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The Drowned And The Saved Paperback – 4 Jul 2013
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Levi writes of unspeakable things with charity, clarity and objectivity (Sunday Times)
Not a word he writes should be missed (Independent)
One of the most devastating masterworks of our era (Observer)
Primo Levi's devastating and classic account of what it meant to have survived the Holocaust.See all Product description
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To that end, one of the very strongest essays in this collection is entitled "The Gray Zone." Levi says "It is a gray zone, poorly defined, where the two camps of masters and servants both diverge and converge. This gray zone possesses an incredibly complicated internal structure and contains within itself enough to confuse our need to judge." The author goes on to describe a system - a `primitive' one, to use his word, where humans have regressed towards earlier societal models, where the first blows and kicks that a new arrival receives are all too often delivered by their fellow inmates, some with the status of "Capos," as opposed to the individuals who are normally considered the ultimate in sadistic behavior, the SS. As Levi says: "Vying for prestige also came into play, a seemingly irrepressible need in our civilization: the despised crowd of seniors was prone to recognize in the new arrival a target on which to vent its humiliation, to find compensation at his expense, to build for itself and at his expense a figure of a lower rank on whom to discharge the burden of the offenses received from above." As Levi describes, much of the experience of a new arrival would parallel that of a new conscript to basic army training, including the haircut. In the same essay there is an excellent depiction of Chaim Rumkowski, who was the self-styled leader of the Lodz ghetto, before he too was deported to the concentration camps, or, to use the author's word, the "Lager."
Should the Holocaust be capitalized, and none of the others, such as the Armenian or Cambodian? To Levi's credit, he does refer to the others; and in particular mentions the auto-genocide in Cambodia a few times. But Levi, perhaps naturally, leans towards the primacy of the evil of the one that almost killed him. I consider this a sterile debate, and often think of the young soldier in the movie "Hearts and Minds" who took some form of solace in stating that he lost both his legs in one of the "largest ambushes of the war." And I compare that to Remarque's treatment of his protagonist, who died on a day that was so quiet and still that the high command confined itself to a single sentence: Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" - Erich Maria Remarque (Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations) The evil has occurred to the individual; does the magnitude of the context make it more or less tragic? For Americans, the greater responsibility should lay with the holocaust that we helped provoke rather than the one we helped to stop.
The essays are only 200 pages long, but are so rich in insights. Levi stresses that those that survived in the Lagers invariably were in some "special circumstances," as he was, both being a chemist, and having contracted scarlet fever just as all the others were forced on a death march prior to the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Army. He has an entire essay on the gratuitous "useless" violence in the camps. The author has the eye for the telling, and often times ironic details: for example, the Jews were forbidden from playing music that was composed by Aryans, yet, since there were no other musicians available, in the camps they were permitted, even compelled, to play the requisite band marches. I found the final section particularly significant: the letters that Levi had received from his German readers, which presented a broad range of responses, from continued rationalizations to compelling sorrow from those with "hands that were clean."
Should be required reading in all our schools. An excellent 5-star plus read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 23, 2010)
Prison stories are always chilling but most think of prison as a place of holding until release, not death. What place does morality, conscience, hygiene and dignity have in a death camp?
Levi's description of camp life in 'Is this a Man'is not as brutal and disturbing as perhaps those related in Martin Gilbert's 'The Holocaust', the book seems less about the atrocities afflicted on the inmates but on how they survived them and further still retained the spirit and will to continue. In 'The Drowned and the Saved' Levi attempts to understand the German people of the Nazi era. How they endorsed or allowed themselves to be seduced by the Nazi ideology... by greed, vanity and hatred... to turn their backs on morality, truth and basic human goodness. Germany will always be remembered or rather tarnished because of the Nazis, it will always remain as much a part of their history as the Congo atrocities belonged to Leopold's Belgium, Australia's belong with the British and the on-going crimes visited on the Native Americans...
I have not the knowledge or right to really comment on his work or indeed on the work of any survivor. It is not my place even to judge those that commited the crimes. What is important is that I (and others of my age) know of them. For to be ignorant of it is not only a betrayal of those destroyed by it, but a further crime against those who survived it.
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