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Dictionnaire testimonial et mémoriel

The Grey Zone

La zone grise
De grijze zone
Stef Craps
p. 202-203

Notes de la rédaction

Un même mot peut prendre un sens différent selon la langue dans laquelle il est convoqué ou il circule, c’est pourquoi certains termes du dictionnaire seront abordés de façon multilinguistique, voire multiculturelle. C’est le cas, ici, de la zone grise.

Texte intégral

1The ‘grey zone’ is a term coined by the Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi in his essay collection The Drowned and the Saved (1989; originally published in Italian in 1986), the last book he completed before his death. In ‘The Grey Zone’, the second chapter and the longest essay in the book, Levi acknowledges the human need to divide the social field into ‘us’ and ‘them’, two clearly distinct and identifiable groups, but points out that such binary thinking is inadequate in the face of the complexity of life in the camps. ‘[T]he network of human relationships inside the Lagers was not simple’, he writes: ‘it could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors’ (23). A key facet of Nazi practice, after all, was to attempt to turn victims into accomplices. Setting out to explore ‘the space which separates (and not only in Nazi Lagers) the victims from the persecutors’ (25), insight into which he considers to be of fundamental importance, Levi emphasizes that he by no means intends to obliterate the distinction between these two categories: ‘to confuse [the murderers] with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth’ (33).

2The grey zone is inhabited mostly by victims who compromise and collaborate with their oppressors to varying degrees and with varying degrees of freedom of choice in exchange for preferential treatment. Levi insists that one should refrain from passing easy judgment on these morally ambiguous privileged prisoners, who found themselves flung into an infernal environment and who, moreover, did not constitute a monolithic group but came in many different shades of grey, with different levels of culpability. The examples he considers include low-ranking functionaries carrying out routine duties such as bed smoothing and lice checking, the Kapos of the work squads, the barracks chiefs, the clerks, and those prisoners who performed diverse duties in the camps’ administrative offices, the Political Section, the Labour Service, and the punishment cells. He devotes particular attention to the Sonderkommandos or ‘special squads’, the groups of prisoners entrusted with the running of the crematoria, whom one would hesitate to call privileged. According to Levi, no one is authorized to judge these individuals, who represent ‘[a]n extreme case of collaboration’ (34). Judgment must also be suspended, he argues, in the perplexing case of Chaim Rumkowski, the controversial head of the Jewish council in the Lodz ghetto, another exemplary occupant of the grey zone whose story Levi discusses at some length. While Levi primarily focuses on privileged Jewish prisoners in the camps and ghettos, his conceptualization of the grey zone stretches to include collaborationist regimes such as those of Vichy France and Quisling in Norway and even a sadistic SS man who briefly contemplated sparing a young girl taken alive from the gas chamber. It is a reflection, ultimately, on the ambiguity of human nature in general, and has been appropriated in many different contexts, fields, and disciplines, ranging from Holocaust studies to philosophy, theology, law, feminism, and popular culture.

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Primo Levi, ‘The Grey Zone’, in Id., The Drowned and the Saved, translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal, London: Abacus, 22-51.

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Référence papier

Stef Craps, « The Grey Zone »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 202-203.

Référence électronique

Stef Craps, « The Grey Zone »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 118 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 15 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Stef Craps

Ghent University.

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