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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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‚But where was Kadosh Barukhú, ‘the Saint, Blessed be He’: he who breaks the slaves’ chains and submerges the Egyptians’ chariots? He who dictated the Law to Moses, and inspired the liberators Ezra and Nehemiah, no longer inspired anyone; the sky above us was silent and empty‛ (Levi, The Periodic Table 55–56). Chapter 6: “I am the LORD thy God. . . . Thou shalt have no other gods before me” Primo Levi is often called an Enlightenment thinker, a rationalist who studied human beings as carefully as the chemicals he used in his laboratory. Resentful of the Fascist ‚spirituality‛ which overlay most of his education in the humanities in 1930s Turin, Italy, he turned to the natural sciences—biology, chemistry, and physics—where material truth could be verified without Fascist ‚spiritual‛ commentary. Massimo Giuliani notes, ‚Fascism did like subjectivity, esteemed spirituality (so easy to associate with the ‘fascist mystics’ that was taught from the elementary school), [and] celebrated the eternal values of ancient Roman civilization‛ (20). Levi sought concrete truth; he remarked to Tullio Regge, ‘‚I had hoped to go very far. . . to the point of possessing the universe, to understanding the why of things. But now [after working at the paint factory SIVA for sixteen years] I know you can’t’‛ (Thomson 291). Levi is also known for the high ethics that permeate his memoirs, essays, novels, and science fiction stories, particularly the virtues of love and justice. Even so, ethics pertain more to the disciplines of philosophy and theology than...

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