The Drowned And The Saved, by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
This is a book whose existence is dependent on other books, but it is no worse for that. As the author was the survivor of German concentration camps as an Italian Jew arrested for his involvement in partisan activities after the German invasion of Italy in 1943, and wrote extensively in the postwar period about his experiences and the insights he gained from them, it was little surprise that he would engage in further reflections in light of the body of literature that developed concerning concentration camp memoirs and the refusal of the German nation to accept its own status as shadowy collaborators in evil. Suffice it to say that this particular book is a moving one, but it requires at least some sort of knowledge of and interest in the concentration camps and more generally in the effects of trauma upon memory, whether one is the victim or the perpetrator of that violence. Admittedly, those who are most fond of books like this are likely to be those who struggle with the memory of the wrongs that have been done to them, which hopefully will inspire the fervent desire not to commit those same wrongs against others.
After a somewhat lengthy preface, this book of about 200 pages contains a few chapters that ruminate on the experience of trauma and evil, particularly but not only that suffered in the Nazi concentration camps. The author begins with a discussion of the memory of the offense and the way that memory is untrustworthy and that it can serve to torment both the victims of it and the creators of the offense alike (1). After that the author talks about the gray zone that exists between those who are innocent and those who are guilty without any sense of remorse or humanity and how it is like to deal with the morality of those who do not have clean hands (2). The author talks about the shame or guilt in not having done enough to resist the evil of the concentration camps (3). He speaks about the problem of communication, of the savage language of the lager and of the damage of not being talked to as a human that the prisoners faced (4). The author talks about useful and useless violence and humiliation and degradation (5), as well as the fate of the intellectual/cultured and the believer in Auschwitz (6). The author then concludes the book with a discussion of various stereotypes (7) relating to the concentration camps and his letter-writing with Germans (8) relating to his own writing about Nazi-era Germany.
Even though this book is clearly written by a survivor of the concentration camps to others who were alive during that period, the book has some definite relevance to others. For example, the author talks about how it was that the survivors of the concentration camp were inevitably privileged in some fashion and how these privileges could have been obtained, whether through some sort of collaboration or being seen as useful to the Nazi regime or being taken or given in some other fashion. The author laments that the best of European Jewry were killed in the “final solution” and that Germans often did their best to ignore their own complicity in Hitler’s genocidal evil. He discussed the various approaches that people have towards the degradation that took place and that those who were religious or idealistic and had some sort of overall picture of the universe often did better than otherwise, and how there was an effective if clandestine resistance movement within the concentration camps that the author was only dimly aware of during his time there. Also, notably, the author comments that the language of such camps is strikingly similar whether one looks at the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the gulag archipelago of Soviet Russia, a reminder that there is a great similarity between evil wherever it is found.