Levi, Primo (1919–1987)

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LEVI, PRIMO (1919–1987)



Primo Levi is one of the great figures of postwar European literature. With his memoir Survival in Auschwitz, he also provided an indispensable description and analysis of the Nazi concentration camps.

Levi was born in Turin in 1919, into a non-observant Jewish family. Until 1938 his childhood and adolescence were little different from those of most young people in Italy under fascism, including membership in the youth organizations of the ruling party. In 1937 he began university studies in chemistry. The promulgation of anti-Semitic laws in 1938, however, changed the course of Levi's life. Initially he continued his education under trying conditions, and in July 1941 he received his doctorate in chemistry. Two years later, in September 1943, after the Nazi invasion of the north and center of the Italian peninsula and the establishment of the Italian Social Republic, Levi joined a group of resistance fighters close to the antifascist movement Giustizia e libertà (Justice and liberty). Arrested by the fascist militia on 13 December 1943, Levi chose to declare himself an "Italian citizen of the Jewish race" rather than a resistance fighter. He was sent to the internment camp at Fossoli di Carpi, then deported to Auschwitz, arriving on 26 February 1944 after a five-day journey by boxcar. He was set to work in the synthetic rubber factory at the Buna-Monowitz complex (some-times called Auschwitz III).

Levi's Se questo èun uomo (Survival in Auschwitz, also published in English as If This Is a Man) describes in detail the operation of the camp: its regulations, the prisoners' understanding of how to negotiate the concentration-camp system, the language of the death camps, the wretched conditions of life and work, the petty theft and corruption, the camp hierarchies, and prisoners' survival strategies. Levi ascribed his survival to several factors, including his knowledge of enough German to understand orders and the wartime labor shortage that was used to justify the employment of Jews in the Buna-Monowitz complex.

Survival in Auschwitz also includes philosophical reflections on human behavior, on the nature of good and evil in extreme situations, and on God and religion. Levi equated Auschwitz with absolute evil, concluding that it was no longer possible to believe in God: "C'è Auschwitz, quindi non può esserci Dio. Non trovo una soluzione al dilemma. La cerco ma non la trovo." ("There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God. I don't find a solution to this dilemma. I keep looking, but I don't find it.") (Camon, p. 75).

When the Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz on 27 January 1945, Levi was ill. In The Reawakening, also translated as The Truce, published in 1963, he recounted his return to Italy, a journey of several months through Eastern Europe . As the war wound down in the West, Levi discovered the dysfunctional nature of the occupying Soviet bureaucracy. Critical but not bitter, Levi described this transition as a "truce" or hiatus preceding his return to ordinary life. Although he was reunited with his family after arriving in Turin on 19 October 1945, he initially found no one waiting for him. Like many returning deportees, he was greeted with incredulity and indifference. He felt an urgent need to write about his experience and the result was Survival in Auschwitz. Although a major publisher, Einaudi, rejected the book in 1947, it was published by a smaller house in an edition of 2,500 copies. Levi started a family and worked in a chemical firm, where he eventually became a manager. An exhibition in Turin on the Jewish deportations boosted interest in Survival in Auschwitz, and Einaudi finally issued the book in 1956. After publication of The Reawakening, Levi began his career as a writer in earnest, while still pursuing his work in chemistry. He was awarded numerous literary prizes, and his books have been widely translated. The Monkey's Wrench, published in 1978, presented the stories of a construction worker from the Italian Piedmont; Claude Lévi-Strauss called it an important ethnographic work on labor. In 1982 his If Not Now, When? recounted the adventures of Russian and Polish Jewish resistance fighters during World War II. His meditative Il sistema periodico (1976), was well-received in the United States when translated into English as The Periodic Table in 1984.

Levi continued to be haunted by his concentration camp experiences, and in 1986 he published The Drowned and the Saved. Despite his success, his resumption of a normal life was more apparent than real, as is clear from the recurrent dream that he recounted in The Reawakening: "I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends, or at work, or in the green countryside … yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish.… I am in the Lager [concentration camp] once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home" (p. 207).

In 1987, ill and depressed, Primo Levi committed suicide.

See alsoAuschwitz-Birkenau; Concentration Camps; Fascism; Italy; Resistance .


Primary Sources

Levi, Primo. Il sistema periodico. Turin, 1975.

——. The Reawakening. New York, 1995.

——. Se questo è un uomo. Turin, 1995.

Secondary Sources

Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography. New York, 2002.

Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Woodstock, N.Y., 1999.

Camon, Ferdinando. Conversations with Primo Levi. Translated by John Shepley. Marlboro, Vt., 1989.

Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi. London, 2002.