Judg­ing Priv­i­leged” Jews: Holo­caust Ethics, Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and the Grey Zone”

Adam Brown
  • Review
By – September 23, 2014

The Nazi archi­tec­ture of per­se­cu­tion and anni­hi­la­tion of the Jews includ­ed the cre­ation of pris­on­er hier­ar­chies that forced vic­tims to coop­er­ate with their per­se­cu­tors and even par­tic­i­pate in their own destruc­tion. This has remained a con­tro­ver­sial, high­ly charged, and often taboo aspect of the Holo­caust expe­ri­ence. Adam Brown focus­es on the impor­tant cat­e­go­ry of so-called priv­i­leged” Jews in this high­ly sug­ges­tive and fas­ci­nat­ing book. The term priv­i­leged” is used to refer to the Son­derkom­man­do, the spe­cial squads forced to work in the gas cham­bers and cre­ma­to­ria, to the camp inmates who held posi­tions as pris­on­er-func­tionar­ies such as the Kapos, and to the mem­bers of the Juden­räte (Jew­ish coun­cils) and the Jew­ish police. The eth­i­cal dilem­mas encoun­tered by this group of vic­tims have proven very chal­leng­ing for Ho­locaust sur­vivors, schol­ars, and artists to un­derstand and rep­re­sent. The core issue seems to be that in order to pro­long their lives, the priv­i­leged” Jews behaved in ways that have often been inter­pret­ed as con­tribut­ing in some way to the killing process. 

In order to devel­op a deep­er under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust and its eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions, Brown’s approach is great­ly informed by Pri­mo Levi’s con­cept of the Grey Zone” and Levi’s cau­tion against pass­ing judg­ment. It must be empha­sized that no mat­ter what ben­e­fits priv­i­leged” Jews may have gained for their coop­er­a­tion with their per­se­cu­tors, they expe­ri­enced immense suf­fer­ing and were tar­get­ed for exter­mi­na­tion along with all oth­er Jew­ish vic­tims. The use of the con­cept priv­i­leged” there­fore must be under­stood in the con­text of extreme per­se­cu­tion in Nazi-con­trolled camps and ghet­tos and may be viewed as oxy­moron­ic. That does not mean, how­ev­er, that judg­ment must be sus­pend­ed in the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of their expe­ri­ences. Pass­ing judg­ment may be impos­si­ble”, but it is also inevitable and nec­es­sary as long as we rec­og­nize that these indi­vid­u­als were fac­ing choice­less choices”. 

Pri­mar­i­ly a work of cul­tur­al crit­i­cism, Brown’s book takes an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to exam­ine how moral judg­ments of priv­i­leged” Jews are con­veyed in representa­tions of the Holo­caust in impor­tant exam­ples of writ­ing and film. He pro­vides detailed atten­tion to this theme in Levi’s writ­ings, the high­ly influ­en­tial works of Raul Hilberg and Han­nah Arendt, and major doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion films includ­ing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Tor Ben-May­or and Dan Setton’s Kapo, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone.

This book chal­lenges the claim that the Holo­caust is beyond all hope of understand­ing. It warns against bina­ry, good-or-evil” moral judg­ments and urges that our task is to find ways to reartic­u­late the ques­tion of ethics with­in the spec­trum of unre­solved ten­sions, shift­ing mean­ing, and con­tra­dic­tions. Brown high­lights the need for con­tin­u­ing re-eval­u­a­tions of the lim­its and pos­si­bil­i­ties of por­tray­ing priv­i­leged” Jews. He sug­gests that the eth­i­cal dilem­mas faced by priv­i­leged” Jews chal­lenge, if not under­mine, tra­di­tion­al notions of hero­ism, choice, coop­er­a­tion, dig­ni­ty, and sur­vival. These rep­re­sen­ta­tions encour­age us to con­tin­u­al­ly pon­der the unan­swered ques­tions of what we might have done if faced with their extreme sit­u­a­tions. This is a well-writ­ten, orig­i­nal, and impor­tant book that breaks new ground by pro­vid­ing a detailed analy­sis of this group of vic­tims, there­by deep­ening our under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust and our appre­ci­a­tion of the com­plex­i­ties of human nature in extreme circumstances.

Relat­ed content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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