The BEST: The Drowned and the Saved 

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Primo Levi

Primo Levi

The BEST: The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi
Reviewed by Yitzchak Blau

Summary: First person survivor accounts dominate the list of famous Holocaust books. The Italian Jewish chemist, Primo Levi (1919-1987), spent close to a year in Auschwitz and published such an account titled If This Is a Man (the American edition is called Survival in Auschwitz). However, I think his book The Drowned and the Saved is a more significant and insightful work. The Drowned and the Saved includes eight essays analyzing different aspects of the Shoah. For example, “Shame” explains why suicide was much more common among survivors after the war than among camp inmates during the war. Reading this chapter gained extra poignancy after Levi himself fell to his death from a third storey apartment landing, widely considered an act of suicide.

Why this is The BEST: Levi conveys remarkable perception about the human condition under extreme circumstances. His ability to analyze the life of a concentration camp survivor from an insider’s perspective adds weight to the force and persuasiveness of the prose. 

The essay “The Gray Zone” investigates those forced to collaborate with the Nazis, be they the sonderkommandos who disposed of the gas chamber victims or the Judenrat, the Jewish councils who administered the ghettos. Levi notes how such Nazi appointments attempted to equate the oppressed with the oppressors as both were jointly involved in the evil endeavor.

“Letters from Germans” expresses outrage with Germans attempting to avoid guilt by claiming they were not involved and knew little of what was happening. Levi points out how Germans voted for Hitler though his hateful views in Mein Kampf were quite clear. Enrollment in the S.S. was voluntary. Was Kristallnacht somehow a secret and did German civilians not wonder where all this free clothing was coming from? Though it may be impossible for individual citizens to rebel against a totalitarian state, there are a thousand subtle ways to express solidarity with the oppressed.  

“Stereotypes” strongly defends the inmates from the charge that they should have rebelled. Levi points out how Russian POWs did not show a stronger track record of resistance under Nazi control. The Nazis spent years dehumanizing the prisoners and sapping their spirit. Even if prisoners escaped, they had nowhere to go; furthermore, they knew that their escape would provide an excuse for horrible mistreatment of their fellow prisoners. There were revolts in Sobibor, Treblinka, and Birkenau. Finally, Levi makes the intriguing claim that uprisings are usually not led by members of the oppressed class but rather by those living under better conditions. This chapter totally puts to rest any criticism of Jews for going “as sheep to the slaughter.”

“The Memory of the Offense” indicates how lying to others ultimately leads to self-deception as well. The Nazis used various euphemisms (“final solution,” “special treatment”) to hide their malevolence. They deceived victims and tried to prevent other countries from finding out what was happening in the camps. Levi eloquently describes how such disregard for truth comes back to haunt the duplicitous:

All of Hitler’s biographies, while disagreeing on the interpretation to be given to the life of this man so difficult to classify, agree on the flight from reality which marked his last years, especially beginning with the first Russian winter. He had forbidden and denied his subjects any access to truth, contaminating their morality and their memory; but, to a degree which gradually increased and attained complete paranoia in the Bunker, he barred the path of truth to himself also. Like all gamblers, he erected around himself a stage set woven out of superstitious lies, which he ended by believing with the same fanatical faith that he demanded from every German. His collapse was not only a salvation for mankind but also a demonstration of the price to be paid when one dismembers the truth.  

Yitzchak Blau, an associate editor of Tradition, is Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta. Read his Tradition essays here.
Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on October 8, 2020]

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