Italian author and chemist Primo Levi (1919-1987) was considered one of the foremost writers of concentration camp literature. He recounted with objective, scientific precision and detail the horrors of his year spent in Auschwitz. His focus, in life and in literature, was to promote understanding through memory and testimony, to respond to the "greatest crime of the century" with intelligence and humanity.
Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, on July 31, 1919 to an intellectual Jewish family. Levi's grandfather was an engineer, as was his father, Cesare Levi, who encouraged his son's interests in a wide variety of cultural pursuits, giving him access to a well furnished home library. The father-son relationship was complex in that Levi's introverted personality often contrasted with his father's more extroverted, exuberant nature. In any case, Levi recognized in his father the man responsible for his great interest in the arts, literature, and particularly the sciences. Levi's mother was also an avid reader and was well acquainted with her husband's interests. In his younger sister Levi found both a best friend and deep affection. Certainly, Levi's home and family was conducive to an intellectual life.
Levi's schooling contained both positive and negative experiences. During his first year at the Massimo D'Azeglio school he was forced, because of his physical frailness, to study privately. Nonetheless, he was a model student, and when he returned to school he won the admiration of his teachers and, consequently, aroused the envy of his peers. His Jewish origins often set him apart from the other students, and he frequently found himself the victim of aggression, targeted also because of his slight physical constitution. During high school he studied literature with academic success, yet his principal interests were clearly directed more toward scientific disciplines. He discovered a love for the rigor of scientific research and, completely unaware of his literary talents, decided to become a scientist.
Levi was an enthusiastic reader throughout his life. Two important influences on his later scientific works were Jack London and Jules Verne. During high school, in addition to the classics and Dante, for whom Levi had a passion, he read Mann, Flaubert, Hugo, Conrad, Kafka, and others. After his concentration camp experience, Levi found Mann to have been a sign of Germany's positive value, a reason to refrain from passing universal judgment on the German people. Levi also enjoyed North American writers and contemporary Italian narrative, particularly Alberto Moravia's Gli indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones) for its comment on the degradation of the Italian bourgeoisie during fascism.
Levi's university years marked his decision to dedicate his studies to science. In 1937, at age 17, he enrolled in the University of Turin's department of chemistry. His university career began happily, with great academic success and interaction with other students, both Jewish and non-Jewish. But in 1938 the Italian anti-Jewish racial laws went into effect under Mussolini's Fascist regime. According to the new measures, Italian Jews were forbidden to teach and enroll in all schools, and foreign Jews were not allowed to enroll in schools or keep a residence in Italy. This situation provoked a profound sense of isolation for Levi, yet despite all of these hardships he succeeded in graduating summa cum laude in 1941.
One of Levi's most significant friendships was with fellow chemistry student and anti-fascist Sandro DelMastro, who pushed Levi to develop his physical skills and resistance, almost as if in preparation for the life-threatening tests that he would later face in the Nazi Lager (concentration camp).
From 1941 to 1943 Levi worked under a false name as a chemist in northern Italy. During this period his father died. On September 8, Armistice Day, when the Italian Government fell, Levi fled to Torino where he was hidden by non-Jewish friends. He subsequently went to Val D'Aosta to join the "Justice and Liberty" movement. He was captured by the Fascist militia still collaborating with the German troops. The attack came in retaliation for a sortie by the partisans on the barracks of the Ivrea militia on December 13, 1943. Levi was fortunately able to rid himself of his false documents (which declared him to be Ferrero from Eboli) and was held prisoner for two months. He willingly admitted to being a Jew, as he assumed, mistakenly, that the admission to being a partisan meant sure death, and also because the Italians had promised not to turn any Jews over to the Germans. Levi was taken to Fossoli, near Modena, where he remained until February 22. The SS then arrived and took the 650 Jews of Fossoli to Auschwitz concentration camp. As he was leaving Italy, Levi managed to toss a postcard from the train. It reached his family, alerting them to the fact that he had been deported to Auschwitz (now in Poland).
Survival in Auschwitz, Levi's first work, recounts his experiences in the Nazi Lager with the detached objectivity of a scientist. Convinced that subjective commentary was unnecessary, Levi let the events and circumstances speak for themselves. He saw his duty as that of "bearing witness" and was confident that this work would serve as testimony to the atrocities committed there.
Levi remained in the concentration camp for approximately one year. He was freed January 27, 1945, when the Soviet's Red Army arrived. After a nine-month journey home, he wrote down his memories. He sent the result, Survival in Auschwitz, to the Einaudi Publishing Company, where Natalia Ginzburg rejected it. Also during this period Levi became technical director of a chemical industry in Turin and married a young Jewish woman, with whom he had two children, Lisa in 1948 and Renzo in 1957. In 1955 Levi took part in a conference on Nazi Lagers, after which he decided to resubmit his book to Einaudi. This time, in 1956, it was accepted by Luciano Foà. It was a great success and was translated into various languages. (In the United States it was published in 1960 under the title If This Is a Man.)
In 1961 Levi began writing The Reawakening, which he finished in December of 1962. This work tells the story of Levi's return to Italy via Eastern Europe. Published in 1963, it won the Campiello Prize the same year. Like Survival in Auschwitz, it enjoyed great success and was translated into six languages. In 1964 Survival in Auschwitz was adapted for and performed on radio, directed by Giorgio Bandini, followed by a theatrical version in November 1966 at the Carignano Theater of Turin, directed by Gianfranco DeBosio. In 1966 Levi's collection of short stories called Storie naturali was published, including works from 1952 to 1964, as well as a story from 1946. It was published under a pseudonym, Damiano Malabaila, as Levi felt that these stories didn't coincide with the serious tone of his concentration camp works. They are, in fact, of a science fiction nature, and won the Bagutta Prize in 1967.
One year later Levi wrote another collection, published in 1971 under his real name, called Vizio di forma, also a great success. English translations of stories from Vizio di forma and Storie naturali are collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales. In 1975 he published The Periodic Table, for which he won the Prato Prize for Resistance the same year. Later works include L'osteria di Brema (1975), a collection of poetry; The Monkey's Wrench (1978), winner of the Strega Prize in 1979; La ricerca delle radici (1981); Antologia personale (1981); Lilit e altri racconti (1981), published in English as Moments of Reprieve; If Not Now, When? (1982), which won him the Campiello Prize for the second time as well as the Viareggio Prize in 1982; Ad ora incerta (1984), poetry translated in Collected Poems, Other People's Trades (1985); and The Mirror Maker (1986). Levi's last work, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), takes its title from a chapter of Survival in Auschwitz and deals with the issues of survival, shame, and memory. It also contains a series of letters from German readers and Levi's responses to them.
Levi was an extraordinary figure in that he maintained his humanity inside the concentration camp and succeeded in resisting the temptation of hate and bitterness. He used his literary talents to "bear witness" to the inhuman experiences undergone in Auschwitz and sought to simply tell his story rather than pass judgment. On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi, for reasons unknown, ended his own life in Turin, Italy.
Further Reading on Primo Levi
Various essay collections have been published on Levi's works. See, for instance, Reason and Light, Susan Tarrow, ed. (1990), as well as Primo Levi: Il presente del passato (1991), Alberto Cavaglion, editor. Ferdinando Camon's Conversations with Primo Levi is essential for understanding Levi's outlook on life and his experiences. For a more detailed biography and discussion of his works, see Massimo Dini and Stefano Jesurum's Le opere e i giorni (1992) and Fiora Vincenti's Invito alla lettura di Primo Levi (1990).
Additional Biography Sources
Cicioni, Mirna, Primo Levi: bridges of knowledge, Oxford; Washington, DC: Berg Publishers, 1995.
Levi, Primo, The drowned and the saved, New York: Summit Books, 1988.
Levi, Primo, The drowned and the saved, New York: Vintage International, 1989, 1988.
Levi, Primo, If this is a man and The truce, Harmondsworth; New York etc.: Penguin, 1979.
Levi, Primo, The reawakening, New York: Collier Books, 1986; New York: Macmillan; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.
Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz: the Nazi assault on humanity, New York: Collier Books; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993.
Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz; and, The reawakening: two memoirs, New York: Summit Books, 1986.