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Perpetrator Studies Network


Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved

Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s last work, consisting of several essays. For the purpose of studying perpetrators, “Shame” and “The Gray Zone” are the most important as they both focus on the blurring of the lines between perpetrators and victims in the camp. In the former essay, Levi discusses various aspects of survivor guilt. He states that one of the reasons survivors were often ashamed is that they were often the ones who stole from others in order to survive, or collaborated with the Nazis in the camp. In the latter, Levi explores what he calls the gray zone. Focusing on the prisoners with a privilge, and on those in the Sonderkommando, he develops the ‘gray zone’ as a metaphor for moral ambiguity: a conceptual realm in which masters and servants are both separate and joined. Levi’s concept problematises judgement, as his characterisation of the ‘gray zone’ has been interpreted as a merging of the fundamental categories of persecutors and victims. However, Levi stresses elsewhere in his essay, that such a distinction must be upheld. The concept of the “gray zone” has been widely taken up by scholars in different fields, ranging from Holocaust studies to theology, philosophy, law, history, and feminist theory.

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Summit Books, 1988.