In 1986, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi published an essay on what he called the ‘grey zone’. Arguably the most influential essay ever written on the Holocaust, ‘The Grey Zone’ highlights the complex and sensitive issue of so-called ‘privileged’ Jews — those prisoners in the Nazi-controlled camps and ghettos who held positions that gave them access to material and other benefits. Examples include the Sonderkommandos (‘special squads’) forced to work in the death camp crematoria, Kapos (‘chief’) who supervised labour squads, and the Jewish councils and police forces who communicated and implemented Nazi policies in the ghettos. Subject to extreme levels of coercion, these victims were compelled to act in ways that have been judged as both self-serving and harmful to fellow inmates in order to prolong their lives, and sometimes the lives of their families.
The ethical dilemmas encountered by these victims have proven very problematic for Holocaust survivors, scholars and artists alike. Prisoners in the camps and ghettos experienced unprecedented persecution, in which the normal concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’ were radically undermined. When confronted with the traumatic circumstances of ‘privileged’ Jews, the practice of casting judgment becomes highly contentious. Levi argues that judgement of these liminal figures should be ‘suspended’. However, judgements of the behaviour of ‘privileged’ Jews permeate representations of the Holocaust. This paper explores this phenomenon in survivor testimony, history, philosophy and film, revealing that even if judgement is inappropriate, it is also inevitable.
Dr Adam Brown
Dr Adam Brown is a Lecturer in Media, Communication and Public Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. His thesis, Representation and Judgement: ‘Privileged’ Jews in Holocaust Writing and Film, received the Isi Leibler Prize for the best contribution to advancing knowledge of racial, religious or ethnic prejudice in any time or place. Adam also works as a volunteer at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, where he has initiated the digitisation, indexing and cataloging of the Centre’s survivor videotestimony collection. Adam recently co-authored the study, Communication, New Media and Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), and is currently researching in the areas of digital children’s television culture, new media in museums, cultural representations of surveillance, and Holocaust film.