If Not Now, When? Essay - Critical Essays

Primo Levi

Critical Context

Primo Levi is best known for two autobiographical books: Se questo e un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959) describes his experiences in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, while La tregua (1963; The Reawakening, 1965) recounts his roundabout journey back to Italy. By profession, Levi was a research chemist, employed for many years at a paint factory of which he ultimately became the manager. Not until his retirement was he able to write full time. The publication of several of his later books in English translation, most notably Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984), sparked great interest in his work and prompted the reissue of his memoirs, retitled and combined in a single volume as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening (1986). Thus it came as a shock to many readers when, early in 1987, Levi died in a fall in the stairwell of his apartment building, an apparent suicide.

If Not Now, When? is based on actual events as told to Levi by a friend, but the names and places have been changed. Levi, who himself fought with the Italian partisans before being captured and deported to Auschwitz, was also able to draw from his own experiences and spent months researching Yiddish culture and period detail before doing any writing. The song which supplies the title of the book, ascribed in the narrative to a wandering minstrel, was written by Levi himself. He adapted the refrain from a collection of sayings by famous rabbis, incorporated into the Talmud.

Although the events, seen mainly through Mendel’s eyes, are evaluated entirely within the context of their period, some of its aspects, according to Levi, were inspired by the situation at the time of writing, in particular the continuing oppression in Poland and the contrast between the Gedalists’ vision of an idyllic future in Palestine and the reality of the 1980’s. Having dealt, in his two great autobiographical works, with Jewish men and women as victims, in If Not Now, When? Levi felt the need to pay tribute to them as fighters.