Primo Levi (LAY-vee), an Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is among the most significant of its chroniclers. Beyond his testifying of mass dehumanization, murder, and liberation, Levi achieved in his writings a scientific clarity and a serene philosophical insight which—late in his life—won for him a distinguished international group of admirers. Except for the enforced separation caused by World War II, Levi always lived in the same apartment where he was born to secular middle-class Jewish parents in Turin, Italy.
After completing a classical high school education, Levi enrolled at the University of Turin, from which, despite Benito Mussolini’s anti-Jewish laws, he graduated, July, 1941, with highest honors in chemistry. Levi was attracted to physics and chemistry because he found verifiable scientific truth to be a noble “antidote” to the “stench” of lying Fascist dogmas. After graduation, with considerable difficulty because of the racial laws, he found employment—first as an analyst of rock residue from a mine and then as a researcher for a diabetes cure at a pharmaceutical factory in Milan.
In the fall of 1943, the Fascist government having collapsed, Italy declared war on Germany. Levi joined a small partisan unit to fight the Germans and Italian Fascists who still occupied northern Italy. His group of outnumbered amateurs was betrayed and captured by Fascists on December 13, 1943. When he identified himself as a Jew to his interrogators, “partly out of an irrational digging in of pride,” he was transferred to German custody. In February, 1944, he was among 650 Italian Jews sent in sealed railway freight cars to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Only about twenty of them returned home. Because he was judged physically fit for work and because his training as a chemist seemed useful to the camp authorities, Levi was able to survive for a year in that systematic hell. Falling ill of scarlet fever in January, 1945, he was left to die in the infirmary by the panicky Germans who led the “healthy” prisoners on a march through the snows toward Germany. Levi, however, lived for the ten days it took the advancing Russians to arrive at the camp. By an unusually roundabout railway journey, lasting from mid-June to mid-October, 1945, he traveled through Russia, Romania, Hungary, and Austria, finally returning to Turin to find his home still standing and his family alive. He found work as a chemist in a paint factory, where he eventually became the manager.
Levi’s memories burned so intensely within him that within a few months of his return he completed If This Is a Man. In...
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