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...
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