Primo Levi is known for his essays, short stories, poems and novels. Originally a chemist, Levi later became popular as a writer. He is popular for his book, ‘If This Is a Man’ which is a greatly documented account of his stay as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Levi is regarded as one of the best known authors of the twentieth century and he earned it for his biographical book. Being born in a Jewish Italian family Levi’s family was subjected to Nazi terror. Levi himself gave bare testimony of his time as a Nazi slave labourer. Various works of Levi have been translated to English in recent times. Primo Levy’s most popular work ‘If This Is a Man’ was made into a stage adaptation named ‘Primo’ in 2004. Films have also been made on Levi’s life and imprisonment. Levi worked hard to prove the revisionist attitudes trying to rewrite the history of the camps as less horrific wrong. Levi attended hundreds of schools to share his horrific Nazi concentration camp experiences. Many hail Levi as a fearless Jew who survived Nazi domination only to tell the world tales of life, gore and merciless acts.
Primo Levi Childhood
Primo Levi was born on 31 July 1919 in Turin at Corso Re Umberto 75, Italy in a liberal Jewish family. Levi’s father Cesare worked in a manufacturing firm Ganz for which he had to travel abroad to Hungary, which was the Headquarter of Ganz. Levi’s mother Ester, also known as Rina, was a pianist and spoke great French. Levi’s parents were great book lovers. Primo lived in the apartment which his mother received as a wedding gift from her father all his life. Levi’s little sister was born in 1921 with whom Levi remained closely attached throughout his life. Levi was enrolled in the Felice Rignon primary school in Turin in 1925. Levi was a soft spoken and shy kid who did extremely well in his studies. Levi’s school records show his long absence from school during which Levi was home tutored by Emilia Glauda and then by Marisa Zini, daughter of philosopher Zino Zini.
Levi was enrolled in Massimo d'Azeglio Royal Gymnasium in 1930. He was possibly the youngest, shortest and the cleverest boy in the class. He was greatly bullied in his school. It was in August 1932 when Levi sang at the local synagogue in Turin, ‘Bar Mitzvah’ (which is the Jewish custom of celebrating a boy’s reaching of 13 years of age and thus portraying responsibility for their actions). In 1933 Levi joined the young Italian Fascist movement, “Avanguardisti” like his fellow Italian schoolboys. While participating in the movement Levi avoided rifle movements to take part in skiing. In July 1934 Levi was 14 years old when he appeared for his exams for the ‘Massimo d'Azeglio liceo classico’, a Lyceum (sixth form) specialising in the classics. He got admitted to the secondary school in autumn. Levi’s school had many anti-fascist teachers who were famous in their fields. Levi got bullied in the secondary school but he found 6 other Jewish boys in his school. While coming upon reading “Concerning the Nature of Things” by Sir William Bragg, Levi got hooked to Chemistry and desired of becoming a chemist. In 1937 Levi completed his matriculation. A week before, his matriculation exams, Levi was summoned by the Italian Royal Navy for ignoring the Italian royal call-up earlier. Levi suffered a lot and he had to sit for his Italian paper exam again due to anti-Jewish marking and the impact of the accusation on him. He passed his exams in the summer end and in October 1937 he enrolled himself at the University of Turin, to study chemistry. In February the following year (1938) Levi graduated and took the full-time chemistry course.
Fascist Italy was not completely anti-Jewish during this time. Italian Jews had started joining the Fascist movement in small numbers. Minor systematic discrimination towards Italian Jews started off in the 1930s. In July 1938 ‘Manifesto of the Race’ was announced which stated that only one pure Italian race existed and they all descended from Aryans. In September 1938 the Fascist government introduced racial laws which started being severe on Jews and prohibited them from taking formal education in state sponsored schools. However, the ones who had already enrolled themselves were allowed to continue with the studies. New Jewish students were not allowed in Universities but since Levi had matriculated a year ago he could continue with his degree course. In 1939 Levi started mountain hiking. Hiking made Levi release his frustrations of life, war and struggles. In June 1940 Italy declared war against Britain and France. Air raids took place in Turin two days later. Levi pursued his education in the midst of bombardments.
Career and Hardships
Levi started finding it difficult to continue his graduation because of the growing anti-Semitic law implementation and growing Fascist violence. Levi could not find a supervisor for his graduation thesis on ‘Walden inversion, a study of the asymmetry of the carbon atom’. However, Levi fortunately came across Dr. Nicolò Dallaporta under whom he completed his graduation degree in the summer of 1941. Not only did Levi have full marks and merit but he also had submitted additional theses on x-rays and electrostatic energy. Such was the intensity of hatred towards the Jewish community that Levi’s degree certificate bore the remark, “of Jewish race”. Levi was unsuccessful in finding an appropriate permanent position after his graduation just because he was a Jew.
In December 1941 Levi secretly got a job at asbestos mine at San Vittore where he was made to extract nickel from the mine spoil. Levi found great satisfaction in finding a suitable Chemist’s job. Levi worked under a false name with false papers. In March 1942, Levi he lost his father due to which he had to leave Turin and his mining. He went to Milan in June 1942 where he found work in a Swiss firm of A Wander Ltd on a project to extract an anti-diabetic from vegetable matter. Levi was helped by a fellow student at Turin University to get this job. Levi got the job as Swiss companies did not follow racial laws but Levi’s project went nowhere.
Italy was going through several changes when in September 1943 the new Italian government under Marshal Pietro Badoglio signed an armistice with the Allies and the former leader Benito Mussolini was released from imprisonment by the Germans only to be installed as a puppet ruler of the Italian Social Republic in German-occupied northern Italy. Levi returned to Turin only to find his mother and sister seeking refuge in their holiday home La Saccarello in the hills outside Turin. In order to hide themselves Levi and his family went off to Saint-Vincent in the Aosta Valley located in northern Italy. Levi’s family was soon pursued by the authorities, which made them move up to the hillside to Amay in the Colle di Joux. Amay was an area thronged by Allied prisoners of war and refugees trying to escape the Germans because of its close route to Switzeralnd.
Italian liberation and movements of resistance to German genocide started growing at this time. Levi joined fellow comrades and took to the foothills of the Alps and in October 1943 in order to join the liberal Giustizia e Libertà partisan movement. Having no training and combat skills Levi, along with his aides, was soon taken captive by the Fascist militia. Levi was about to be shot and was told that he would be shot and identified as an Italian resistance soldier when he confessed of being a Jew and was sent to an internment camp for Jews at Fossoli near Modena. Levi’s written records suggest that as long as Fossoli was under Italian control, he was not harmed. Levi had written, “We were given, on a regular basis, a food ration destined for the soldiers”. Levi further wrote, “and at the end of January 1944, we were taken to Fossoli on a passenger train. Our condition in the camp was 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”.
As Fossoli went into German control, Jews were gathered for being deported. On 21 February 1944 Jewish camp inmates in Fossoli were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to Monowitz and taken to one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex (Levi’s record number was 174,517). Levi remained for 11 long months inside this camp before being liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. Levi was among the very few (20) alive camp inmates who came out of the camp that had 650 Italian Jews in Levi’s shipment.
Levi utilised his stay in the concentration camp by reading German publications on chemistry thus gaining German language skills. Levi gave away his bread to a more experienced Italian prisoner as a payment for German lessons and orientation in Auschwitz. Levi’s academic qualifications and professional experiences made him get a job offer as an assistant in IG Farben's Buna Werke laboratory that was intended to produce synthetic rubber in mid-November 1944. Levi got affected by scarlet fever at the time his camp was to be liberated by the Red Army for which he was taken to the camp's sanatorium (camp hospital). It was on 18 January 1945 when there was a hurried attempt of evacuation of the camps by The Schutzstaffel which was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. This evacuation resulted due to the approaching Red Army of Soviet Union power. Camp inmates were forced to walk in the long death march in spite of their severe illnesses resulting in the death of most of the inmates. Levi survived this because of his illness. Levi was liberated on 27 January 1945 but reached Turin not before 19 October 1945. Levi travelled on a circuitous route from Poland, through Bielorussia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany to reach his homeland in Turin through railroad.
As a Writer
Levi returned home in a ghastly state being ill and mal-fed. He took several months to recover from his physical and mental trauma. Having no work in Turin Levi tried to find work in Milan. While making frequent train journeys he started to tell people stories about his time at Auschwitz. At a Jewish New Year party in 1946 he met Lucia Morpurgo who offered to teach him to dance with whom Levi fell in love. It was during this time that he started writing poetry about his experiences in the Lager. On 21 January Levi took up a work at DUCO, a Du Pont Company paint factory, outside Turin during which Levi got his time to shape his writing career as the train service out to the factory was so limited that Levi could stay in the factory dormitory during the week and carry on with his writing work unhindered. It was during this time and in this place that Levi drafted
‘If This Is a Man’ for the first time. Levi described his 11 months from February 21 1944 until liberation on January 27, 1945 in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland in this book which was completed by Levi in December 1946. ‘If This Is a Man’ found trouble in getting published but Levi kept on finding publishers and finally found one in De Silva, who printed 2,500 copies of the book, 1,500 of which were sold, mostly in his home town of Turin, Italy.
Levi completed the manuscript for ‘If This Is a Man’ on 22 December 1946. He was helped by Lucia in editing the narrative of the book and the couple found great love in each other. In January 1947 Levi took his manuscript to various small publishers but the openness of the book and zero experience as a writer made Levi find no takers.
Levi found a publisher in Franco Antonicelli, through a friend of his sister’s but Antonicelli was also an amateur who had supported Levi for being an active anti-Fascist himself. Levi left DUCO in the end of June in 1947 to team up with an old friend Alberto Salmoni to run a chemical consultancy. Levi and Salmoni carried on their work from the top floor of Salmoni’s parents’ house and together they made a lot of money by making and supplying stannous chloride for mirror makers delivering the unstable chemical by bicycle across the city. All these experiences found place in Levi’s books in later years.
Levi married Lucia in September 1947 and on 11 October 1947 Levi’s ‘If This Is a Man’ was published with a print run of 2000 copies. After Lucia got pregnant in April 1948 Levi decided to leave his Chemist’s job 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.
It was not before 1958 that Einaudi publishers (who had initially rejected Levi’s manuscript) published a revised work of Levi’s book. In 1958 itself Levi was helped by Stuart Woolf to come out with an English translation of ‘If This Is a Man’. In 1959 ‘If This Is a Man’ was published in the UK by Orion Press. In 1959 Heinz Riedt carried out the publication of ‘If This Is a Man’ in German.
In early 1961 Levi started working on ‘The Truce’ which was published in 1963. In 1963 Levi received his first annual Premio Campiello literary award. In 1964 Levi collaborated on a radio play based upon ‘If This Is a Man’ and in 1966 he took part in a theatre production. ‘Storie naturali’ (Natural Histories) was published in 1966 and ‘Vizio di forma’ (Structural Defect) got published in 1971 which were later released in English as ‘The Sixth Day and other Tales’.
In 1975 Levi brought his poetry collection, under the title ‘L’osteria di Brema’ (The Bremen Beer Hall), published in English as ‘Shema: Collected Poems’. Levi published his very famous and widely appreciated memoirs, ‘Il sistema periodico’ (The Periodic Table) in 1975 and ‘Lilit e altri racconti’ (Moments of Reprieve) in 1978.
Levi devoted himself to full fledged writing after retiring as a part-time consultant at the SIVA paint factory in 1977. In 1978 Levi’s ‘La chiave a stella’ (published in the US in 1986 as The Monkey's Wrench and in the UK in 1987 as The Wrench) was written and published. ‘The Wrench’ won Levi a great enthusiastic audience in Italy and also won him the Strega Prize in 1979. In 1984 Levi published his novels, ‘If Not Now, When?’ and ‘The Monkey's Wrench’.
Views and Ideas
Levi wrote about his experiences of Nazi terror and horror. Levi wanted to tell the world all about the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. In March 1985 while writing the introduction to the re-publication of the autobiography of Rudolf Höß who was commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940 to 1943 Levi wrote, “It's filled with evil.....and reading it is agony”.
Levi was in a state of shock to witness rampant revisionist attitudes which persistently tried to change by rewriting the history of the camps as less horrific which is presently known as ‘Holocaust denial.’ Levi said and believed that Nazi attempts of Jewish annihilation were a horrific historical act. Levi was of the view that the Nazi acts were highly organized and mechanized and aimed at erasing the Jews completely.
Levi had allegedly died falling from the interior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin to the ground floor below on 11 April 1987. According to witnesses it was a case of suicide.