Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

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Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

By Tzvetan Todorov
Henry Holt, 1996
307 pp. $27.50
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Far more devastating than the course followed by fellow travelers of communism, and even more representative of a tragic century, is the experience of those who, in ghettos or in concentration camps, had to "face the extreme." This probing study of their behavior and the choices they had to make, written by the literary theorist and historian Tzvetan Todorov in French in 1991 and translated into English in 1996, is a contribution to ethics -- personal and political. It asks, and shows, how moral life and action can persist even in such Hobbesian circumstances, it examines thorny problems of responsibility and guilt, and it is a tribute to the small number of "just" men and women who showed both courage and generosity. This subtle and discriminating book is a worthy complement to Primo Levi's admirable books on his personal experience in Auschwitz and after (Survival in Auschwitz, 1947; The Periodic Table, 1984), to novels such as Louis Begley's Wartime Lies (1991), and to Todorov's equally profound On Human Diversity (1989), which studies the ways in which different French authors have approached "the other" and is a plea for recognizing both universal values and the diversity (not the clash) of cultures.