From the first sentence of the Preface to Survival in Auschwitz, we learn that Primo Levi attributes his survival in the concentration camp to luck, or his “good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” (9). It was because of luck that Levi had a chemistry background, qualifying him to spend portions of the day during the most brutal months of his last winter in Auschwitz in the chemistry laboratory, and because of luck that he formed and sustained relationships with Alberto and Lorenzo. Levi perhaps considered himself lucky most for having withstood “selection”—the method the camp guards used to choose prisoners to die instantly in the gas chambers. Levi writes, “[t]he fact that I was not selected depended above all on chance” (125).
Levi understands that selection is an arbitrary process. As Levi comments, “the important thing for the Lager is not that the most useless prisoners be eliminated, but that free posts be quickly created” (129). Selection is so frivolous that Levi and Alberto determine that when René is selected to be sent to the gas chambers and Levi is not, that it was “probable” (128) that this was due to a “mistake with [their] cards” (128). Because selection is a mostly indiscriminate process, Levi understands that prisoners have little bearing on their own survival. The Nazis were determined to kill a certain number of prisoners, and it made little difference to the Nazis which prisoners were sent to die. It is moments after the selection of October 1944 that the passage takes place. In this passage we witness the responses of several prisoners to selection, as narrated by Levi. Levi's perception of the situation is shaped by his understanding that survival in the Lager is due to fluke.
Beppo the Greek, who was “twenty years old” (129) has been chosen during this selection to be sent within the next two days to the gas chamber. Beppo's demure response to being selected can best be appreciated in comparison to the rather clamorous responses of Sattler and Ziegler, two other prisoners condemned to the gas chamber. Sattler busies himself with mending his shirt. He appears to be either in denial of, oblivious to, or unsure of how to cope with his fate. Ziegler seems to capitalize on his death sentence by attempting to take advantage of the extra food ration it provides. Yet Beppo, unlike Sattler,is fully cognizant of what his future holds. Levi tells us that “[Beppo] knows it” (129). Unlike Ziegler, Beppo does not waste his breath or energy on an inconsequential last meal. Instead, Beppo “lies [on his bunk] looking fixedly at the light without saying anything” (130). With the understanding that his life is already over, with nothing to look forward to and with no delusion about being rescued from the wrath of the Nazis, Beppo “lies [in his bunk] looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore” (130).
Primo Levi states that he felt “no distinct emotion” (128) upon...