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The Drowned and the Saved – Primo Levi

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  • Pages: 3
  • Word count: 684
  • Category: Holocaust

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Fatally haunted by the oppressive memories of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel once said, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night” (32).  What is remembered of the Holocaust today is a deniable memory of a traumatic experience where survivors made decisions to become murderers and committed crimes to save themselves.  As a survivor of the Holocaust, Primo Levi’s memoir The Drowned and the Saved provides a dichotomy of those who were executed voluntarily and involuntarily, where morals were corrupted for the desire of power and will to live.  Striving to survive, the survivors of the Holocaust encountered what Levi defines, “the gray zone”.  Awed for the will to live, Levi explains how as an intellectual individual with good communication skills, he became a privileged prisoner with a desire to power and was “saved”; thus, experiencing the “shame” for the underprivileged prisoners upon entering the gray zone.

As intellectual individuals, those who entered the gray zone had efficient communication skills of understanding the verbal interactions within the Germans and were able to become privileged prisoners.  Levi had the intellectual mind of understanding the German elements where he was able to understand the orders that were given to him. He provides an example of how the privileged prisoners had a desire for power to escape death and introduces the Kapos, work squads who supervised the prisoners.  Becoming a Kapo as the authority were given those who were ready to compromise with the Nazi’s and became the solution of escaping the suffering and humiliation. Because they earned their privileges for punishing the prisoners through “committing the worst atrocities on their subjects as punishments” (46), Kapos entered the gray zone with an objective to commit a crime rather than choosing death.  As a privileged prisoner, Levi explains how he witnessed the “useful violence” of how the objective was to humiliate and make the “enemy suffer”, thus, “before dying the victim must be degraded so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt” (126).

As of today, the survivors who entered the gray zone were unable to separate the good from the evil and experienced shame as Levi defines, “a feeling of guilt during the imprisonment and afterward” (73) which “coincided with reacquired freedom which was extremely composite” (75). As a privileged prisoner who as at the concentration camps for almost a year, Levi explains how it was time for him to put himself in front of his fellow prisoners; he cared about his own life with no intention of helping others and feels guilty for being alive today.  Although there was nothing that he can do to help save the lives of other, Levi’s sense of guilt comes in as he was unable to save one of his prisoner’s life.  In addition to suffering from hunger, Levi suffered from thirst and failed to share a drop of water from a pipe where he could have shared it with someone who was dying.  Levi was one of those who were saved, entering the concentration camps as “the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, and the collaborative of the ‘gray zone,’ the species” (82) while the others drowned.

The Holocaust today still remains and continues to remain indisputable events in history where survivors of the Holocaust are classified into those who were “saved”.  Upon entering the gray zone with the desire to gain certain privileges, those who were “saved” today avoid recalling the painful memories and deny having committed to a given act.  As many questions are asked to the survivors of the holocaust to why the remarkable incidents of humiliation and useless violence occurred, answers are often referred to as “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember”. The gray zone, where the “two camps of masters and servants both diverge and converge” (42) explain why the holocaust is a remarkable, tragic event.   Those with the courage to survive were able to set aside their guilt with a desire for power and committed crimes to do what was necessary to survive.

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