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Gray Zones

Gray Zones: Ambiguity and Compromise in the Holocaust and its Aftermath

Jonathan Petropoulos
John K. Roth
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Gray Zones
    Book Description:

    Few essays about the Holocaust are better known or more important than Primo Levi's reflections on what he called "the gray zone," a reality in which moral ambiguity and compromise were pronounced. In this volume accomplished Holocaust scholars, among them Raul Hilberg, Gerhard L. Weinberg, Christopher Browning, Peter Hayes, and Lynn Rapaport, explore the terrain that Levi identified. Together they bring a necessary interdisciplinary focus to bear on timely and often controversial topics in cutting-edge Holocaust studies that range from historical analysis to popular culture. While each essay utilizes a particular methodology and argues for its own thesis, the volume as a whole advances the claim that the more we learn about the Holocaust, the more complex that event turns out to be. Only if ambiguities and compromises in the Holocaust and its aftermath are identified, explored, and at times allowed to remain--lest resolution deceive us--will our awareness of the Holocaust and its implications be as full as possible.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-201-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Prologue: The Gray Zones of the Holocaust
    (pp. xv-xxii)
    Jonathan Petropoulos and John K. Roth

    Born in Turin on 31 July 1919, Primo Levi, an Italian-Jewish chemist, joined a partisan resistance group after the Germans occupied northern Italy in the autumn of 1943. He was arrested as a suspect person by Fascists on 13 December 1943. Fearing that confirmation of his partisan identity would lead to torture and death, he admitted his status as an “Italian citizen of Jewish race,” unaware of what that identification held in store for him. Levi was sent to a concentration camp at Fossoli, near the city of Modena, which had been intended for British and American prisoners of war....

  6. Part One: Ambiguity and Compromise in Writing and Depicting Holocaust History

    • Introduction
      (pp. 1-6)

      “I did not choose to be a writer,” said Primo Levi, “I was turned into one.”¹ His deportation, his awareness of the gray zone in Auschwitz, his observation of the suffering of others—these were among the experiences that compelled him to write.Survival in Auschwitzcontains a brief but poignant episode that reflects these impulses. Levi recalls Dr. Pannwitz’s chemical laboratory, a warm and privileged place for an Auschwitz prisoner as winter bears down upon the camp. “To work,” he writes, “is to push wagons, carry sleepers, break stones, dig earth, press one’s bare hands against the iciness of...

    • Chapter 1 The Ambiguities of Evil and Justice: Degussa, Robert Pross, and the Jewish Slave Laborers at Gleiwitz
      (pp. 7-25)
      Peter Hayes

      Thanks to more than three decades of intensified research, historians now generally think a great deal differently about the German corporate world in the Third Reich than they used to. Largely gone are the once prominent shibboleths depicting industrial and financial magnates as major players in Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, as monolithically or even predominantly pro-Nazi and antisemitic in the early years of the regime, and as molders of domestic and foreign policy throughout the period 1933–45. The once common contention that German big business sought and pursued the dispossession of Jews and their exploitation as slave laborers as...

    • Chapter 2 “Alleviation” and “Compliance”: The Survival Strategies of the Jewish Leadership in the Wierzbnik Ghetto and the Starachowice Factory Slave Labor Camps
      (pp. 26-36)
      Christopher R. Browning

      I have often been asked how I first became interested in the study of the Holocaust. The short answer to that question is very simple. I read a book and it changed my life. That book was Raul Hilberg’sThe Destruction of the European Jews,in this case the 1967 Quadrangle paperback printing of the original 1961 edition, which I first read in June 1969. Hilberg’s interpretive framework of the destruction of the European Jews as an administrative/ bureaucratic process, moving through the specific functional phases of identification, expropriation, concentration, and annihilation and spanning the continent, struck me with the...

    • Chapter 3 Between Sanity and Insanity: Spheres of Everyday Life in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando
      (pp. 37-60)
      Gideon Greif

      The killing installations in the concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau functioned according to the patterns of common industrial plants: machines, production lines, workers, simple managers, senior managers, a general director, and so on. Only two major differences exist between regular factories and Nazi death camps: the raw materials in the Nazi camps were human beings, and the only end product was human ashes. The workers in the death factories were in most cases Jewish prisoners. In Auschwitz-Birkenau they were unofficially called theSonderkommando.

      There are various reasons for the creation of a Jewish battalion of death factory workers. The...

    • Chapter 4 Sonderkommando: Testimony from Evidence
      (pp. 61-69)
      Michael Berenbaum

      Sonderkommando,the special prisoner units that operated in the vicinity of the gas chambers, were intimate with the act of killing. They observed the murderers—and the act of killing—directly, closely, and over a long period of time. They were in the presence of the condemned in their last moments, when they entered the undressing room, when they lined up to go into the gas chambers; and they were with the corpses minutes after they were gassed, when their bodies were removed from the chambers and they were processed. At Birkenau as elsewhere,Sonderkommandopulled gold teeth from the...

    • Chapter 5 A Commentary on “Gray Zones” in Raul Hilberg’s Work
      (pp. 70-80)
      Gerhard L. Weinberg

      In the April 1962 issue of theAmerican Historical Review,I began my review of the first edition of Raul Hilberg’s book,The Destruction of the European Jews,with the comment: “This is an impressive and depressing work.”¹ That view has in no way changed in the intervening forty-two years and two further editions. The aim of this commentary is to raise some issues that Hilberg either could not or did not engage fully.

      First, it remains essential in my judgment to recall that Hitler’s belief in the stab-in-the-back legend was sincere and was widely shared by Germany’s military and...

    • Chapter 6 Incompleteness in Holocaust Historiography
      (pp. 81-92)
      Raul Hilberg

      No empirical work of historiography is complete. The condition of incompleteness in such a literature is inherent in the sources themselves. An entire flow of events in all their complexity cannot be carried in the memory of witnesses. It cannot be stored with all of its attributes in remaining artifacts, and it is not replicated in all of its facets in contemporaneous records. All that has gone on in the world, which in theory is the whole of history, can be preserved only in fragments, and these leftovers constitute our material. The attempt to recapitulate anything at all is therefore...

  7. Part Two: Identity, Gender, and Sexuality During and After the Third Reich

    • Introduction
      (pp. 93-96)

      Primo Levi described himself as a centaur.¹ That mythological figure—half-man, half-horse—mirrored his gray-zoned sense of identity. Just as the centaur represents two realities that are improbably, even impossibly, fused into one, Levi’s life was a fusion, at times a confusion and collision, of elements—the Italian and the Jew, the chemical plant manager and the writer—that were inseparable from the Holocaust that split him and left his identity enigmatic.

      In ironic ways, Levi’s knowledge of chemistry saved him from an Auschwitz death. Anticipating that production of synthetic rubber might soon begin at Buna/Monowitz, the German “logic” that...

    • Chapter 7 Choiceless Choices: Surviving on False Papers on the “Aryan” Side
      (pp. 97-106)
      Robert Melson

      In his essay “The Gray Zone,” Primo Levi suggests that even in the camps, where lives were circumscribed to sheer survival or mass murder, prisoners and guards had choices to make that placed them in the “gray zone” of moral ambiguity.¹ In contrast, Jews in hiding on the “Aryan” side seemed less constrained in their lives and hence more likely to make morally ambiguous choices. I shall argue that during the Holocaust, whether in the camps or outside of them, Jews were most often presented by “choiceless choices” in that the decisions they made were inescapable and dictated by circumstances.²...

    • Chapter 8 “Who am I?” The Struggle for Religious Identity of Jewish Children Hidden by Christians During the Shoah
      (pp. 107-117)
      Eva Fleischner

      The great majority of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust were hidden by Christians, either in Christian institutions (schools or convents) or by individuals and families. Many were baptized either to save their lives or because of the rescuers’ desire to convert them. Regardless of the motive, many of these children faced an identity crisis as they grew into adulthood after the war. Who were they, Jew or Christian? Who were their “real” parents—those who gave them birth and then “abandoned” them, or those who had saved their lives and whom they often had come to love?

      Having been...

    • Chapter 9 Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers
      (pp. 118-126)
      Bryan Mark Rigg

      Recently, the interest in World War II and the Holocaust has grown dramatically. Books on these topics frequently hit the best-seller list and newspapers run articles nearly every week on some aspect of this time period. Whether it is a controversial study calling the vast majority of Germans “Hitler’s willing executioners” or an exposé of IBM’s role in the Holocaust, it seems that the general public cannot get enough of the subject matter. With the release of films such as Steven Spielberg’sSchindler’s ListandSaving Private Ryan,the thirst for knowledge about the Third Reich, World War II, and...

    • Chapter 10 A Gray Zone Among the Field Gray Men: Confusion in the Discrimination Against Homosexuals in the Wehrmacht
      (pp. 127-146)
      Geoffrey J. Giles

      Already in June 1927, more than five years before Hitler came to power, the Nazi parliamentary deputy (and later Interior Minister) Wilhelm Frick railed against homosexuals in the Reichstag, who would inevitably bring about the “downfall of the German people.” He called for tough measures against homosexuality, which was especially fostered by “Jewish sex criminals and Jewish moral contamination.”¹ Homosexual victims of the National Socialist regime were indeed treated appallingly later, but they lay in what was probably the ultimate gray zone of the Holocaust because they were so difficult to identify. From official government or seized institutional records it...

    • Chapter 11 Pleasure and Evil: Christianity and the Sexualization of Holocaust Memory
      (pp. 147-164)
      Dagmar Herzog

      I begin with a juxtaposition of two pictures. They were published inKonkret,the well-known West German New Left news magazine, in 1975.¹ This juxtaposition makes me intensely uncomfortable. But it also offers an important entry point into my topic, which concerns the complex connections between sex and mass murder in the Nazi and post-Nazi German imagination. One is a painting by a Nazi-approved artist (Otto Roloff); it is of the mythological Leda about to be raped by the swan (the god Zeus in disguise) but at this time just lying in the sunshine in sensual languor for the benefit...

    • Chapter 12 The Gender of Good and Evil: Women and Holocaust Memory
      (pp. 165-178)
      Sara R. Horowitz

      What is the gender of good or of evil? Do moral categories and gender categories intersect in any meaningful way, particularly in the context of the Holocaust? We might be tempted to dismiss the question as ill-posed, pointing to the wide variety of sources that confirm that men and women behaved in a wide range of ways as victims, collaborators, bystanders, rescuers, and perpetrators during the Nazi genocide. But on the level of representations, it is important to note that particular patterns of gendered images of the Holocaust have emerged and proliferated. Shaped by preexisting tropes of male and female...

  8. Part Three: Gray Spaces:: Geographical and Imaginative Landscapes

    • Introduction
      (pp. 179-184)

      When Primo Levi said that deportation was a decisive impulse behind his writing, it was not only deportation’s destination—Auschwitz—that he had in mind. His “journey towards nothingness,” as Levi called it, began with “one of those notorious transport trains, those which never return.”¹ So Levi openedSurvival in Auschwitzwith a chapter called “The Journey.” In that chapter, he drew on memory and imagination to create a detailed word-picture of his transport, which consisted of “twelve goods wagons for six hundred and fifty [persons]; in mine, we were only forty-five, but it was a small wagon.”²

      The journey...

    • Chapter 13 Hitler’s “Garden of Eden” in Ukraine: Nazi Colonialism, Volksdeutsche, and the Holocaust, 1941–1944
      (pp. 185-204)
      Wendy Lower

      The “New Order,” as the Nazis conceived it, entailed a racial classification and “cleansing” of Europe. Although Nazi population policies were aimed at all peoples who fell into German hands, Nazi leaders focused their resettlement and colonization programs on Eastern Europe, which was designated the ideal German “living space.” They were not only extremely exclusionary in their taxonomies of people but also narrowly selective in their view of “fertile” geographic spaces where Germans would thrive. As historian Gerhard Weinberg and others have stressed, the joining of race and space was central to the NaziWeltanschauung

      During World War II, the...

    • Chapter 14 Life and Death in the “Gray Zone” of Jewish Ghettos in Nazi-Occupied Europe: The Unknown, the Ambiguous, and the Disappeared
      (pp. 205-221)
      Martin Dean

      In more than one thousand cities, towns, andshtetlof Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, Jews were confined to the “gray zone” of the ghetto, a form of holding place and twilight zone, where they suffered humiliation, persecution, and exploitation prior to their destruction. Yet this central theme in the topography of the Holocaust also remains a “gray zone” in its historiography, comparatively underresearched and not fully understood. How many ghettos were there, and what was their function?

      Precisely because the ghetto also offered a degree of protection and even self-administration for its Jewish inhabitants, it remains an area of ambiguity and,...

    • Chapter 15 “Almost-Camps” in Paris: The Difficult Description of Three Annexes of Drancy—Austerlitz, Lévitan, and Bassano, July 1943 to August 1944
      (pp. 222-239)
      Jean-Marc Dreyfus

      On 18 July 1943, 120 Jews, inmates of the transit camp of Drancy in the northern suburb of Paris, were transported by bus to the heart of the French capital, to a building located in the Faubourg Saint-Martin street, standing almost opposite the tenth district city hall. The building had previously been used as a furniture store with the firm name of Lévitan. With the transfer of these Jews the building was turned into a camp, the first of three to be set up in Paris.¹ Austerlitz, the second camp to be created, on 1 November 1943, was located in...

    • Chapter 16 Alternate Holocausts and the Mistrust of Memory
      (pp. 240-251)
      Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

      The image of a Nazi extermination camp turned into a theme park as recounted by New York City detective Bill Halder in Eric Norden’s 1973 thriller,The Ultimate Solution,provides a particularly chilling answer to a question that has been asked with increasing frequency in recent years: What would have happened had the Nazis won World War II? To ask this counterfactual question is to delve into a new field of historical inquiry that has come to be known as “alternate history.”² In the last several decades, an increasing number of such counterfactual—or as they are increasingly being called,...

    • Chapter 17 Laughter and Heartache: The Functions of Humor in Holocaust Tragedy
      (pp. 252-269)
      Lynn Rapaport

      Obviously, there is nothing funny about people being led to gas chambers. While comedy is the flipside of tragedy, is there a role for humor in Holocaust studies? What are the aesthetic and ethical questions regarding laughter amidst mass death? Humor plays an important role in the human condition, though it is often taken for granted as a communications medium. Humor can serve as social commentary, thus providing a venue for change by lending comedians a forum to discuss social, political, religious, and sexual issues safely. Humor can also help society work through unspeakable difficulties by giving a name and...

    • Chapter 18 The Holocaust in Popular Culture: Master-Narrative and Counter-Narratives in the Gray Zone
      (pp. 270-285)
      Ronald Smelser

      Napoleon is alleged to have said, “History is lies agreed upon.” Historians would generally not subscribe to this cynical observation, but it does remind us that history is always contested: that there are different and competing narratives; that they are always in flux depending on surrounding circumstances; that there tend to be master-narratives, peripheral narratives, sub-rosa narratives, and bundled narratives; and that these narratives play off each other and change with regard to their influence and tenacity.

      The history of the Holocaust in popular culture illustrates this set of concepts. In the early postwar period through the 1950s and into...

    • Chapter 19 The Grey Zone: The Cinema of Choiceless Choices
      (pp. 286-292)
      Lawrence Baron

      Based on Dr. Miklòs Nyiszli’s Auschwitz memoir and Primo Levi’s trenchant essay “The Gray Zone,” Tim Blake Nelson’sThe Grey Zoneconstitutes the most graphic cinematic portrayal to date of the death camp at Birkenau.¹ Nyiszli occupied a privileged position among the camp’s inmates in return for performing autopsies on twins who died as a result of Josef Mengele’s experiments. As a reward for his services, Nyiszli obtained permission to save his wife and daughter from liquidation by securing them a transfer to a “safer” work camp. The beneficiaries of ample food and living quarters, the Hungarian Jews of the...

  9. Part Four: Justice, Religion, and Ethics During and After the Holocaust

    • Introduction
      (pp. 293-298)

      ThroughoutThe Drowned and the Savedand particularly in its chapter on “The Gray Zone,” a crucial tension emerges between Primo Levi’s caution about making moral judgments and his persistent use of ethical evaluations. Levi understood that human cravings for simple understanding include the need “to separate evil from good, to be able to take sides, to emulate Christ’s gesture on Judgment Day: here the righteous, over there the reprobates.”¹ The gray zone, however, defied such neat separations. Indeed, Levi argued, it ought to “confuse our need to judge.”²

      Nevertheless, moral judgments resound in Levi’s writing. He never hesitated, for...

    • Chapter 20 Gray into Black: The Case of Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski
      (pp. 299-310)
      Richard L. Rubenstein

      InMoments of Reprieveand elsewhere Primo Levi observes that totalitarian regimes typically “create a vast zone of gray consciences that stand between the great men of evil and the pure victims.”¹ However, Levi discusses only one gray zone character at any length, Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski (1877–1944), who served as the Nazi-appointedÄlteste der Juden(Elder of the Jews) in Litzmannstadt from October 1939 to August 1944.² Nor was Levi alone among writers, novelists, and historians in taking a special interest in Rumkowski.³ The latter’s career during the Nazi occupation exemplifies some of the most corrupting issues confronting a...

    • Chapter 21 Catalyzing Fascism: Academic Science in National Socialist Germany and Afterward
      (pp. 311-324)
      Jeffrey Lewis

      For many years, the history of science in Nazi Germany would probably have been viewed as an inappropriate topic for a project dedicated to studying ambiguity and compromise in the Holocaust. The reason for this is simple. Scientists themselves, and many of the scholars who study and interpret their work, have tended to stress the clarity of scientific research as a vocation. Somewhat simplified, the reasoning goes as follows: Scientists examine the natural world in an effort to produce knowledge about that world. If all goes according to plan, the knowledge produced by scientific communities, and by individual scientists, provides...

    • Chapter 22 Postwar Justice and the Treatment of Nazi Assets
      (pp. 325-338)
      Jonathan Petropoulos

      In August 2002 theNew York Timesran a front-page story under the heading, “Hitler, It Seems, Loved Money and Died Rich.”¹ Despite the breathless, “stop-the-presses” tone of this article, this was an instance of journalists following the lead of scholars: over the past two decades, historians have documented Hitler’s vast wealth and effectively countered the parts of the “Führer Myth” that portrayed him as ascetic and unconcerned about material possessions.² Indeed, it is now clear that all of the Nazi leaders were exceedingly wealthy and that the regime was a kleptocracy of the first order. Despite this realization, there...

    • Chapter 23 The Gray Zones of Holocaust Restitution: American Justice and Holocaust Morality
      (pp. 339-359)
      Michael J. Bazyler

      The end of the twentieth century brought a completely unexpected chapter to the postwar consequences of the Holocaust. Beginning in 1995, a half-century after the end of World War II, a campaign took place to try to obtain monetary compensation for the material losses suffered by Jews and other persecuted groups during the war. To everyone’s surprise, even to the participants themselves, this campaign would become a major political issue not only in Europe but also in the United States. One illustration of the prominence of the Holocaust restitution movement was that more news articles were published about the Holocaust...

    • Chapter 24 The Creation of Ethical “Gray Zones” in the German Protestant Church: Reflections on the Historical Quest for Ethical Clarity
      (pp. 360-371)
      Victoria J. Barnett

      One of the most haunting pictures to emerge from the Nazi concentration camps is Primo Levi’s description of the “gray zone,” rendered even more poignant by the depression and self-doubt that finally drove Levi himself to suicide in 1987. The Nazis’ humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of their victims were not confined to the external violence experienced by Levi and others in the concentration camps. For many victims, that devastation continued until the end of their lives in the form of internalized violence and shame. Many survivors of the camps felt guilty for surviving when so many in their families had...

    • Chapter 25 Gray-Zoned Ethics: Morality’s Double Binds During and After the Holocaust
      (pp. 372-389)
      John K. Roth

      The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the most important thinkers in Western civilization, suggested that three questions define philosophy: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? Much hinges on whether people can rightly claim to possess knowledge. Scarcely an hour passes without our wondering whether we ought to do some things and not others. Those issues keep people thinking and hoping about the future. Questions about the meaning and destiny of our lives—individual and collective—are never far behind.

      Ethics or moral philosophy revolves around Kant’s second question: What should I do? In...

  10. Epilogue: An Intense Wish to Understand
    (pp. 390-394)
    Jonathan Petropoulos and John K. Roth

    In September 1986, less than a year before Primo Levi’s untimely death, the novelist Philip Roth arrived in Turin, Italy, to renew the conversation that was later reported as an afterword to the 1996 American edition ofSurvival in Auschwitz,the classic Holocaust memoir that has provided some of the linking threads forGray Zones. Philip Roth offered his opinion that much more than luck had determined Levi’s survival. He felt that Levi’s “professional character,” his scientific curiosity and precision, his desire to discern order, and his refusal to accept what Roth called the “evil inversion” of everything that Levi...

  11. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 395-398)
  12. About the Editors and Contributors
    (pp. 399-406)
  13. Index
    (pp. 407-418)