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 fact, his need to bear witness was so strong that he had begun scribbling notes while in the rubber factory laboratory at Auschwitz, but he had to throw them away since discovery would have meant death. The manuscript was accepted by a small publishing house which printed only about two thousand copies in 1947 before its business failed. In 1958, when a major publisher in Turin decided to republish the book, it attracted international acclaim. Continually in print since 1958, If This Is a Man has been translated into at least eight languages. Its title clearly indicates its underlying theme and the theme of much of Levi’s later work: the struggle to retain one’s civilizing humanity under the most dehumanizing conditions. This contest is shown in his description of Lorenzo, an Italian civilian bricklayer at Auschwitz who daily brought food to Levi at great risk, without any thought of reward, out of his own natural goodness. “Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man,” wrote Levi.
The Reawakening, Levi’s second memoir, tells the story of his liberation by the Russians and his lengthy odyssey homeward. It was written fourteen years after If This Is a Man. Levi has said that it is a “more literary” work with many “strange, exotic, cheerful episodes.” Unlike the earlier book, a mood of mourning and despair appears only in its opening and closing passages. The Periodic Table is mainly a collection of autobiographical reflections. The titles of the twenty-one chapters are taken from Dmitry Mendeleyev’s “Periodic Table of the Elements,” with a character or event in each chapter evoking a reference to one of the elements.
A completely different mood is created in The Monkey’s Wrench. Labeled a novel, it is really a collection of tales unified by the adventurous personality of their primary narrator, Libertini Faussone. Faussone is a highly skilled rigger of cables for complex construction projects around the world. As a manual laborer, he works with his hands and heart, just as Levi, the chemist and secondary narrator, works with his head. To Faussone, an irrepressible fun-loving spirit, the unity of life and work are essential for happiness. Levi approvingly concurs: “Loving your work . . . represents the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth.”
Retired from his position at the Turin paint factory in 1977, Levi turned back to his Auschwitz memories for his first “full-time” literary project. Moments of Reprieve recalls those “few, the different, the ones in whom . . . I had recognized the will and capacity to react.” In fifteen vignettes he focuses on fifteen who survived—at least briefly—as individuals, “even if the virtue that allows them to survive and makes them unique is not always one approved of by common morality.” Because of their spirit, these men, some of whom had been mentioned in Levi’s earlier memoirs, provide “moments of reprieve, in which the compressed identity can reacquire for a moment its lineaments.”
Throughout the postwar years, Levi was also writing short poems, usually of somber mood, exploring the meaning of suffering to human identity. Two volumes of essays were published in the mid-1980’s, The Drowned and the Saved and Other People’s Trades. They are mainly meditations, growing out of his wartime experiences, about the nature of humanity.
Levi married Lucia Morpurgo, a teacher, in 1947; they reared a daughter, Lisa, and a son, Lorenzo, named for the man who had risked his life for Levi at Auschwitz. Levi committed suicide on April 11, 1987, in the home where he was born. He was ranked among Italy’s most distinguished writers and received some of its highest literary awards.
In several of his books Levi compares himself to the Ancient Mariner, who felt compelled to retell constantly his ghastly tale. Through his clarity and objectivity—assuming the “calm, sober language of the witness,” even when dealing with genocide—Levi has helped many to become whole again.
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.
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