Primo Levi and the Grey Zone, a Theory of Human Nature
Auschwitz's survivor Primo Levi wrote his experience as a prisoner in concentration camp, and he elaborated the theory of the "grey zone", a concept that embodies his ideas about good, evil, and the human condition.
The 27th of January is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, namely, a memorial day that commemorates all the victims of Holocaust – or “Shoa”, as many Jewish people prefer, since the former means “sacrifice” whereas the latter means “catastrophe”, “devastation”, referring to the genocide of European Jews between 1941 and 1945 committed by Nazi Germany and some of its allies.
Fortunately, some people survived the concentration camps, so they could share their stories with others. Thanks to their witnesses, everyone was able to know what happened in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and other concentration camps. Some of the survivors also wrote books, poems, diaries, so that the later generations could be aware of this dark piece of human history.
Italian Jew Primo Levi was 24 years old when he was deported to Auschwitz. He survived thanks to his knowledge as a chemist, as the Nazis needed someone to work in a lab. There, he was saved from the low temperature of polish winter, and the gruelling physical work. In 1946, after the liberation of concentration camps, he wrote “If this is a Man” (Se questo è un uomo), describing the atrocities he and the other deportees had to undergo.
In 1986, one year before his death, he published “The Drowned and the Saved” (I sommersi e I salvati), an essay where he elaborated a theory of moral philosophy. Here, Levi reflects on how illusory are the notions of “Good” and “Evil”, since no man is a saint nor a demon. Rather, human beings are more complex. Indeed, most of the time, there is an indefinite, grey zone, made of all those that are oppressed and oppressors at the same time. In some way, Levi’s theory is similar to Hannah Arendt’s ideas that are explained in her book “The banality of Evil”.
Who belongs to the grey zone? Inside the concentration camp, all the prisoners who were cooperating with the Nazis, those that instead of supporting the other deportees, were fighting against them, or killing them. This is the case of Sonderkommandos, i.e. prisoners who had the duty to kill other prisoners in gas chambers and bring them to crematoria; or for instance those who were chosen to become Kapos, and had the privilege of punishing the prisoners if they were not working well.
Primo Levi himself became a co-operator, when he was transferred to the chemistry lab. In a chapter of “The Drowned and the Saved”, he said that after coming home he started feeling shame, because he survived, while many people died. In fact, when one day an old friend visited him, and claimed that Levi was saved from God, he denied that. As he wrote:
I could be alive at another man’s place, at another man’s expense — I may have supplanted, in fact killed. The "saved" of the Lager were not the best, the ones predestined for good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and experienced proved the exact opposite. They survived to prefer the worst, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the "grey zone", the spies.
According to Levi, the grey zone is proper of human nature. Inside the concentration camps, where people were put under extreme conditions, every behaviour, reaction, and decision was also extreme, of course. However, in a normal situation, like our daily life, it is easy to find several examples of collaborators of the grey zone. In fact, the grey zone is made of all those men who use their little power, when they have it, to harm people who lie, hierarchically speaking, in a lower position. Or those who are indifferent to others being worse off, and do nothing to help because they want to keep their privilege. We can meet them everywhere and in any situation: at work, at school, in the street, on the social media.
P. Levi, Se questo è un uomo, Edizione speciale per Famiglia Cristiana San Paolo, 1989
P. Levi, I sommersi e i salvati, Einaudi, Torino 2007.
H. Arendt, La banalità del male- Eichmann a Gerusalemme, Feltrinelli, 1964.