He is best known for his work on the Holocaust, and in particular his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. If This Is a Man (published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz) has been described as one of the most important works of the twentieth century.
In 1921 Anna Maria, Levi's sister was born; he was to remain close to her all of his life. In 1925 he entered the Felice Rignon primary school in Turin. A thin and delicate child, he was shy and thought of himself as being ugly, but he excelled academically. His school record includes long periods of absence during which time he was tutored at home at first by Emilia Glauda and then by Marisa Zini, daughter of philosopher Zino Zini. Summers were spent with his mother in the Waldensian valleys south-west of Turin where Rina rented a farmhouse. His father remained in Turin partly because of his dislike of the rural life, but also because of his infidelities.
In September 1930 he entered the Massimo d'Azeglio Royal Gymnasium a year ahead of normal entrance requirements. In class he was the youngest, the shortest and the cleverest as well as being the only Jew. For these reasons, he was bullied. In August 1932, following two years at the Talmud Torah school in Turin, he sang in the local synagogue for his Bar Mitzvah. In 1933, as was expected of all young Italian schoolboys, he joined the Avanguardisti movement for young Fascists. He avoided rifle drill by joining the ski division, and then spent every Saturday during the season on the slopes above Turin. As a young boy Levi was plagued by illness, particularly chest infections, but he was keen to participate in physical activity. In his teens Levi and a few of his friends would sneak into a disused sports stadium and conduct athletic competitions.
In July 1934 at the age of 14, he sat the exams for the Massimo d'Azeglio liceo classico, a Lyceum (sixth form) specialising in the classics and was admitted that autumn. The school was noted for its well-known anti-Fascist teachers, amongst them the philosopher Norberto Bobbio, and for a few months Cesare Pavese, also an anti-Fascist and later to become one of Italy's best-known novelists. Levi continued to be bullied during his time at the Lyceum although he was now in a class with six other Jews. On reading Concerning the Nature of Things by Sir William Bragg it was during this time that Levi decided that he wanted to be a chemist. Levi matriculated from the school in 1937 despite being accused of ignoring a call-up to the Italian Royal Navy the week before his exams were due to begin. As a result of this incident, and possibly some antisemitic bias in the marking, Levi had to retake his Italian paper. At the end of the summer he passed his exams and in October he enrolled at the University of Turin, to study chemistry. The registered intake of eighty hopefuls spent three months taking lectures in preparation for their colloquio or oral examination when the eighty would be reduced to twenty. The following February Levi graduated onto the full-time chemistry course.
Although Italy was a Fascist country, and antisemitism took place, there was little real discrimination towards Jews in the 1930’s. As Italy was historically one of the most assimilated Jewish societies, the gentile Italians, up until the outbreak of hostilities, either ignored or subverted any racial laws which they saw as being imposed by the Germans. This all changed in July 1938 when the Fascist government introduced racial laws which, amongst other things, prohibited Jewish citizens from attending state schools. Jewish students who had begun their course of study were permitted to continue them, but new Jewish students were barred from entering university. It was therefore fortuitous that Levi had matriculated a year early, as he would not otherwise have been permitted to take a degree.
In 1939 Levi began his love affair with hiking in the mountains. His friend Sandro Delmaestro taught him how to hike and they spent many week-ends in the mountains above Turin. Physical exertion, the risk and the battle with the elements here supplied him with an outlet for all the frustrations in his life. In June 1940 Italy declared war against Britain and France, and the first air raids on Turin began two days later. Levi’s studies continued during the bombardments, and an additional strain on the family was imposed when his father became bedridden with bowel cancer.
However because of the new antisemitic laws, and the increasing intensity of prevalent Fascism, Levi had difficulty finding a supervisor for his graduation thesis which was on the subject of Walden inversion, a study of the asymmetry of the carbon atom. Eventually taken on by Dr. Nicolo Dallaporta he graduated in the summer of 1941 with full marks and merit, having submitted additional theses on X Rays and Electrostatic Energy. His degree certificate bore the remark, "of Jewish race". The racial laws prevented Levi from finding a suitable permanent position after he had graduated.
In December 1941 Levi was approached and clandestinely offered a job at an asbestos mine at San Vittore. The project he was given was to extract nickel from the mine spoil, a challenge he accepted with pleasure. It was not lost on Levi that should he be successful he would be aiding the German war effort, which was suffering nickel shortages in the production of armaments. The job required Levi to work under a false name with false papers. In March 1942 while he was working at the mine Levi’s father died.
In June 1942, due to the deteriorating situation in Turin, Levi left the mine and went to work in Milan. He had been recruited through a fellow student at Turin University who was now working for the Swiss firm of A Wander Ltd on a project to extract an anti-diabetic from vegetable matter. He could take the job because the racial laws did not apply to Swiss companies. It soon became clear that the project had no chance of succeeding, but it was in no one's interest to say so.
In September 1943, after the Italian government under Marshal Pietro Badoglio signed an armistice with the Allies, the former leader Benito Mussolini was rescued from imprisonment by the Germans and installed as head of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state in German-occupied northern Italy. Levi returned home to Turin to find his mother and sister having taken refuge in their holiday home La Saccarello in the hills outside Turin. They all then embarked to Saint-Vincent in the Aosta Valley where they could be hidden. Being pursued by the authorities they moved up the hillside to Amay in the Colle di Joux. Amay was on the route to Switzerland that was followed by Allied soldiers and refugees trying to escape the Germans. The Italian resistance movement became increasingly active in the German-occupied zone. Levi and a number of comrades took to the foothills of the Alps and in October joined the liberal Giustizia e Libertà partisan movement. Completely untrained for such a venture, he and his companions were quickly arrested by the Fascist militia. When told he would be shot as a partisan, he confessed to being Jewish and was then sent to an internment camp for Jews at Fossoli near Modena. Primo Levi's writings archived at Yad Vashem indicate that that as long as Fossoli was under Italian, rather than Nazi German control, he was not harmed. "We were given, on a regular basis, a food ration destined for the soldiers," Levi's testimony stated, "and at the end of January 1944, we were taken to Fossoli on a passenger train. Our conditions in the camp were quite good. There was no talk of executions and the atmosphere was quite calm. We were allowed to keep the money we had brought with us and to receive money from the outside. We worked in the kitchen in turn and performed other services in the camp. We even prepared a dining room, a rather sparse one, I must admit."
Levi knew some German from reading German publications on chemistry; he quickly oriented himself to life in the camp without attracting the attention of the privileged inmates; he used bread to pay a more experienced Italian prisoner for German lessons and orientation in Auschwitz; and he received a smuggled soup ration each day from Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian civilian bricklayer, imprisoned as forced labourer. His professional qualifications were also useful: in mid-November 1944 he was able to secure a position as an assistant in the Buna laboratory that was intended to produce synthetic rubber, thereby avoiding hard labour in freezing outdoor temperatures. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army, he fell ill with scarlet fever and was placed in the camp's sanatorium (camp hospital). In mid-January 1945 the SS hurriedly evacuated the camp as the Red Army approached, forcing all but the gravely ill on a long death march that led to the death of the vast majority of the remaining prisoners. Levi's illness spared him this fate.
Although liberated on 27 January 1945, Levi did not reach Turin until 19 October of that year. After spending some time in a Soviet camp for former concentration camp inmates, he embarked on an arduous journey home in the company of former Italian prisoners of war from the Royal Italian Army in Russia. His long railway journey home to Turin took him on a circuitous route from Poland, through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany.
On January 21, 1946 he started work at DUCO, a Du Pont Company paint factory, outside Turin. As the train service out to the factory was so limited Levi stayed in the factory dormitory during the week, which gave him the opportunity to write undisturbed. It was here that he started to write down the first draft of If This is a Man. Every day he would scribble down notes on train tickets and scraps of paper as memories came to him. At the end of February he had ten pages detailing the last ten days between the German evacuation and the arrival of the Red Army. For the next ten months the book took shape in his dormitory as he typed up his recollections each night.
On December 22, 1946 the manuscript was complete. Lucia, who now reciprocated Primo’s love, helped him to edit it, to make the narrative flow more naturally. In January 1947 Primo was taking the finished manuscript around publishers, but the wounds he was describing were still too fresh and he had no literary experience to give him a reputation as an author.
Eventually Levi found a publisher, Franco Antonicelli, through a friend of his sister’s. Antonicelli was an amateur publisher, but as an active anti-Fascist he was supportive of the idea of the book. At the end of June 1947, Levi suddenly left DUCO and teamed up with an old friend Alberto Salmoni to run a chemical consultancy from the top floor of Salmoni’s parent’s house. Many of Levi’s experiences of this time found their way into his later writing. They made most of their money from making and supplying stannous chloride for mirror makers, delivering the unstable chemical by bicycle across the city. The attempts to make lipsticks from reptile excreta and a coloured enamel to coat teeth were turned into short stories. Accidents in their laboratory filled the Salmoni house with vile smells and corrosive gases.
In September 1947 Primo married Lucia and a month later on the 11th October If This is a Man was published with a print run of 2000 copies. In April 1948, with Lucia pregnant with their first child, Primo decided that the life of an independent chemist was too precarious and agreed to go and work for Federico Accatti in the family paint business which traded under the name SIVA. In October 1948 Levi’s first child, his daughter Lisa, was born.
Although life was definitely improving there were still painful incidents in his life, particularly when one of his friends from Auschwitz was in trouble or had died. Lorenzo Perrone was the man to whom Levi owed most. His story is well told in If This is a Man, but without Lorenzo bringing Primo soup every day, at great personal risk, Levi was unlikely to have survived the Lager. After the war Lorenzo could not cope with the memories of what he saw and descended into living rough and alcoholism. Levi made several trips to rescue his old friend from the streets, but in 1952 Lorenzo died as a result of the lack of self-care.
In 1950, having demonstrated his ample chemical talents to Accatti he was made Technical Director at SIVA. As SIVA’s principal chemist and trouble shooter Levi travelled abroad. He made several trips to Germany and carefully engineered his contacts with senior German businessmen and scientists. Wearing short sleeved shirts he made sure they saw his prison camp number tattooed on his arm, and he engaged them on the depravity of the Nazis and the lack of redemption sought by most Germans, many of whom had been involved in the exploitation of slave labour during the war.
He was also involved in organisations pledged to remembering the horror of the camps. In 1954 he visited Buchenwald to mark the 9th anniversary of the camps liberation from the Nazis. There were many such anniversaries over the years and Levi dutifully attended them to tell and retell his memories. In July 1957 his son Renzo was born, almost certainly named after his saviour Lorenzo Perrone.
In 1958 Stuart Woolf, in close collaboration with Levi, translated If This is a Man into English and it was published in the UK in 1959 by Orion Press. Also in 1959 Heinz Riedt, also under close supervision by Levi, translated it into German. As one of Levi’s primary reasons for writing the book was to get the German people to realise what had been done in their name, and to accept at least partial responsibility, this translation was perhaps the most significant.
Also in 1963 came his first major bout of depression. At the time he had two young children, a responsible job at a factory where accidents could and did have terrible consequences, he travelled, became a public figure, and yet the memory of what happened less than twenty years earlier still burned in his brain. Today we recognise the link between stress and depression, but then it was not the case. Also the drugs available to him, several of which he was prescribed over the years, had variable efficacy and side effects.
In 1964 he collaborated on a radio play based upon If This is a Man with the state broadcaster RAI, and in 1966 with a theatre production. He published two volumes of science fiction short stories under the pen name of Damiano Malabaila which explored ethical and philosophical questions as well as imagining the impact upon society of inventions which many would consider beneficial, but which, he saw, would have serious implications. Many of the stories from the two books Storie naturali (Natural Histories) published in 1966 and Vizio di forma (Structural Defect) published in 1971 were later released in English as The Sixth Day and other Tales.
In 1974 he arranged to go into semi-retirement from SIVA in order to allow him more time to write, as well as removing the burden of responsibility for managing the paint plant.
He also wrote two other highly praised memoirs, Lilit e altri racconti (in English as Moments of Reprieve) was published in 1978 and Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) in 1975. Moments of Reprieve deals with characters he observed during imprisonment. The Periodic Table is a collection of short pieces, mostly episodes from his life but also two fictional short stories that he wrote before his time in Auschwitz, all related in some way to one of the chemical elements. At London's Royal Institution on 19 October 2006 it was voted "the best science book ever written".
Levi retired as a part-time consultant at the SIVA paint factory in 1977 to devote himself full-time to writing. Like all of his books La chiave a stella (1978) (published in the US in 1986 as The Monkey's Wrench and in the UK in 1987 as The Wrench) is problematical to categorise. In some reviews it is described as a collection of stories about work and workers told by a narrator, Faussone, resembling Levi himself. Others have called it a novel as each story told has common characters throughout and a chronological narrative. Based upon the Fiat run town in Russia called Togliattigrad, it shows the engineer, or rigger to be precise, as a hero on whom others depend. The underlying philosophy is that to have pride in one's work is necessary for a fulfilled life. The Piedmontese rigger, Faussone, travels the world as an expert in erecting cranes and bridges. This work aroused criticism from left-wing critics, because he did not write about the working conditions on the assembly lines at FIAT. However, it brought him a wider audience in Italy and The Wrench won the Strega Prize in 1979.
In 1984 his only novel, If Not Now, When? (in Italian, Se non ora, quando) was published. It traces the fortunes of a group of Jewish partisans behind German lines during World War II as they seek to continue their fight against the occupier and survive. With the idea of reaching Palestine to take part in the construction of the Jewish national home clearly their ultimate objective, the partisan band reaches Poland and then German territory before the surviving members are officially received in territory held by the Western allies as displaced persons. Finally, they succeed in reaching Italy, on their way to Palestine. The novel won both the Premio Campiello and the Premio Viareggio. The book had its origin in Levi’s train journey home, narrated in The Truce. At one point in the journey a band of Zionists hitch their own wagon to the refugee train. Levi was impressed by their strength, resolve, organisation and sense of purpose.
Levi became a major literary figure in Italy. The Truce became a set text in Italian schools. His books were regularly translated into many other languages. In 1985, he flew to America for a speaking tour of twenty days. The trip, on which he was accompanied by Lucia, was very draining for him. In the Soviet Union his early works were not acceptable to censors because of their portrayal of Soviet soldiers as human and disorderly, rather than heroic. In Israel, a country formed partly by Jewish refugees who escaped horrors more or less the same as Levi experienced, Levi's works were not translated until after his death.
In March 1985 he wrote the introduction to the re-publication of the autobiography of Rudolf Höß who was commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940 to 1943. In it he writes "It's filled with evil.....and reading it is agony".
Also in 1985 a volume of essays, previously published in La Stampa, were published under the title L’altrui mestiere (Other People’s Trades). Levi used to write these stories and hoard them away, releasing them to La Stampa at the rate of almost one a week. The essays ranged from book reviews, ponderings about strange things in nature to fictional short stories. In 1986 his book I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), was published. In it he tried to analyse why people behaved the way they did at Auschwitz, and why some survived whilst others perished. In his typical style he makes no judgments, he only presents the evidence and asks the questions. As an example, one of his essays in this book examines what he calls "The Grey Area", those Jews who did the Germans' dirty work for them and kept the rest of the prisoners in line. What made a concert violinist behave as a callous task master?
Also in 1986 another collection of short stories, previously published in La Stampa, was assembled and published as Racconti e saggi (some of which were published in the English volume The Mirror Maker).
At the time of his death, in April 1987, he was working on another selection of essays called The Double Bond which took the form of letters to "La Signorina". These essays are very personal in nature. Approximately five or six chapters of this manuscript exist. Carole Angier, in her biography of Levi, describes how she tracked some of these essays down, but that others were being kept away from public view by Levi’s close friends, to whom he distributed them, and they may even have been destroyed.
In March 2007 Harper's Magazine published an English translation of Levi's story "Knall", about a fictitious weapon that is fatal at close range but harmless more than a meter away. It originally appeared in his 1971 book Vizio di forma, but was published in English for the first time by Harper's.
There are several reasons why Levi’s semi-autobiographical work is admired so much. One is that it is so readable, but to get to this stage some of the events had to be edited in order to make the narrative flow. Levi was primarily concerned with getting the true story across and if this required amalgamating two people into one character, then he would do so. This did not undermine the authority of his work which is still one of the most accurate and chilling testimonies of a Jewish slave labourer under the Nazis.
Levi visited over 130 schools to talk about his experiences in Auschwitz. He was shocked by revisionist attitudes that tried to rewrite the history of the camps as less horrific, what is now referred to as Holocaust denial. His view was that the Nazi death camps and the attempted annihilation of the Jews was a horror unique in history because the aim was the complete destruction of a race by one that saw itself as superior; it was highly organized and mechanized; it entailed the degradation of Jews even to the point of using their ashes as materials for paths.
With the publication in the late 1960s and 1970s of the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the world became aware that the Soviet regime used camps (gulags) to repress dissidents who might be imprisoned for as much as twenty years. There were similarities with the Lager; the hard physical work and poor rations. Levi rejected, however, the idea that the Gulag Archipelago and the system of the Nazi Lager (German: Vernichtungslager; see Nazi concentration camps) were equivalent. The death rate in the gulags was estimated at 30% at worst, he wrote, while in the Lager he estimated it was 90-98%. The aim of the Lager was to eliminate the Jewish race. No one was excluded. No-one could renounce Judaism; the Nazis treated Jews as a racial group rather than a religious one. Many children were taken to the camps, and almost all died.The purpose of the Nazi camps was not the same as that of the Soviet gulags, Levi wrote in an appendix of If this is a Man, though it is a "lugubrious comparison between two models of hell".
Levi himself, along with most of Turin's Jewish intellectuals, was not religiously observant. It was the Fascist race laws and the Nazi camps that made him feel Jewish. Levi writes in clear almost scientific style about his experiences in Auschwitz, showing no lasting hatred of the Germans. This has led some commentators to suggest that he had forgiven them, though Levi denied this.
Principal biographers (Angier, Thomson, Anissimov) agree with the coroner's verdict that Levi committed suicide. In his later life Levi indicated he was suffering from depression: factors may have included responsibility for his elderly mother and mother-in-law, living in the same apartment, concerns for his own health and memory, and genetic disposition.
However, Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta has made a detailed case that the conventional assumption of Levi's death by 'suicide' is not well justified by either factual or inferred evidence. Levi left no suicide note, and no other clear indication of an intended attempt on his own life; documents and testimony, rather, indicate immediate and ongoing plans at the time of his death. The likelihood of an accident is itself bolstered by clear circumstantial evidence. Quoting Rita Levi Montalcini, Levi's close friend: "If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed." Also, Gambetta reveals that Levi had complained to his physician of dizziness in the days before his death, and Gambetta concludes (from a visit to the apartment complex) that it's much more plausible to assume Levi lost his balance and fell accidentally to his death.
The importance of Levi's manner of death is historical in that his work, much of which openly personal in content, is commonly interpreted as a powerful affirmation of life in the face of organised forces of war and brutality: thus whether he died by accident or by intent has been seen to imply a final comment on the validity of his own essentially affirmative message. Wiesel's interpretation has to date been accepted: whether this is factually based or a romanticised premise requires further research.
|Title||Year||Type||English language translations|
|Se questo è un uomo||1947 and 1958||Memories||If This Is a Man (US: Survival in Auschwitz)|
|La tregua||1963||Memories||The Truce (US: The Reawakening)|
|Storie naturali (as Damiano Malabaila)||1966||Short stories||The Sixth Day and Other Tales|
|Vizio di forma||1971||Short stories||Mainly in The Sixth Day and Other Tales. Some stories are in A Tranquil Star|
|Il sistema periodico||1975||Short stories||The Periodic Table|
|L'osteria di Brema||1975||Poems||In Collected Poems (Primo Levi)|
|Lilìt e altri racconti||1978||Short stories||Part 1: Moments of Reprieve. Some stories from Parts 2 and 3 are in A Tranquil Star|
|La chiave a stella||1978||Novel||The Wrench (US: The Monkey's Wrench)|
|La ricerca delle radici||1981||Personal anthology||The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology|
|Se non ora, quando?||1984||Novel||If Not Now, When?|
|Ad ora incerta||1984||Poems||In Collected Poems (Primo Levi)|
|L'altrui mestiere||1985||Essays||Other People's Trades|
|I sommersi e i salvati||1986||Essays||The Drowned and the Saved|
|Racconti e Saggi||1986||Essays||The Mirror Maker|
|Conversazioni e interviste 1963-1987||1997||Various (posthumous)||Conversations with Primo Levi and The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987''|
|2005||Essays (posthumous)||The Black Hole of Auschwitz|
|2006||Factual (posthumous)||Auschwitz Report|
|2007||Short stories (posthumous)||A Tranquil Star|