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Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved

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Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage, 1989)

The Drowned and the Saved--like Survival in Auschwitz and The Awakening before it--is a masterpiece among Holocaust memoirs. It has the distinction of being the last book written by Primo Levi before his suicide in 1987; I found that fact particularly interesting considering this passage on suicide:

...all historians of the Lager--and also of the Soviet camps--agree in pointing out that cases of suicide during imprisonment were rare. Several explanations of this fact have been put forward; for my part I offer three, which are not mutually exclusive.

First of all, suicide is the act of man and not of the animal. It is a meditated act, a noninstinctive, unnatural choice, and in the Lager there were few opportunities to choose: people lived precisely like enslaved animals that sometimes let themselves die but do not kill themselves.

Secondly, "there were other things to think about," as the saying goes. The day was dense: one had to think about satisfying hunger, in some way elude fatigue and cold, avoid the blows. Precisely because of the constant imminence of death there was no time to concentrate on the idea of death. [...]

Thirdly, in the majority of cases, suicide is born from a feeling of guilt that no punishment has attenuated; now, the harshness of imprisonment was perceived as punishment, and the feeling of guilt (if there is punishment, there must have been guilt) was relegated to the background, only to re-emerge after the Liberation. (p. 76)

I was also intrigued by this passage, where Levi disclosed his atheism:

Like Améry, I too entered the Lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my non-belief. It prevented, and still prevents me from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice: Why were the moribund packed in cattle cars? Why were the children sent to the gas? (p. 145)

The inability of religion to answer those questions is a factor in my atheism as well, and may be one of the reasons I find Levi's writing--besides its subject--so compelling.

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