“The Gray Zone” as a Complex of Tensions: Primo Levi on Holocaust Survival

  • Marie L. Baird
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


An article entitled “A Holocaust Horror Story Without a Schindler”1 appeared in The New York Times of Sunday, January 7, 2001. Although clearly meant as a review of director Tim Blake Nelson’s film “The Grey Zone,” I was drawn to the article by the film title’s unambiguous reference to Primo Levi’s work. Levi had devoted a chapter to a detailed analysis of what he called “the gray zone” in his final book, The Drowned and The Saved2; an analysis that had been extensively commented upon by Tzvetan Todorov and Giorgio Agamben in separate works.3 Indeed, Levi’s notion of a “gray zone” of extreme moral ambiguity in the concentration and extermination camps has become an anchoring point for much commentary on Holocaust survival. Very provisionally, we might regard the notion of “the gray zone” as Levi’s symbolization of the moral compromise that many desperate prisoners were forced to make in order to buy themselves more time. The price exacted was collaboration with the SS, up to and including the murder of their fellow prisoners.


Ethical Judgment Gray Zone Holocaust Survival Bare Life Ideological System 
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  1. 2.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Random House, 1988), 36–69.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, trans. Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak (New York: Henry Holt, 1996)Google Scholar
  3. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone, 1999).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cf. Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, trans. and ed. Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 108–109. I argue later that “the gray zone” is a symbol whose polyvalence ultimately exceeds this study’s capacity to do it full justice.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Eric Voegelin, Order and History Volume Five: In Search of Order, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 31–33.Google Scholar
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    Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 1958), translated into English as Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Macmillan, 1960).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, trans. Steve Cox (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1998), 390.Google Scholar
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    Eric Voegelin, Order and History Volume Four: The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 17–18.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

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  • Marie L. Baird

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