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Primo Levi

(1919 - 1987)

Primo Levi

(1919 - 1987)

Primo Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy. He was the first of two children born to middle-class Italian-Jewish parents whose ancestors had immigrated to Italy centuries earlier to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. Raised in a small Jewish community, Levi was a small, shy boy and was a frequent target of bullying. However, he was also an avid reader and excellent student, and by his early teens had developed a keen interest in chemistry.

In 1937, Levi completed his primary schooling and entered the University of Turin. Although Fascism had already swept through the country in the years leading up to World War II, the dictatorial movement had yet to acquire its full racial dimensions when Levi began his studies. That all changed the following year, when laws were put in place that prohibited the education of Jews in state-sponsored schools. However, as Levi had enrolled prior to their enactment, he was exempt from the new laws, though not from their discriminatory implications.

With the help of a sympathetic professor, Levi was able to complete his studies, and in 1941 he graduated with honors in chemistry. But prejudice followed Levi into his professional life, and the qualification “Of Jewish Race” that was printed on his diploma initially prevented him from finding work. Using a false identity and forged papers, he was eventually employed as a chemist with a mining company and then worked for a Swiss pharmaceutical company in Milan. But when he returned home to Turin after his father died in 1942, Levi discovered that conditions had worsened and that his mother and sister were hiding at a home in the nearby hills to avoid persecution.

In 1943, Levi and his family fled to northern Italy, where he joined an Italian resistance group. However, when he and his comrades were arrested by Fascist forces later that year, Levi admitted he was a Jew to avoid being shot as a partisan and was sent to an Italian prison camp in January 1944. Though he was treated relatively well there, the camp soon came under German control and Levi was deported to Auschwitz.

In February 1944, Levi arrived at the concentration camp and the number 174517 was tattooed on his forearm. Bent on survival, Levi did whatever he could to endure the horrors of Auschwitz. Trading his food for German lessons and using his training as a chemist, Levi was able to earn himself a job in a rubber factory, which allowed him to avoid some of the harshest realities of the camp. During this time he also began to document the realities of Auschwitz, hoping that he would live and one day bear witness to them.

In January 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz and Levi made his journey home. Of the more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the war, Levi was among the fewer than 700 who survived. 

Back in Turin, Levi found work in a paint factory. But his time in Auschwitz had also left him with an irrepressible compulsion to tell of his experiences, and thus he began to write. Choosing to relate his story with the calm and reasoned detachment of a scientist, Levi spent the next two years completing his first work, If This Is a Man (later published as Survival in Auschwitz). A 2,000-copy printing was published in Italy in October 1947 but was largely ignored.

In the decade that followed, Levi turned his attention to family life, marrying Lucia Morpurgo, with whom he would have two children, and working briefly as a chemical consultant before returning to a position at a paint factory. However, his urge to bear witness to the Holocaust had not faded and he continued to tell his story through memoirs, poems, short stories and fiction.

In 1958, a new edition of If This Is a Man was published, and in 1959 it was translated into both English and German. This renewed interest in his work brought Levi a certain measure of his success, and in the coming years he was able to publish various other works, including his autobiographical The Truce (1963) and two collections of science-fiction stories. 

In 1975, Levi’s The Periodic Table was published in Italy. Arguably his most important and famous work, it is a collection of 21 autobiographical stories that each use a chemical element as a starting point, covering everything from Levi’s childhood and schooling to life in and after Auschwitz. Two years after its publication, Levi retired from his position at the paint factory to devote his time completely to writing. His Moments of Reprieve was published in 1978, followed by 1982's The Monkey’s Wrench (which won the prestigious Italian literary Strega Prize) and the novel If Not Now, When? (1984).

By the mid-1980s, Levi’s work had become part of the canon in Italian schools, and when the first American edition of The Periodic Table was published in 1984 it was heralded by the likes of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. The critical and commercial success of The Periodic Table led Levi to a speaking tour of the United States the following year, and in 1986 he published yet another book of his experiences, titled The Drowned and the Saved. It would be his last.

On April 11, 1987, the concierge in the apartment building where Primo Levi had lived for most of his life before and after the war found him dead at the bottom of the stairwell. The coroner ruled that his death was a suicide, and many people who knew him believed it to be as well—the end result of the suffering he had endured decades earlier and had lived with since. However, others have maintained that the death was an accident, pointing to the fact that he had suffered from dizzy spells. The question is a controversial one and remains the subject of some debate.

Besides the body of work that Levi himself left behind, which has made him one of the most important of all Holocaust writers, he has also been the subject of numerous documentaries and biographies. The Truce was adapted into a 1997 film starring John Turturro, and the 2001 movie The Grey Zone, starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel, was based on the final chapter of The Drowned and the Saved. In 2006, The Periodic Table was listed by London's Royal Institution as among the best science books ever written.  

Sources: “Primo Levi Biography,”, (August 1, 2016).

Wikimedia, By Unknown (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons