Morals provide a benchmark for choosing what is right or wrong in any social context. The author of Survival in Auschwitz depicts the failure of morality to instil empathy and a moral compass in his life. He reveals his earlier immoral actions as a civilian before being incarcerated. In the Auschwitz prison, he experienced cruelty and had to struggle to survive. His unpleasant experience makes him realize that morality is a relative concept that can be defined differently depending on one’s immediate context.
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In the Lager, inmates came from diverse cultural backgrounds; some were of Jewish and German heritage, and comprised well-cultured individuals from civilized societies. Despite this state of affairs, once they entered to the Lager, the unforgiving prison environment forced them to reevaluate their perception of morality. They considered acts such as theft, betrayal, deceit, and trickery immoral because they had been socialized to believe so before their incarceration. The author tells us that, although he does not speak Yiddish or understand much about the Jewish culture, he maintains a close circle of friend that includes Rabbis and religious instructors who share the scriptures with him (Levi, 1996). This perspective is a proof that if such people were not in prison, they would be preaching ethical behavior. However, prison life has changed their perspective of what is right or wrong.
Death threats are common in prison life, which, coupled with the strangle for survival, changes one’s view of justice and morality. This influence illustrates how morality is defined by an individual’s context rather than by society or universal dictums on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Due to the relentless competition among prisoners for insufficient resources, it slowly makes theft acceptable in the prison life. Levi (1996) says, “If I find a spoon lying around, a piece of string, a button which I can acquire without danger of punishment, I pocket them and consider them mine by full right.” (p. 53). His sentiments proof that theft is commonplace in the life of prisoners. An action that was considered morally wrong when not in prison now seems moral and acceptable.
Moral justifications are also different between civilian and prison life. In the Lager, the author argues that right and wrong are understood differently: “think of the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ ‘just’ and ‘unjust”’ (Levi, 1996, p. 74). A critical consideration of the meaning of a prison language would reveal that not much of the ordinary ethics would persist in this penitentiary. The whole encounter by the author in prison can be summarized as a statement of the cruelty and evil in this realm. Despite this reality, he still observes that such evils are not done by the Germany willingly, but because of the period in history they are in. He says, “They build, they fight, they command, they organize and they kill. What else do they do, they are Germans” (Levi, 1996, p. 76). From this statement, the author asserts that the prisoners’ morality has been corrupted by the prison experience and similarly the Germans’ morals have been eroded through the influence.
In the story The Drowned and the Saved, Levi uses the concept of morality concerning the life in the Lager to survive. He believes that man’s more civilized social habits and instincts are repressed by his experiences. He further says, “In the Lager there are two types of people: “the saved” and “the drowned” (Levi, 1996, p. 82). This statement can be interpreted to mean that in prison every individual is desperate and alone and must struggle for his survival without any support to avert imminent misery and death. In this aspect, the saved ones are those individuals who have mastered the art of survival in the Lager.
On the other hand, the drowned are those who cannot adapt to the new environment. To support this point, the author says, “Among the few hundred Jewish prisoners who have survived more than three years, the first to arrive did so only by ruthlessly organizing for their survival, obtaining favorable positions, and relationships” (Levi, 1996, p. 89). As it may be in a normal society, an individual may fall between the drowned and the saved. When it comes to prison life, this intermediate state does not exist. In jail, there is no neutral ground and easiest path to fall into being drowned because it needs no tactics.
In conclusion, there are many survival ways in the prison environment despite it being difficult and unpredictable. In the Lager, the most known way is to rise the ranks because it is advantageous and comes with many benefits. The author asserts this idea by telling us about the little known Alfred L. who entered the camp naked and alone, but with time he forged good relations with his comrades with maximum courtesy (Levi, 1996). His demeanor made him prominent and he rose the ranks to become a notable leader in the prison.
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Levi, P. (1996). Survival in Auschwitz. Simon & Schuster.