In Previously Unknown Letter, Primo Levi Explains the Holocaust to a Young Girl

‘Rather than accusing them of cruelty, I would accuse the Germans of these days of selfishness, of being indifferent and intentionally ignorant.’

Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano
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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
Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano

MILAN, Italy — When she received, at the age of 11, a letter from Primo Levi answering her questions about the Holocaust, Monica Perosino did not realize she was corresponding with one of the world’s most famous writers and Auschwitz survivors. More than three decades later, Perosino, now 43 and a journalist, decided to share Levi’s letter with the world. She published it in the newspaper she works for, the Turin-based La Stampa.

By far Italy’s most famous Jewish writer, Levi was interned in Auschwitz from February 1944 until the camp was liberated, on January 27, 1945. His autobiographical novel about his experience in the death camp, “If This Is a Man: Remembering Auschwitz” (also published in the United States as “Survival in Auschwitz”), is a classic of Holocaust literature.

In 1982, Perosino read the novel. A schoolgirl at the time, she was shocked by the brutality it described. She looked up Levi’s address in the local telephone directory — they both lived in Turin, in northern Italy — and sent him a letter asking two simple questions: “Why didn’t anyone do something to stop the massacre?” and “Were the Germans evil?”

Surprisingly enough, Levi replied, answering the young girl’s nave questions: “Dear Monica, the question you ask me about the Germans’ cruelty has long perplexed historians. In my opinion, it would make no sense accusing of cruelty the whole German nation of those days — let alone pointing the fingers at today’s Germans,” Levi wrote.

“We know for sure, however, that the vast majority of Germans had accepted Hitler, voted for him, approved him and admired him, as long as he was successful, militarily and politically. Nevertheless many Germans must have known, either directly or indirectly, what was going on — not only in concentration camps, but also in all the territories occupied [by the Third Reich], especially in Eastern Europe. For this reason, rather than accusing them of cruelty, I would accuse the Germans of those days of selfishness, of being indifferent and intentionally ignorant, for anyone who really wanted to know the truth could do so, and could have made it known to the world, not even at his own risk.”

“I must admit I didn’t understand his answer, back then,” Perosino told Haaretz. “After I received his letter I read it many times, but I was too young to understand the concept of ‘intentional ignorance’” that Levi described.

Perosini said that after Levi’s suicide, in 1987, she vowed never to read that letter again: “I put it away in my ‘treasure box,’ together with a photograph of my great-grandmother and love letters between my grandparents.”

Recently that “treasure box” reemerged when Perosino moved to a new apartment. At first she thought of giving it to the International Primo Levi Studies Center in Turin. But her editors at La Stampa — for which, coincidentally, Levi also wrote — persuaded her to publish the letter in the paper.

“I’ve always cherished Primo Levi’s letter as something deeply personal. But now I understand his answer wasn’t just for me, it was for everybody.”

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