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Worldwide Locations

Bearing Witness: Primo Levi's Legacy in Japan and Korea

Carol Gluck of Columbia University speaking in New York on October 28, 2010. (Asia Society New York)

Carol Gluck of Columbia University speaking in New York on October 28, 2010. (Asia Society New York)

Only after the women's testimony did the crimes against the comfort women, the massacre at Nanjing, and the human experimentation done by Unit 731, become accepted as historical fact.

The new perspective on the war necessitated a reorientation of a historical narrative that had previously been "victim-centric," according to Gluck. At that time Levi's work caught the attention of Japanese intellectuals, including the artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose solo show Nobody's Fool is currently on display at the Asia Society Museum in New York. These Japanese intellectuals frequently made pilgrimages to Auschwitz during the 1990s, and appropriated some of Levi's philosophies on the Holocaust for their attempt to understand Japan's victimhood and criminality during the war.

But Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University) argued that in considering the work of Levi, one must realize that victims and perpetrators can overlap, as in Japan. He called attention to apartheid in South Africa, which he argued victimized society at large, not merely individuals.

What troubled Mamdani is that since the Cold War, the search for justice for victims has become a process of "naming and shaming," with human rights activists calling for more violence with the implicit assumption that "their violence is bad, ours is good."

Indeed Levi was also troubled with the false dichotomy between good and evil, even in the concentration camps. Gil Anidjar (Columbia University) quoted Levi's pronouncement that "the worst survived" the Holocaust, and explained that only those whose morality could be suspended under the extreme circumstances of camp life could live through it.

In Korea, Treat said that this sentiment, expressed in Levi's chapter, "The Grey Zone" in The Drowned and the Saved, has resonated for contemporary Korean historians interested in the history of Japanese colonization (1910-1945). During that time, many Koreans cooperated with the Japanese, and were later unequivocally condemned as collaborators. Treat says that new work, informed by Levi, has added nuance to the story of Korean collaborators. This new perspective permits a more just interpretation of the past.

Ultimately, Gluck concluded that Levi's "work crossed borders and circled the globe because of a commonality of experiences of inhuman extremes of the twentieth century."

It is Levi's insights into how survivors can speak of these extremes, how they can bear witness, and how justice can be attained, that will continue to define his legacy both in the West and in East Asia.

Reported by Mollie Kirk