A Typology of Gray Flowers: Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl on Auschwitz

  • Timothy E. Pytell
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


Two of the most widely read testimonies on surviving Auschwitz are Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. But when read together we get two very different renditions of the experience. Levi’s meditation is at once profoundly moving and disturbing. His description of the dehumanizing horror of the camp moves us, but also forces us to confront the disturbing insight that language fails to fully convey the experience. In addition, for Levi the categories that are easily placed in opposition in everyday life; good/evil; moral/immoral; innocent victim/guilty perpetrator, and so forth were eroded in the inverted world of Auschwitz. Levi sustained and developed his analysis of the moral ambiguity of Auschwitz in his final work The Drowned and the Saved, especially with his reflection on the “Gray Zone.” Frankl’s version offers a striking contrast to Levi’s. For Frankl the reality of Auschwitz required no radical revision of moral categories. In the words of the renowned Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, Frankl rendered “hunger, humiliation, fear and deep anger at injustice … tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, by a grim sense of humor, and even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature.” Allport was also moved by Frankl’s ability to make “larger sense out of his apparently senseless suffering” by facing “fully the ubiquity of suffering and the forces of evil,” and thus deriving “a surprisingly hopeful view of man’s capacity to transcend his predicament and discover an adequate guiding truth.”1


Concentration Camp Scarlet Fever Camp Experience Moral Category Moral Ambiguity 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Gordon Allport, preface to Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982) by Viktor Frankl, 7–10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lawrence Langer, “The Literature of Auschwitz,” in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, eds. Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 604.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Lawrence Langer, Versions of Survival (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 24.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist, trans. Steve Cox (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1999) 38.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 9.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Matthias Göring, Zentralblatt für Psychotherapie (1933),Google Scholar
  7. quoted in Geoffrey Cocks, Psychotherapy in the Third Reich (Oxford University Press, 1985) 117.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    See Timothy E. Pytell “Viktor Frankl and the Genesis of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” Psychoanalytic Review, 88, 2 (April 2001): 311–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 13.
    Viktor Frankl, “Viktor Frankl,” in Psychotherapie in Selbstdarstellung, ed. Ludwig J. Pongratz (Vienna: Verlag Hans Huber, 1973).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    See Viktor Frankl, Was nicht in meinen Buechern steht (Muenchen: Quintessenz 1995). Frankl’s written documentation is Frankl, “Pervitin Intrazisternal,” Ars Medici no.1 (1942): 58–60.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 3.Google Scholar
  12. 39.
    Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York: Insight, 1997), 152.Google Scholar
  13. 40.
    See Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), especially Part III: Theology and Contemporary Judaism, 157–293.Google Scholar
  14. 41.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 145.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Timothy E. Pytell

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations