Hannah Arendt: Ihr Denken veränderte die Welt [Hannah Arendt: Her Thought Changed the World]
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi’s final book on his experiences at Auschwitz, he makes a wise remark about the difficulty of rendering judgment on history. The historian is pulled in two directions. He is obliged to gather and take into account all relevant material and perspectives; but he is also obliged to render the mass of material into a coherent object of thought and judgment:
Without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions…. We are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema.
Satisfying both imperatives is difficult under any circumstances, and with certain events may seem impossible. The Holocaust is one of those. Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism. This is why Holocaust studies seems to swing back and forth with steady regularity, now trying to render justice to particulars (German soldiers as “ordinary men”), now trying to restore moral coherence (Hitler’s “willing executioners”).
Among Primo Levi’s virtues as a writer on the Holocaust was his skill at finding the point of historical and moral equipoise, most remarkably in his famous chapter “The Gray Zone” in The Drowned and the Saved. It is not easy reading. Besides recounting the horrifying dilemmas and unspeakable cruelties imposed by the Nazis on their victims, he also gives an unvarnished account of the cruelties that privileged prisoners visited on weaker ones, and the compromises, large and small, some made to maintain those privileges and their lives. He describes how the struggle for prestige and recognition, inevitable in any human grouping, manifested itself even in the camps, producing “obscene or pathetic figures…whom it is indispensable to know if we want to know the human species.”
Levi tells the story of Chaim Rumkowski, the vain, dictatorial Jewish elder of the Łódź ghetto who printed stamps with his portrait on them, commissioned hymns celebrating his greatness, and surveyed his domain from a horse-drawn carriage. Stories like these that others have told and others still have wished to bury are unwelcome complications. But Levi tells them without ever letting the reader lose sight of the clear, simple moral reality in which they took place. Yes, “we are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit.” But “I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer.”…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.