “Se questo è un uomo” in 1947 and presented a remarkable account of his eleven months in Auschwitz to the post-war public of Europe. He approached the observation of everyday life within the concentration camp strikingly objective and scientific, due to his background as a studied chemist (Druker 2009, p.13). While reading Levi’s autobiographical account I was struck by the numerous integrated references to the Inferno, which is part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. As this is one of the most important works of Italian poetry and world literature dating back to 1320, my curiosity of why Levi used these analogies became unbearable. I am particularly interested in how Levi’s use of Dante contributes to an in depth-understanding of both his account of Auschwitz and the general question Levi poses with referencing the poet (Portnoff 2009, p.2): Is it possible to witness Dante’s Hell on earth? How did Levi’s attempt to remember Auschwitz with the help of an imaginary hell of his national literature canon influence his work and its reception?

Dante being one of the most renowned poets of Italy (often described as: prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher and political thinker) and probably Europe, crafted with the Divine Comedy something that would inspire intellectuals and artists alike, even seven hundred years after the poet’s death and beyond.

Franziska Meier (2018) goes as far as to describe Dante’s writing as “[…] a key to the intellectual and cultural history of Europe […].” (p. 7, ll. 14-17). Dante was born in 1265 in Florence Italy. During his lifetime he began supporting the ambitions of the holy roman emperor and wanted to free his city from papal interference (Twose 2021). Due to his political views and actions, Dante was sentenced to be burned in 1302, so he left his hometown and lived in exile until his death. During his travels in Italy, he wrote his most famous work: The Divine Comedy.

As Levi grew up in an Italian Jewish family in the early-twentieth century Turin, he was amongst one of the last generations of Italians to be educated about the Divine Comedy in such detail (Farrell and Thomson 2004, p.150). In this post-enlightened, positivist and socialist-leaning culture students had to learn entire passages of the Comedy by heart. Before Levi entered a real version of hell on earth with the arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, the fictive hell of his national literary canon had equipped him with something, that later on in Auschwitz, contributed to the preservation of his own national identity.

I consider this investigation important for deepening the reader’s understanding of Primo Levi’s work “If this is a Man” and a more profound comprehension of his intention to create this intertextuality between his experience and Dante’s Inferno, thereby presenting a different point of view on Auschwitz. First, I will present the two hells. Then I will continue to describe each journey through the witnessed hell. This will be followed by an analysis of these two conceptions. Here, I will draw on similarities and differences alike, as well as the paradoxical conjunctions, that arise during a comparison of Levi and Dante and their ideological spheres. During this analytical approach, I will primarily refer to the work “A Dante of our time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz” by Rida B. Sodi. Then my focus will be on the benefits and limitations of this intertextuality. For that, I will draw on various studies on Primo Levi, especially interviews such as those by Ferdinando Camon or publications such as the one by Gunzberg, L. M., which are of particular value for my research, as the authors were in direct contact with Levi and conducted several personal interviews and correspondence with him. My primary sources, as can be seen from the title of the article, will be the work “If this is a Man”, a literary account of Primo Levi’s experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp published in 1947 in the German republished edition from 2021, and the first part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno by Dante Alighieri.

The latter work, as mentioned before, will take on a kind of analytical filtering function, whereby the main focus, due to the complexity of the Divine Comedy, will be on the passages quoted by Levi in his book.


A literary hell vs. a real hell

Vergil leads Dante through the nine circles of Hell. Depending on the severity of their sins committed during their lifetime, the sinners enter a deeper circle of hell. Literarily viewed, it is important to mention that Dante meets all the respective sins themselves, personified in the living dead, who are being punished (Bondanella 2003). The categorisation for the appropriate punishment follows the concept of the contrapasso, which can be traced back to the Old Testament from the Latin and Greek: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth etc.” (Bondanella 2003, p.33, l.20f.). In addition to a few references to historical and mythological figures, they also meet contemporary Italians, that at the time of Dante (ca. 1200 -1300) were relevant to him. That includes figures of the church or other institutions, but also poets and philosophers whose works Dante admired (Bondanella 2003, S.30).

Hell is portrayed in a very organized way in Dante’s poem. Piatkowski speaks of Hell as an organization or Hell as a city[1]. The first to fifth circles consist of intemperate sinners. Sinners of violence are to be found in the seventh circle, whereas sinners of malebolge and fraud will be witnessed by Dante and Virgil in the eighth circle.

Lastly in the ninth circle, they will come across Lucifer depicted as a beast in an icy hell, who is frozen immobile (except his wings flapping, contributing to the icy winds of hell) and chewing on Judas and other sinners of the sin: treachery.

In contrast to popular belief Auschwitz was a complex of more than one camp, connected and intended for different victims. Located in Upper Silesia, which was annexed by Germany after World War II. It used to be a former polish barrack complex. In the beginning it served as a means to intimidate, as well as imprison, political opponents (Gordon 2007 p. 34). One year later, Heinrich Himmler had another camp (Auschwitz-Birkenau) built three kilometers away from the first one. In Monowitz, IG Farben built an industrial complex, in which the prisoners had to work. Therefore, they were held in a separate camp called Auschwitz-Monowitz (Buna), this being the camp Levi survived. After a few weeks, Levi seems to gain an understanding of the hierarchy within Auschwitz. Three basic categories were to be found: Jews, criminals and the political (Levi, p.31). The criminals were given better positions, mostly above the Jews. To stay alive, one had to use the black market, deal with items one could get and capitalize on any useful abilities, to get additional bread or soup for survival (Levi, p.80). That produced a different status for the people within the barracks. Levi differentiates between the prominent and the Muselmann, which later on I will explain in more detail. This being the only choices in Auschwitz (Being dominated and oppressed or dominating and oppressing), there was no third middle way, as Levi proclaims to be the norm in life outside the concentration camp (Levi, p. 86). At the height of the mass murder, about ten thousand people per day were murdered. It is estimated that around 1 million Jewish people died at Auschwitz (Gordon 2007, p.36).

[1] Piatkowski 2008, p. 72, ll.3-8: “Hell is a city; categories of sins are connected to places, almost as if there was no distinction between the text and what it represents. ‘[In] such an atmosphere of congealment, of no life, of no humanity, of terrifying sin, the artistic conclusion, if not the logical or theological one, is that society is not a concourse of men, but of demons’ (Lonergan 1977, p. 72).”.


Primo Levi’s ride through Hell on earth

On 13 December 1943, at the age of 24, Primo Levi was arrested by the fascist militia in Italy (Levi, p.11) because he had been involved in an anti-fascist partisan group. Unaware of the consequences and assuming that his political actions would get him into even more trouble, he identified himself as a Jew.

As a result, he was deported to Auschwitz by train (Gordon 2007, p.36). Arriving at the gate of Auschwitz he reads the inscription “Arbeit macht Frei” (Levi, p.20). “This is hell,” he describes upon arriving at Auschwitz. After these four traveldays of thirst and hunger, he now finds himself with his fellow prisoners in an empty room, whose water tap emits undrinkable water (Levi, p.20).

With the loss of their shoes, which are mixed by a Nazi soldier, Levi announces his entry into the „l’universe concentrationnaire[1]“, “[…] because now it’s over, […] we feel outside the world, […].” (Levi, p. 21, l.13f.). One enters and loses one’s identity in a universe that is completely cut off from reality (Gunzberg 1986). “[…], It is as if we had already died”, it says in the chapter “In the Depths” (Levi, p.20, l.22f.). This forced dissolution of the person, through the deprivation of all possession of physical[2] and metaphysical[3] nature begins with the entrance into Auschwitz and continues inside the concentration camp (Levi, p.24). Levi refers to this development as “[…] the metamorphosis, […].” (Levi, p.19, l.14). He describes the absurdity of the cold waiting room full of naked Jews as follows: They are witnesses to a crazy play in which new witches, holy ghosts and devils constantly appear on stage[4], but here they enter through the metal door (Levi, p.23). In the beginning the Italians try to stick together and meet up regularly, which they dismiss soon, for they merely mirror their suffering and dissolution of their own identity. The men couldn’t bear to see how they fell apart, how they lost what bound them in the beginning, whilst their numbers decreased.

Levi, now marked as “Häftling 174 517” (Levi, p.25), had to assimilate to an endless cycle of suffering monotonous forced labour under inhuman conditions with a “[…] chronic hunger unknown to free men […].” (Levi, p.35, l.7). This struggle for mere survival, not to become an animal (Levi p.39), avoiding illness and being sorted out for gassing, becomes the incomprehensible reality of the Jews in Auschwitz, which repeated itself everyday anew. There is no way out except death (Levi, p.34).

In 1945, the Allied forces, first the Soviets, entered the abandoned Auschwitz and liberated the remaining injured and sick prisoners, including Levi. From there he returned to Turin and to his family.

[1] David Rousset invented the term “l’univers concentrationnaire” (physical and psychological setting for the stories of Holocaust survivors) in 1947 (Gunzberg 1986).

[2] Hair, clothes, shoes, valuables (Levi, p. 24, l.36f.), as well as the name in exchange for a prisoner number (p. 25, l.30f.), but also mementos, such as photographs of family members (Levi, p.25, l.11f.).

[3] The loss of potential memory objects leads to a partial loss of memory, which ultimately leads to a gradual loss of identity.

[4] Such as SS-Soldiers or the Jews that shave them before they can enter their barracks.

Dante Alighieri’s Journey through Hell

Dante finds himself in the middle of a dark forest. He faces three monsters who threaten his attempts to climb a mountain. Then he meets Virgil (Inf. 1st Canto, p.15, l.61), who convinces Dante to accompany him through Purgatory and the Inferno. After briefly passing through limbo, the two are being shipped across a river by Charon and reach the gate to hell, whose inscription announces the impending disaster: “I, too, will be without end. Abandon all hope when you come in here.”, but also God’s justice that Dante will witness on his journey: “[…]; the divine power, the highest wisdom and the first love created me.”, (Inf. 3rd Canto, p.39, l.1-9). Here the journey of Dante the pilgrim starts as a simple journey of a man to God through the three realms of the world (Piatkowski 2008, p.69). Dante and Virgil walk through the circles of Hell without actually experiencing the suffering they see (Bondanella 2003, p.28). Only Dante’s reactions make him feel pity or disgust and powerlessness in the face of the torments of hell, that either repeat themselves for the punished[1] or that inflict eternal suffering (Inf. 5th Canto, p.77, l.1-3). Dante’s conversations with the sinners he encounters thus illustrate the Divine Justice at work, as well as Dante’s curiosity to understand and even desire it. This is shown, for example, in the eighth canto, when Dante wants to see the Phantom of Florence punished and has his wish granted, whereupon he praises God (Inf, p.115, lines 59f.). With the ascent into the Purgatory over the back of the iced Lucifer from the ninth and last circle of hell (Inf. 34th Canto, p. 493f.), Dante the pilgrim becomes Dante the poet by accepting the divine morality presented to him in hell as his own (Bondanella 2003, p. 18).

[1] Similar to a relived trauma with a punishing twist.

First of all, congratulations on making it this far! I hope you found what I had to say on this topic interesting. If I have caught your attention with this unusual blog article style and you are still interested, please feel free to read on in the second part here!