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Reflections on Survival in Auschwitz: Do Special Situations Demand Special Ethics

Othello croppedWe have a guest blogger today. Othello Mugugu who originally hails from Zimbabwe, has a Bachelors from Northpoint Bible College, Serves in the American Army, is just completing his Masters in Religious Studies from Providence College in Providence Rhode Island. He has been studying various social and ethical questions surrounding the Anti-semitism of WWII. In this short paper, he was asked to reflect upon Primo Levi’s work If This is a Man, american title (Survival in Auschwitz). This is not a thorough analysis of all of Primo Levi’s thinking, given the vast sum of his writing, but is rather a spring board for asking the question, “Are there special ethical rules that need to be applied when judging the crimes that Auschwitz victims committed against each other. I liked Othello’s answer to the question in light of our own cultural fixation on victimhood and personal responsibility and thought it might prove provocative to you as well.

Reflections on Survival in Auschwitz: Do Special Situations Demand Special Ethics

Primo Levi is an Auschwitz survivor whose semi-auto-biographical narration of survival instincts in Auschwitz seems to be a type of plea for understanding. In the face of the Nazi’s dehumanizing abuse, survival in Auschwitz, also the American title of his work, says Levi, required an eradication of one’s self-respect and human dignity. Numerous Jews from across Europe with diverse backgrounds and customs were thrown into a lion’s den of misery in which only a few would survive. (87) Here, preconceived definitions of “good” and “evil” and “just” and “unjust” become impractical, leading one to resort to hitherto unimagined mental, physical, and social adaptations in order to preserve one’s life and personality. It is in this adaptation that the line separating right and wrong blurred in the human heart. The question is whether we who look on from a distance will grant this understanding, whether we will side with mercy on those lost in the struggle to survive, whether we will concede to what they came to regard as moral gray zones?

Primo Levi suggests that, traditional ethics ceased to exist within the barbed wire of “The Larger.” (86) Inside these concentrations camps, prisoners were not treated like humans, thus, they slowly adapted to animal behavior, in order to survive. When one is confronted with the prospect of a bleak future and certainty of death, retaining one’s mental stability becomes a daunting task. To dwell on the injustice being perpetrated by the Nazis, or upon the hunger in one’s belly, or the torments of lice, the pain of the beatings, the indignity of public nudity, the deplorable living conditions, (59) the strain of hard labor, or even the constant fear of imminent death, were pointless endeavors. (17) Retention of sanity demanded a focus on small distractions. It was essential to imagine how much worse one’s situation could be. One came to find reason for joy over receiving only two blows to the head on a given day, or that he was lucky enough to be economically useful to his tormentors, (46) even if only by being able to carry out a bucket of human waste. (62) Insanity from the start was an advantage in surviving. (97) Once one learns to ignore these elements as perpetrated against one’s self, he or she forgets that natural rights even exist, (45) and loses all sense of empathy for others. (74). Betrayal, rape, and even murder between inmates was common.  Within the concentration camps, a society blossomed which embraced any moral transgression necessary for survival, a type of underground market that thrived on stolen goods. In order to live peaceably, one had to adapt one’s social and behavioral needs. (79, 86-87) Levi does note, that many chose death rather than compromise their moral convictions, and death is exactly what the Nazis paid out for moral conviction.

Given all this, should we grant Levi his understanding? Yes… I think we should. I understand why he and those around him made the choices they did. I understand how they came to such a low place in their moral condition.

Should we, however, confess the existence of a moral gray area in which such evil is either excused or allowed to flourish without judgment? No, we should not.

While I cannot lay claim to any certainty concerning what I would do in similar circumstances, I cannot give any label to the actions of those involved in Primo Levi’s book aside from adding evil to evil. Each person made a choice to survive by betraying those around them in a hundred ways, be it through theft, rape, lies, murder, sympathizing with their tormentors, or simply looking upon one’s fellow man as something devoid of natural rights. Many of these people made a choice in the face of fear and torment. Many chose to live morally repugnant lives rather than to embrace death with what dignity they might choose to retain. They responded to evil with evil adding to the misery of those around them.

One must always remember that Save for the grace of God, there go I, but there is no legitimate mercy without initial judgment. While we might better stir the sympathies of our fellow humans with declarations of “What else was I to do?” Our sins are not made more susceptible to divine mercy, however, by lessening their evil, but only by grasping the true depth of our wickedness. Forgiveness, and the freedom it brings, is not found in excuses, but only in full recognition, confession, and repentance. Christ came to save sinners… those bleating on about their own righteousness are never in the way of divine mercy and deliverance from sin.

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