A chemist by profession and a writer by compulsion, Levi, an Italian Jew forced to become Prisoner 174517 in a Nazi death camp, refused afterward to have his tattoo erased; for forty years, he wore the victim’s stigma with neither shame nor pride, but rather a duty to bear witness. Earlier books by Levi, including SURVIVAL IN AUSCHWITZ and THE REAWAKENING, are important contributions to the many detailed accounts of the Holocaust. While offering incidental information on daily life in Auschwitz, however, THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED is most concerned with contemplating how a culture as rich as the German could have degenerated into barbarism. Part of the book records the author’s exchange of letters with postwar Germans. More germane to Levi’s concerns is his awareness that “it happened, therefore it can happen again.”
Levi’s is a gentle, decent voice; he is uncomfortable in the role of either spokesman or judge. The best, along with most, he claims, were annihilated. He insists that mere chance enabled a few to emerge alive from the death camps and that one must resist generalizing from their anomalous experiences. Portraying the Lager world as a “gray zone” in which everyone became a functionary, inexorably implicated in the mechanism of destruction, Levi presents a universe devoid of heroes. He is as intent in combatting the tendency to reduce everything to soothing stereotypes as on preventing the temptation to succumb to amnesia.
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Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved is the distillation of his experiences with the Holocaust, from his capture by the Germans to his eminence as a commentator on that tragic episode in human history. His essential theme in The Drowned and the Saved—a title he had used for one of the chapters of If This Is a Man-—is how to measure the ways people dealt with the horrors of the Nazi program of genocide during its operation and since that time.
The title is designed to lead into an examination of what it meant to be saved in a spiritual context, since some who survived physically were lost in a moral sense, while some who died had by the example of their lives reached a level of salvation, which Levi celebrates. He concluded the book with letters he had received from German citizens in an effort to summarize and reconcile his own recollections of the Holocaust with the extensive historical studies that appeared since his first book, as well as with responses from Germans living at the time and from generations born after the war. In conjunction with this, Levi was determined to prevent the reoccurrence of anything like Auschwitz by making it impossible to forget or suppress the facts, by protecting and preserving memory without limiting discussion, by resisting those who tried to distort or shape a historical record for their own purposes, and by attempting to penetrate as far as possible the depths of the human psyche to try to...
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