Archive for June, 2012

June 22, 2012

The Drowned and the Saved

Author: Primo Levi
Published: 1986
Website: Literature Database

It’s another summer, and there are so many books to read! Ezra and I won’t be reading a book a day, but we’re aiming for at least two a week. I’ve been doing a lot of blogging and other adventures, as well as catching up on sleep, so I haven’t been reading as much as I would like, but I have finished one book, and here it is.

The Drowned and the Saved is the last book written by Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, witness, chemist and author, before he committed suicide in 1987. It is composed of eight fully distinct chapters which frequently seem unrelated, but together admonish the reader soundly, from all sides, for her history of, and worse, desire, to simplify the Shoah.

For me, simplifying has seemed like the only way to properly acknowledge the devastation wrought. Can we really discuss the layout of the concentration camps or the bureaucracy of the Hitler regime and still let the painful realities wash over us, overwhelming us, as they should? Perhaps others can, but in my Jewish and historical education, I have kept those processes of learning separate. There is the Weimar Republic moving into the Third Reich, and Chamberlain and Churchill and leibensraum and Czechoslovakia. And then there is gas and killing and selections and camps and ghettoes and fear. The nuances of genocide have never interested me, and I may have even thought them actively damaging to the process of collective memory.

But Primo Levi challenges me to confront some of the complications of reality. his detached, careful tone seems to ask, who are you to recoil from these facts because they are painful? These are facts I lived, and I cannot witness if you do not listen.

So I listened. I listened to him discuss the difficulty of memory, how memories can be forgotten or blur, can shift and change because they are forced unconsciously into the post-war narratives of historians and novelists and even other survivors. The memories of survivors, much as we value them, are no more exempt from the forces of time than the memories of the Nazis, whose testimony at Nuremburg rang false, or of the  bystanders which conveniently self-exonerate.

He spoke of the silly stereotypes we ascribe to Holocaust survivors, how we expect them to have escaped or rebelled without understanding the brutality of their abject dehumanization. Another chapter was about the difficulty of communication, in and out of the camps, across language and experience barriers. The most poignant section was about the organization of camps, how the oppressor/victim dichotomy is impossible to maintain in the face of privileged overseers, hierarchies of prisoners (political over racial over Jews), the actions of the prisoners against each other in order to stay alive and the fact that prisoners were forced to help kill and inter each other. And how, yet, despite all the complication, and the moral negligence of the bystanders, and the constant creeping possibility that anyone in those positions would have done the same, there are in fact monsters in the story, people who did evil, and people who were the victims of it. Levi asks us to weigh the complexities, carefully, thoughtfully, and still judge truthfully.

Nuance does not preclude judgement. We can have both.