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THE GRAY ZONE, POWER, AND PRIVILEGE IN PRIMO LEVI

In my presentation, I will examine and discuss the concept of gray zone in Primo Levi’s work. One of the main purposes of this analysis is to demonstrate the key role of the story of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Elder of the Lodz ghetto between 1941 and 1945, regarding both the historical emergence and our understanding of the gray zone.

First, I will offer an historical analysis of Primo Levi’s work. In seeking to identify the roots of the gray zone, I will focus on the ninth chapter of Levi’s first book, If This is a Man.

Then, I will specifically analyze the story of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. Narrated by Primo Levi in Story of a Coin, first published in 1977 in the Turin newspaper La Stampa, the story of Rumkowski was reprinted in 1981 before its reappearance in the second chapter of The Drowned and the Saved as an extreme example of the gray zone. I will try to identify all the analytical and moral questions this story gives rise to.

Finally, I will discuss the concept of gray zone itself by focusing on its three main conditions of possibility: isolation, privilege, and contagion. I will argue that these features constitute the core of Primo Levi’s remarks about power, giving rise to a series of questions whose relevance, though illustrated through the story of Rumkowski, goes beyond the specificity of the extreme context of the Lager.  

 

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