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Ethics after Auschwitz? Primo Levi’s & Elie Wiesel’s Response, by Carole J. Lambert. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. 184 pp. $69.95.
In their early lives it would have seemed unlikely that the paths of Primo Levi, an assimilated Sephardic Jew from Italy, and Elie Wiesel, an orthodox Hasid from Eastern Europe, might ever cross. The Shoah changed all that. Both survived Auschwitz; or at least neither of them died at Auschwitz, which is not quite the same thing. Both became determined to bear witness to what they had experienced. In the 1980s they became friends, though accounts differ over how warm their friendship actually was. The contention of Ethics after Auschwitz? is that, from an ethical perspective, the similarities between them outweigh the differences. In their lives and works, both are committed to an ethics of generosity and respect for others.
To demonstrate this, Lambert devotes each of her ten chapters to one of the Ten Commandments and shows how, on most essential points, both Levi and Wiesel adhere to them. So we discover, perhaps not entirely to our surprise, that both of them are opposed to killing, stealing, adultery, lying, and so on. The commandments, and the chapters of the book, are grouped into two sections, “Practical Ethics” and “Essential Spirituality.” The biggest difficulty arises in relation to Levi’s religion. Lambert suggests that although he did not share Wiesel’s religious beliefs, there was nevertheless a spirituality about him, and his humanistic ethics are reconcilable with a religious viewpoint. Thus, Levi turns out to obey, more or less, even those commandments which relate to God.
Tying Levi’s ethics to the Ten Commandments enables Lambert to take a position on the difficult topic of his death. When he died from a fall on 11 April 1987, a Saturday, many—including Wiesel—assumed that he had committed suicide, though this has subsequently been questioned. Lambert suggests that since Levi believed in the commandment that killing is wrong, it is unlikely that he would have killed himself; and since he respected the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, he was even less likely to kill himself on a Saturday because of the added distress that it would cause his community. This may be right, but the evidence remains indecisive. Lambert stresses the possibility that Levi’s fall was accidental, perhaps because it fits better with her presentation of him as a beacon of goodness who essentially confirms the continuing validity of the Ten Commandments.
Using copious amounts of quotation and paraphrase and showing immense admiration for the two authors under discussion, this book argues that “despite living in a postmodern and post-Holocaust era, Levi and Wiesel still adhere to the ancient proclamations from Sinai” (p. 155). The need for ethics remains, and the Ten Commandments can be followed both by believers and by agnostics. In this analysis the Shoah has changed little, at least so far as ethics is concerned. It turns out that ethics after Auschwitz is pretty much the same as ethics before Auschwitz. The old commandments are still valid. If this is right, what emerges from the stark, disturbing confrontation with the darkest human possibilities found in the writings of Levi and Wiesel is something very ancient and quite conventional. As an engagement with ethical issues arising from the Shoah, there is little to surprise the reader in this book. As an account of some of the views and actions of two distinguished writers and men, it is more rewarding, not the least because it might encourage readers to go back to their original texts.
Royal Holloway, University of London, UK