Primo Levi Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)

Primo Levi Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Primo Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy, to a cultured middle-class couple, Ester and Cesare Levi. Levi attended the University of Turin and in 1941 received his Ph.D. in chemistry. A Jew in occupied Italy during World War II, he joined the Italian Resistance and was soon arrested for anti-Fascist activities. Upon discovering that Levi was a Jew, the German SS deported him to their death facility in Auschwitz. There, where number 174517 was tattooed on his left arm, he remained until the concentration camp was liberated in 1945. For his survival, he credited luck, which manifested itself in terms of his health, which was good most of the time he was in Auschwitz and poor at precisely the right moment (when the Germans fled the concentration camp, taking with them all “healthy” prisoners). In addition, he worked as a chemist part of the time he was in Auschwitz, and his friend, an Italian bricklayer, smuggled extra food to him.

After the war, Levi found employment as technical director of a paint factory. In 1947, Levi married Lucia Morpurgo, a teacher, who helped him adjust to his new life. Still deeply depressed, he turned to writing in an attempt to understand his concentration camp experience. The Holocaust turned the chemist into the writer. Levi later described his time in Auschwitz as “the fundamental experience of my life.” He went on to say, “I knew that if I survived, I would have to tell the story.” In 1947, he chronicled his imprisonment at Auschwitz in If This Is a Man, and later, in The Reawakening, he described his bizarre, circuitous journey home from Poland. Many of his other works, including Shema, Moments of Reprieve, and If Not Now, When? were also inspired by the Holocaust. In 1977, Levi devoted himself to writing full time. He died in his hometown of Turin on April 11, 1987, survived by a son, Renzo, a physicist, and a daughter, Lisa, a biologist.

Primo Levi Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Primo Levi (LAY-vee) was born in Turin, Italy, on July 31, 1919. His family had been living in the nation’s Piedmont region since the early decades of the fifteenth century after leaving Spain because of the anti-Semitic policies of the Spanish monarchy. The Levi family was involved in financial practices until Primo’s father, Cesare, took advantage of a more tolerant social situation to attend Turin’s Royal School of Applied Engineering, graduating in 1901 with a degree in civil engineering. He met Primo’s mother, Ester Luzzati, in 1915, when he returned from work in Hungary, and the Luzzati family gave the newlyweds the apartment in Turin, where Primo was born, as a part of their dowry.

Primo’s name—from primogenito, or “first-born”—was not common in Italy but was in keeping with Jewish custom in a nonobservant family.

Cesare Levi was fond of buying or borrowing books from the bookstores in his neighborhood, and Primo was drawn to his scientific and naturalist volumes, particularly those with full-color plate illustrations. His sister Anna Maria, eighteen months younger, stated that Primo had learned to read and write by his fourth birthday, and he was eager to help her to read and learn other subjects as well. “My brother simplified mathematics for me,” she recalled.

Primo was often the winner of various scholastic awards, and he began to develop an interest in the natural world on mountaineering expeditions, pushing beyond his ability on hikes as a kind of a test of fortitude and adaptability. He joined the Avanguardia ski patrol in 1933 as a means of satisfying fascist public demands without supporting any of Benito Mussolini’s fascist positions.

Levi’s friendship with Mario Piacenza, a classmate, led to an interest in chemistry when both boys began to spend time in Piacenza’s older brother’s makeshift laboratory. Levi’s choice of his vocation was made after he ordered, from England, the British Nobel physicist William Bragg’s Concerning the Nature of Things (1925), and he was given a manual on microscopy by his father, who further encouraged his son with the purchase of a fine Zeiss instrument in 1934.

Although generally nonpolitical, Levi, who was now the coeditor of his school’s literary magazine, was asked to contribute something to a rebel journal published in 1936 after the official magazine was censored. Levi’s effort, his first published writing, was a poem, “You Don’t Know How to Study!” which Levi biographer Ian Thompson describes as “mock-heroic doggerel and highfalutin allusions to botany,” and which included parodies of one of Petrarch’s sonnets and the work of the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. Levi’s courses in the humanities were built on a classical curriculum, which included the works of the writers Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, and William Shakespeare. Although Levi was disappointed with his relatively mediocre scores on his final examinations, he had been given, in biographer Thompson’s estimation, “an excellent training in Italian literature.”

By 1938, Levi was in his second year at the University of Turin and had become an outstanding student, recognized by his classmates and professors as intellectually spirited and devoted to and excited by learning. In July, 1938, Mussolini’s government issued a decree that destroyed nearly a century of tolerance and cast Italian Jews—many of whom were supporters of his regime—as aliens. Through a series of further oppressive measures as World War II began, Italian Jews were subject to social humiliation and personal danger. Levi completed his degree in 1940 and was accepted as an intern by Nicolo Dallaporta, an individualistic nonconformist and antifascist, at the Experimental Physics Institute.

In June, 1941, Levi passed all of his exams, earning only the second first-class honors degree granted in twenty-five years. However, because he was a Jew, Levi was offered no fellowships to continue his work. With no other prospects, he accepted a position as a chemist at an asbestos mine, extracting nickel from the soil, working illegally...

(The entire section is 1702 words.)

Primo Levi Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Primo Levi set a quatrain from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) before the text of The Drowned and the Saved, proclaiming:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,The agony returns,And till my ghastly tale is toldThis heart within me burns.

Like so many of the allusions and quotations within his work, it is an accurate and illuminating citation. For Levi, no matter what he achieved, the “agony” remained; the “ghastly tale” could never be forgotten, but the fire in the soul cast a light that brightened the dark...

(The entire section is 99 words.)