The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

760659Nonfiction — print. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. Vintage International, 1989. Originally published 1986. 203 pgs. Purchased.

In Levi’s last book before his death, he sets out to examine the concepts of forgiveness, guilt, and memory in the context of his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. He includes replies to his memoir from Germans, who struggle with how they should feel in light of what their parents did, and his reaction to children and adults from around the world, who wonder why he didn’t fight back or try to escape.

“…the prisoner felt overwhelmed by a massive edifice of violence and menace but could not form for himself a representation of it because his eyes were fixed to the ground by every single minute’s needs.” (pg. 17)

This is one of those books where I wrestled with the decision to review or not to review. My copy of Levi’s final memoir was filled with bring, pink highlights from its previous owner; so many highlights that I wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier for the reader to highlight the passages they didn’t like.

“The oppressor remains what he is, and so does the victim. They are not interchangeable. The former is to be punished and execrated (but, if possible, understood), the latter is to be pitied and helped; but both, faced by the indecency of the irrevocable act, need refuge and protection, and instinctively search for them. Not all, but most — and often for their entire lives.” (pg. 25)

Yet I understood their instinct to highlight so thoroughly because nearly every passage felt important. Felt profound and moving and thought-provoking. And, on that merit alone, the book stands out, particularly the chapters dedicated to the complexities of memory and the ability of the German people to excuse themselves from guilt.

“The decisions were not ours because the regime in which we grew up did not permit autonomous decisions: others have decided for us, and that was the only way it could have happened because our ability to decide had been amputated. Therefore we are not responsible and cannot be punished.” (pg. 29)

The part I struggle with — and the reason why I gave the book a middle-of-the-road rating on GoodReads — is the flow of particular chapters. It seems that Levi wanted to provide an analytical examination of the why and the how of what happened to him, but there isn’t one neat explanation and that explanation seems always out of Levi’s reach.

A barrier he cannot cross, even as he interjects a lot of hopelessness into the narrative. A barrier between himself and the reader, even as he tries to connect with them and make them understand that happened to him can happen again.

“Compassion and brutality can coexist in the same individual and in the same moment, despite all logic; and for all that, compassion itself eludes logic.” (pg. 56)

Of course, that barrier and Levi’s response to it is something I do not want to judge. As Levi says in this book, “I believe that no one is authorized to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the Lager and even less those who did not” (pg. 59). Which is exactly why I struggled with whether or not I could — or should — review this book. It seems inappropriate to demand a survivor of Auschwitz perform even more emotional labor for his readers.


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