Psychology and Psychiatry

The Nazis spoke of the Vernichtungslager. This is the term that we improperly translate as “extermination camps.” In reality, it would be more exact to say “annihilation camps.” The literature focusing on this has amply dwelled upon the psychological consequences of Hitler’s project of reducing human beings to nothing, to null, working first on the individual’s psyche before working on his or her body.

Within this framework, the figure of Primo Levi has evoked and is evoking a strong line of interest. The most numerous reflections are those of scholars who most directly work on investigating human behavior in extreme conditions. Then there are other questions regarding the figure and the works of Primo Levi as man, writer, and witness that make up an important point of reference and an occasion for study.

In this regard, we could identify several particular several fields of investigation, exemplified by the articles selected here below:

1) the support that “creative” activities may give to survival in extreme situations, in that they help reinforce personal identity;

2) the study of social relationships and social identity in extreme conditions through literary accounts:

3) the psychology of the surviving witness who has to face not only the trauma of being a survivor but also the responsibility to testify, to be obliged to speak for the others: “and I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:15-19).

4) the subjective dimension of the traumatic experience.

"Rather than teaching ethics as a theoretical subject, a method is proposed that encourages direct personal confrontation with ethical dilemmas through the consideration of key examples, in the Talmudic manner. This develops ethical ‘muscles’ and allows candidates to explore the dilemmas of what Primo Levi called the ‘grey zone’ where the boundaries between good and bad are unclear."

H. Abramovitch, "Stimulating Ethical Awareness During Training", Journal of Analytical Psychology, LII, 2007, pp. 449–61

«On pourrait tout autant parler de destruction de l'humain, dans la mesure où ce qui caractérise principalement celui-ci c'est le lien que ces témoignages de sens ont avec la parole. Ceci rejoint les réflexions de Primo Levi qui parle de "destruction de la raison" comme but et résultat principal des camps de concentration. Ce qui est intériorisé par le sujet qui participe à une "situation relationnelle traumatique", est composé par les caractéristiques de cette relation qu'il a avec l'autre».

[One could talk of the destruction of the human being in this sense: the main characteristic of the human being is the link between the testimony of the senses and words. This relates to the reflections of Primo Levi who talks of the “destruction of reason” as the goal and the main result of the concentration camps. What is interiorized by the subject who has gone through a “traumatic relational situation” is composed of the characteristics of the relationship that he or she has with the others.]

"Primo Levi, despite a life of literary productivity and success, succumbed to depression and suicide, an end that Langer finds presaged in Levi’s writing. Levi never claimed any heroism, triumph or transcendence of the suffering of the death camps; instead his writing revealed an irremediable split. [...] Levi insisted on staying with the murky gray zones of human compromise and collusion, the drastic trade-offs at the margins of existence. The very fact of his testimony stood for the persistence of the adamantine self through the great leveling of individuality and debasement of consciousness. He returned from a world of utter senselessness, a world reduced to minimal units of consciousness, on the long march through winter where 'survival begins with shoes'.”

"The Shoah requires that we rethink the concepts we use to conceive of the human experience, its transmission and its memory, starting with the classic concept of representation. What is representation when the representation of being human has fallen apart?"

F. Benslama, La représentation et l’impossible, «Evolution Psychiatrique», LXVI, 2001, pp. 448-66

[Representation and the impossible]

«The example of Primo Levi shows why the figure of the surviving witness forces us to redefine the testimony as an act. The act of testifying thus becomes an act of personal attestation of the witness. The testimony of the survivor amplifies the personal implication and responsibility of the witness: the surviving witness testifies to the unspeakable confrontation with destruction to which the dead were subjected, "and" to his own experience of survival, destruction and the need to testify».

J.-F. Chiantaretto, Le témoignage et la figure du témoin survivant : une approche plurielle. Réflexions à partir de Primo Levi, «Evolution Psychiatrique», LXVI, 2001, 3, pp. 436-47.

[Witnessing and the figure of the surviving witness: a multiple approach]

«The present study deals with social relationships in the extreme situation of the concentration camp, using Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, written just after the author's release from Auschwitz. This text was chosen because it is one of the most important testimonies of the Holocaust and, at the same time, a work of great artistic value. An analysis of the behaviour described gives us access to otherwise irretrievable data. Three aims have been pursued: (1) to explore and describe interpersonal and intergroup behaviour in extreme situations from the victims' perspective; (2) to analyse these types of behaviour through social identity theory (SIT); and (3) to highlight certain observations and comments by Levi, an excellent "privileged observer", which mightsuggest new directions of research in this field».

C. Volpato, A. Contarello, "Towards a Social Psychology of Extreme Situations: Primo Levi's «If This is a Man» and Social Identity Theory", European Journal of Social Psychology,  XXIX, 1999, pp. 239-58

«This paper will focus on situations of chronic danger and will examine the role of creative arts therapies, particularly drama therapy, in these circumstances. It will use examples from the most extreme case of life-threatening situations in human history, the Holocaust, to show the potential power of creative work in helping people cope».

Z. Seligman, "Trauma and Drama: a Lesson from the Concentration Camps'", The Arts in Psychotherapy, XXII, 1995, 2, pp. 119-32.

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