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  • “Les Années noires avaient été grises:” A Meta-Ethical Examination of Pierre Assouline’s Appropriation of Primo Levi’s Concept of the “Grey Zone”1
  • Helena Duffy

The Grey Zone: Readings, Re-readings and Overreadings

Primo Levi’s landmark essay “The Grey Zone” opens with criticism of those who, when trying to understand the dynamics of l’univers concentrationnaire, reduce the complex network of human relationships to the mutually opposing categories of evil tormentors and saintly victims. Reflected in Christ’s gesture on Judgment day—“here the righteous, over there the reprobates”—, such dualistic thinking fails, according to Levi, in relation to Auschwitz whose horror consisted also in its indecipherability. Namely, some of the victims were dragged into defiling complicity with their oppressors, thus entering what Levi describes as an area so “incredibly complicated [in] its internal structure” that it “confuse[s] our need to judge” (The Drowned and the Saved 27). Within this “grey zone” the Italian writer-survivor situates all kinds of “privileged prisoners,” beginning with kettles washers, bed smoothers, checkers for lice or interpreters (29), and ending with Sonderkommandos. Recruited predominantly amongst Jewish inmates, these “special squads” were responsible for maintaining order among those to be gassed, disposing of the victims’ bodies, and sorting out their belongings. Seeking examples of the “grey zone” beyond the Lager, Levi invokes controversial leader of the Łódź ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, or even SS Erich Mühsfeldt, who briefly showed pity to a young survivor of gassing and whom Levi gives the benefit of the doubt by believing that, under different circumstances, he could have been a decent man (40). However, whereas Levi recommends that our moral judgment be suspended in relation to the “privileged” prisoners, in line with his more general and emphatic declaration of his unwillingness to ever forgive his oppressors, he fully endorses the 1948 verdict of the Supreme National Tribunal to sentence Mühsfeldt to death (37). [End Page 29]

Since the publication of Levi’s essay, critics have been arguing about who indeed should be included in the “grey zone.”2 While some mobilize the morally murky area as a universal figure of enforced complicity with one’s oppressor, others believe it to be restricted to the physical space of Nazi concentration camps. Giorgio Agamben, for instance, has famously and controversially deployed the “grey zone” as a paradigm for post-Auschwitz ethics, positioning all human beings within this space of moral ambiguity (101).3 Others have reapplied Levi’s term to bystanders, collaborators or resisters, or have even assimilated it with Holocaust-unrelated situations.4 As for Levi himself, he expands the meaning of the “grey zone” by reaching with his intertextual references beyond l’univers concentrationnaire, as exemplified by the analogy he draws between the Sonderkommandos and the collectors of corpses in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (1827) (39). In the same vein, Levi likens Mühsfeldt’s brief hesitation to an old woman’s single good deed in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) (40). More directly, the Italian writer-survivor inscribes into this area of moral ambiguity, where dichotomies of evil and goodness are no longer operational, various collaborating governments, including Vichy (27). He also identifies it within the Soviet gulag or compares the Nazis’ strategy of burdening their victims with guilt to the practices of the Italian Mafia (27–28). Yet, despite Levi’s broader references, Adam Brown, who has written extensively on the “grey zone,” firmly believes in the term’s historical and topographical specificity (52). His view is shared by Debarati Sanyal who points to Levi’s repeated insistence on the singularity of the prisoner’s physical and emotional experience of the camp (34): “The mental mechanisms of Häftlinge were different from ours; curiously and in parallel, different were also their physiology and pathology” (The Drowned and the Saved 60).

Another contentious point raised by Levi’s essay and relevant to the present inquiry is the confusion of victims with victimizers that some have inferred from the Italian writer’s definition of the “grey zone” as a space “with ill-defined outlines which both separate and join the two camps of masters and servants” (27) or, from what...


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