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Ethics after Auschwitz?

Primo Levi’s and Elie Wiesel’s Response


Carole J. Lambert

Ethics after Auschwitz? Primo Levi’s and Elie Wiesel’s Response demonstrates how, after their horrific experiences in Auschwitz, both Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel could have deservedly expressed rage and bitterness for the rest of their lives. Housed in the same barracks in the depths of hell, a dark reality surpassing Dante’s vivid images portrayed in The Inferno, they chose to speak, write, and work for a better world, never allowing the memory of those who did not survive to fade. Why and how did they make this choice? What influenced their values before Auschwitz and their moral decision making after it? What can others who have suffered less devastating traumas learn from them? «The quest is in the question», Wiesel often tells his students. This book is a quest for hope and goodness emerging from the Shoah’s deepest «night».


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‚As one rabbinic sage opined, ‘Do you know who can protest against His decree and say to Him, ‚‘Why do you do such a thing?’‛ He who observes the commandments’‛ (Numbers Rabbah 14:6 quoted in Braiterman 32). Chapter 1: “Thou shalt not kill” In 1968 Primo Levi wrote, ‚the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has been turned upside down *in Auschwitz+‛ (Black 28). In A Jew Today Elie Wiesel explained, ‚The very first war, the one between Cain and Abel, taught us that he who kills another kills himself. That is why ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments‛ (160– 61). Wiesel’s Rabbi in Le Serment de Kolvillag cautions, ‚L’être humain sanctifie la vie en la célébrant, en luttant contre ce qui l’appauvrit. Le suicide est un meutre. Qui se tue, tue‛ *‚Human beings sanctify life by celebrating it, by fighting against what impoverishes it. Suicide is a murder. Whoever kills himself, kills‛+ (135). Further, Wiesel notes that ‚*a+ccording to the Talmud, to humiliate someone in public is to shed his blood‛ (Legends 92). Humiliating him takes away his dignity and does indeed wound him profoundly (Et où vas-tu? 181). Judaism promotes human life to the fullest extent, and authentic Christianity, as an offshoot of Judaism, maintains this fundamental belief. The Nazis, however, succeeded in destroying Jewish life partly because of their intense propaganda efforts to portray Jews as dangerous parasites, less than human, sucking the blood out of the human...

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