The Drowned and the Saved
“The Lager,” writes Primo Levi, referring not to beer but to the German word for concentration camp, “was a university.” It was not one to which most of us would choose to apply, even if tuition were waived. Levi survived Auschwitz summa cum laude, and The Drowned and the Saved, his last completed book, is his brief but trenchant valedictory address.
A chemist by profession and a writer by compulsion, Levi, an assimilated middle-class Italian Jew from Turin, found himself forcibly matriculated along with Jews, Gypsies, dissidents, and other undesirables from Eastern and Central Europe. He learned a debased form of German as part of his curriculum at one of the most notorious of the death camps. He claims that the survival rate among those who understood German was higher than among those who did not. Much more crucial, however, are the lessons about human nature that this Ancient Mariner—formerly known as Prisoner Number 174517—insists on sharing with a world that has little patience for the past. Levi refused to have his tattoo erased; for forty years, he bore the victim’s stigma with neither shame nor pride, but rather a sense of duty to bear witness.
What Elie Wiesel dubbed the Holocaust—a systematic attempt by the Third Reich to exterminate the Jews—is by now one of the most thoroughly documented phenomena in history. Anyone who denies that approximately six million European Jews were slaughtered between 1933 and 1945 is either a fool or a fiend. The Drowned and the Saved is not yet another detailed account of the hideous operations by which the Nazi death camps tried to carry out the so-called final solution. Earlier books by Levi, including Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959, best known as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity) and La tregua (1963; The Reawakening: A Liberated Prisoner’s Long March Home Through East Europe, 1965, also as The Truce), are important contributions to that vast library. Yet among the myriad accounts and discussions of the war against the Jews, J. M. Cameron, in The New York Review of Books, says of The Drowned and the Saved: “There will not be another more subtle, more humane.”
Here, in terse, lucid prose, crisply translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal, Levi provides a commentary that is oriented as much toward the future as the past. He muses over how “an entire civilized people, just issued from the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar, followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe.” Why, more than forty years later, dwell on the Nazi atrocities? “It happened, therefore it can happen again” is the burden of the testimony by the tiny remnant who survived.
Memory is the explicit theme of Levi’s first chapter, as it is the implicit irritant to the entire book. In a remarkably dispassionate feat of analysis, he sorts through his own recollections in an effort to understand the objective mechanisms of memory and evil themselves. Levi is fascinated by the consolatory deceptions that both villains and victims have contrived in order to put a painful past behind them. It is possible, and natural, he notes, for them to be perfectly sincere in their lies. If, as he quietly insists, “the entire history of the brief ’millennial Reich’ can be reread as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of memory, falsification of reality, negation of reality,” The Drowned and the Saved is a modest act of mnemonic counterinsurgency. Levi opposes the inevitable and evitable simplifications of history and notes that his book “contains more considerations than memories, lingers more willingly on the state of affairs such as it is now than on the retroactive chronicle.” In fact, for all of its historical motivation, the book ruminates on the past principally in order to extract food for ahistorical thoughts about human nature. A chapter titled “Useless Violence” catalogs the varieties of...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)