The Drowned and the Saved Summary
by Primo Levi

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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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.

A sane, humane, and sanguine voice proclaiming that “there is no need for wars or violence, under any circumstances,” Levi examines the advantages and disadvantages of being an intellectual in Auschwitz. He ponders the rarity of suicide among Lager inmates and reflects upon the delayed self-destruction of philosopher Jean Amery. Shortly after completing THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED, Primo Levi died, at the age of sixty-seven by hurling himself down a flight of stairs.

For Further Review

The Atlantic. Review. CCLXI (February, 1988), p. 86.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924-1974, 1983.

Langer, Lawrence. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, 1975.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961.

Levi, Primo. These Moments of Reprieve, 1986.

Library Journal. CXII, November 15, 1987, p. 76.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 27, 1987, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, March 17, 1988, p. 3.

The New York Times. CXXXVII, January 5, 1988, p. 21.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 10, 1988, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXIV, May 23, 1988, p. 86.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, November 27, 1987, p. 72.

Sodi, Risa. “An Interview with Primo Levi: The Auschwitz Experience,” in Partisan Review. LIV (Summer, 1987), pp. 355-366.

Sodi, Risa. “Primo Levi: A Last Talk,” in Present Tense. XX (May/June, 1988), p. 40.

Time. CXXX, December 28, 1987, p. 65.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 13, 1988, p. 520.

Washington Monthly. XX, April, 1988, p. 58.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, March 13, 1988, p. 11.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 935 words.)