Beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil’: breaking down binary oppositions in holocaust representations of ‘privileged’ Jews

Brown, Adam 2010, Beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil’: breaking down binary oppositions in holocaust representations of ‘privileged’ Jews, History Compass, vol. 8, no. 5, Special issue : Papers from the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference, pp. 407-418.

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Title Beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil’: breaking down binary oppositions in holocaust representations of ‘privileged’ Jews
Author(s) Brown, Adam
Journal name History Compass
Volume number 8
Issue number 5
Season Special issue : Papers from the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference
Start page 407
End page 418
Total pages 12
Publisher Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Place of publication Oxford, England
Publication date 2010-05
ISSN 1478-0542
Summary In 1986, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s paradigmatic essay entitled ‘The Grey Zone’ highlighted the complex and sensitive issue of so-called ‘privileged’ Jews, an issue that remains at the margins of popular and academic discourse on the Holocaust. ‘Privileged’ Jews include those prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos who held positions that gave them access to material and other benefits whilst compelling them to act in ways that have been judged both self-serving and harmful to fellow inmates. The unprecedented ethical dilemmas that confronted ‘privileged’ Jews may be viewed as exemplifying the ‘limit’ events or experiences that were characteristic of the Holocaust, situating them at the threshold of representation, understanding and judgement. Levi’s essay singles out history and film as particularly predisposed to a simplifying trend he identifies – the ‘Manichean tendency which shuns half-tints and complexities,’ and resorts to the black-and-white binary opposition(s) of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy,’‘good’ and ‘evil.’ In the case of ‘privileged’ Jews in particular, such binary oppositions would appear to be inadequate. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates the fields of history, philosophy and literature, this paper analyses representations of ‘privileged’ Jews, particularly those prisoners of the Sonderkommandos who were forced to work in the crematoria. The paper demonstrates how easily the boundary Levi maps out for moral judgement can be crossed. It is shown that while Levi suggests judgement should be suspended when confronted with the experiences of victims in extremis, moral evaluations of ‘privileged’ Jews permeate discussions and representations of the Holocaust. When confronted with such emotionally and morally freighted issues, judgement may itself be seen as a ‘limit of representation.’

Notes Article first published online 4 May 2010.
Language eng
Field of Research 210307 European History (excl British, Classical Greek and Roman)
Socio Economic Objective 950504 Understanding Europe's Past
HERDC Research category C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal
Copyright notice ©2010, The Author
Persistent URL http://hdl.handle.net/10536/DRO/DU:30032594

Document type: Journal Article
Collection: School of Communication and Creative Arts
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