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.
(The entire section is 462 words.)