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Primo Levi was a twenty-four-year-old Italian Jew when the Fascist Militia captured him on December 13, 1943. He explains that he would later learn at Auschwitz that "a man must pursue his own ends by all possible means, while he who errs but once pays dearly." When he is captured, he tells the authorities that he is an "Italian citizen of Jewish race," thinking that confessing he was a political rebel would result in torture and death. In the preface, Levi explains that:

it was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.

Levi, along with the other captured Italian Jews, was sent to Auschwitz by train.

At Auschwitz, the Italian Jews feel thirst for the first time. Although there is a water faucet, a sign above it warns the prisoners, or "Häftling," against drinking it. Levi and the others soon learn that no one should drink the water to quench thirst. Instead, the prisoners rely on the water in the soup and the coffee substitute they are given. Learning these things is by no means easy. Some of the prisoners trick the newly arrived prisoners into making bad decisions, such as trading a spoon for three rations of bread. The prisoners are able to tell a lot about each other based on the numbers tattooed into their arms. A few Jews, numbers 30,000 to 80,000, were taken from the Polish ghettos and they still survive after years. They are treated with great respect. Levi's number is 174517. The prisoners have to show their number to get bread and soup.

Levi discusses how he learned to survive and how he came to realize that he was "on the bottom." The prisoners...