Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Beneath the Roman pavement are Jewish as well as Christian catacombs, for Jews have lived in Italy as long as anyone else. Primo Levi’s own family came to that country in 1500 and assimilated with their non-Jewish neighbors. Even Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws of 1938 changed little for Levi. Although he was legally barred from attending college, he took his degree in chemistry in 1941. Theoretically unemployable because of his “race,” he was working as a chemist in Milan in 1943 when Mussolini’s government fell and was succeeded by a Nazi-installed regime.

The twenty-four-year-old Levi then fled to the mountains, hoping to join a guerrilla force known as Giustizia e Liberta (justice and liberty) fighting against the Germans. He and the small group with him were instead betrayed and captured by three Fascist militia companies on December 13, 1943. If This Is a Man, the first volume in what proved to be a trilogy of autobiographical works, recounts what happened to Levi during the next thirteen months.

To explain his presence in the mountains, Levi thought it safer to claim that he was hiding because of his religion rather than because of his politics; had he been dealing with only his fellow Italians, his decision would have been correct. Only Denmark, which preserved all of its Jewish population, had a better record of protecting Jews from the Nazis; of the 36,000 Jews who lived in Nazi-occupied Italy, 80 percent...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bailey, Paul. “Saving the Scaffolding,” in New Statesman. LXXXII (August 20, 1971), pp. 245-246.

Denby, David. “The Humanist and the Holocaust: The Poised Art of Primo Levi,” in The New Republic. CXCV (July 28, 1986), pp. 27-33.

Eberstadt, Fernanda. “Reading Primo Levi,” in Commentary. LXXX (October, 1985), pp. 41-47.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of Italian Jews, 1924-1974, 1983.

Motola, Gabriel. “Primo Levi: The Auschwitz Experience,” in Southwest Review. LXXII (Spring, 1987), pp. 258-269.

Sodi, Risa. “An Interview with Primo Levi,” in Partisan Review. LIV (Summer, 1987), pp. 355-366.

Sodi, Risa. “Primo Levi: A Last Talk,” in Present Tense. XV (May/June, 1988), p. 40.