Primo Levi on Shame

An excerpt from The Drowned and the Saved
Primo Levi writing at his computer

Primo Levi discusses the complex emotional implications of being a Holocaust survivor:
After my return from imprisonment I was visited by a friend older than myself, mild and intransigent, the cultivator of a personal religion, which, however, always seemed to me severe and serious. He was glad to find me alive and basically unhurt, perhaps matured and fortified, certainly enriched. He told me that my having survived could not be the work of chance, of an accumulation of fortunate circumstances (as I had maintained and still maintain) but rather of Providence. I bore the mark, I was an elect: I, the non-believer, and even less of a believer after the season of Auschwitz, was a serious person touched by Grace, a saved man. And why just I? It is impossible to know, he answered. Perhaps because I had to write, and by writing bear witness: wasn't I in fact then, in 1946, writing a book about my imprisonment?

Such an opinion seemed monstrous to me. It pained me as when one touches an exposed nerve, and kindled the doubt I spoke of before: I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is, in fact killed. The 'saved of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good; the bearers of a message. What I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the 'grey zones', the spies. It was not a certain rule (there were none, nor are there certain rules in human matters), but it was, nevertheless, a rule. I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived - that is, the fittest; the best all died.

Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved
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