In Chapter Two of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, “The Grey Zone”, the Italian author writes that human beings “tend to simplify history; but the pattern within which events are ordered is not always identifiable in a single unequivocal fashion, and it may therefore happen that different historians understand and construe history in ways that are incompatible with one another.” In short, we have built up a “us” vs “them” world, a dichotomy of “friend or enemy”.
This attitude chimes with a concept I thought it’d gone the way of the crusades many centuries ago. That of hell and eternal damnation. Well, according to a recent article in The Economist, Lucifer’s abode is still around and doesn’t show signs of kicking the metaphorical bucket just yet.
Apparently the billboards in the American South still shout out that “Hell is Real” and religions such as the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu have not let go of their own version of inferno yet. Furthermore fundamentalist Christians in the US terrify American teenagers with “Hell Houses” to warn them against drug-taking and other vices.
The above picture is very different to the Unterwelt that oversaw the dehumanisation process to which Levi and his fellow prisoners were subjected. No wonder many survivors blocked out memories of the Lagers. They were too painful to bear and too illogical to make sense of. How can you even put into words the Nazis’ tendency to scream at their victims in German, knowing fully well that they were not being understood? How can you explain the beatings, the hunger and the thirst? And had an explanation been provided at any point, wouldn’t it have validated unintentionally Die Endlösung, the final solution?
Whereas in Christian mythology, just to give an example, hell is still pretty much about fire, brimstone and lamentations, in the real world, Hades is circumstantial. For instances of this, see Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment for twenty-seven years for his political beliefs and Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia with its famous “killing fields”. It would be simplistic to say that the millions who suffered at the hands of the Asian despot underwent a worse version of hell than the South African leader. Especially when the aim of both the apartheid-led government and the Khmer Rouge was to dehumanise the individual/collective.
In this sense Primo Levi’s book is a welcome attempt to bring nuance into a situation of extremes. We are aware of what happened between 1939 and 1945 in Europe. We have read the history books and memoirs whilst others have had the fortune of meeting survivors of the concentration camps. What we lack sometimes is the nitty-gritty of what went on day after day in Auschwitz and other Lagers. We have built up the “us” (condemnatory of Nazism, fascism and any other form of racism) vs the “them” (the far right or any other group with xenophobic and racist intentions). Yet, in between these two sides lay real men and women who didn’t have much of a chance to make the right decision; right decisions often being accompanied by a gunshot or a fatal beating.
In the aforementioned Chapter Two, The Grey Zone, Levi addresses these individuals’ dilemma. Dividing them into two blocs of victims and persecutors is a reduction ad absurdum, he seems to say. It is also self-defeating. The world (or hell, to continue with my theme today) into which these people were thrown was a shock. It was also hard to work out. I mentioned the linguistic component before. The other element was that the enemy was not obvious. Yes, the soldier kicking you with his boot was your enemy, but so was the campmate who tried to steal your bread. Under these circumstances the idea of hell as a place of despair or desolation for sinners is out of synch with what really happened in the Second World War. What was the sin of the millions of people sent to the concentration camps?
As a final reflection on how the religious idea of hell as punishment for offenders is nowadays at odds with the real underworld in which those in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq still live, I’ll quote again from Levi’s book:
“… the arrival in the Lager was indeed a shock because of the surprise it entailed. The world into which one was precipitated was terrible, yes, but also indecipherable: it did not conform to any model, the enemy was all around but also inside, the ‘we’ lost its limits, the contenders were not two, one could not discern a single frontier but rather many confused, perhaps innumerable frontiers, which stretched between each of us”.
Less Dante’s black-and-white solid ice Hell and more nuanced, greyish, human on human inferno. And as a consequence, more puzzling.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 6th March at 11:59pm (GMT)