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1919: Primo Levi, Enigmatic Survivor of Auschwitz, Is Born

David Green
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Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist, Holocaust survivor and author.
Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist, Holocaust survivor and author.Credit: AFP
David Green

July 31, 1919, is the birthdate of Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor who defined himself professionally as a chemist, but who wrote some of the most admired fiction and non-fiction of the post-World War II period. Levi’s life was characterized by great contradictions and ironies, with the greatest mystery of all surrounding his death, a presumed suicide.

Primo Levi was born and spent nearly his entire life in Turin, Italy. His father, Cesare Levi, was an engineer, a gregarious bon vivant, whose work often took him away from home, facilitating his apparent philandering. His mother, the former Ester Luzzatti, was cultivated but, supposedly, lacked warmth. Her father not only arranged her match with Cesare, but also gave the couple their apartment, on Corso Re Umberto, where Levi lived most of his life.

No work for Jews

Primo was physically slight and also frail. But he was a good student, and so, while he was often picked on at school – and sometimes was tutored at home –he was also admired for his intelligence. He also came in for some abuse as a Jew, though overall he didn’t feel very different from non-Jews. A Jew, he wrote as an adult, was simply somebody “who should not eat salami but eats it all the same.”  

He had a classical education, from which he graduated in 1937. It was after reading “Concerning the Nature of Things,” William Bragg's book of nature lectures, that he decided on a career in chemistry.

Levi studied at the University of Turin, graduating summa cum laude in 1941. Although Italy's racial laws were introduced during that period, they allowed Jewish students already at university to finish their studies. But graduate school was not option, nor could he find employment as a Jew.

In December 1941, however, a friend helped arrange a false identity for Levi, as well as work as a chemist in an asbestos mine.

After the German occupation of northern Italy, in September 1943, Levi joined a group of self-styled partisans in the Piedmont hills. Ill-trained, they were quickly captured, and Levi, understanding that being a partisan was grounds for automatic execution, confessed to being a Jew.

Too sick to join the death march

Spared from execution, he was sent in February 1944 to Auschwitz, where he was employed as a chemist in the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant in Monowitz. Ultimately, he survived because he was sick with scarlet fever and too weak to join the death march to which the Nazis consigned most prisoners shortly before the Russians arrived.

'The Complete Works of Primo Levi'Credit: Courtesy

Levi spent his first year at home writing down all he could recall of his time in Auschwitz. This became his first book, “If This Is a Man” (called “Survival in Auschwitz” in English).

Though published in 1947 by a small press, it only reached the public’s attention a decade later, when it was republished by Einaudi, the large publisher that had originally rejected it. He also was married in 1947, to Lucia Morpugo. They would have two children.

His work as a chemist remained Levi’s day job, while he did his writing in the off hours, until he finally retired in 1974 in order to write full-time. He saw himself as a witness of the Holocaust, but he also wrote science fiction and in other genres about other topics.

The continuation of "Survival in Auschwitz" was "The Truce" (1961), which was followed by "The Reawakening" and, in 1975, his masterpiece, "The Periodic Table," a collection of short personal essays, each of which nominally deals with one of the elements in the periodic chart. "If Not Now, When?" from 1984, imagines a group of Jewish partisans fighting the Germans in the war, hoping eventually to come to Palestine.

Levi suffered periodically from deep depression, and this may have been behind his fall to his death on April 11, 1987, from the third-floor landing of his Turin apartment building. His behavior prior to the fall was not typical of a suicide, and he left behind no note, but the banister was high enough that an accidental fall was unlikely, and the authorities ruled his death a suicide.