Primo Levi Biography

Primo Levi
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Quick Facts

Birthday: July 31, 1919

Died At Age: 67

Sun Sign: Leo

Also Known As: Primo Michele Levi

Born Country: Italy

Born in: Turin, Italy

Famous as: Holocaust Survivor

Quotes By Primo Levi Holocaust Survivors

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Lucia Morpurgo

father: Cesare Levi

mother: Ester, Ester, known as Rina, known as Rina

siblings: Anna Maria Levi

children: Lisa

Died on: April 11, 1987

place of death: Turin, Italy

City: Turin, Italy

Notable Alumni: University Of Turin

epitaphs: It was his number in Auschwitz

More Facts

education: University of Turin

awards: Strega Prize

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Who was Primo Levi?

Primo Levi was an Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor and author, best remembered for his memoire, If This Is a Man, also published as Survival in Auschwitz, a restrained, yet moving autobiographical account of his days in the Nazi concentration camps. Born into a well-to-do Jewish family and trained as chemist at the University of Turin, he had a comfortable life until the enactment of the Italian Racial Laws. But once the Nazis occupied northern Italy, they had no other option but to go into hiding, eventually being arrested and sent to Auschwitz as a slave labor. Although he survived the ordeal, he could never get out the trauma, suffering from depression off and on, yet he continued to write and give speeches on his experiences at the camp. When he died in 1987 from a fall from his third story appointment, Elie Wiesel, another Holocaust survivor, famously said, "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later."

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Childhood & Early Life

Primo Michele Levi was born on 31 July 1919, in the Italian city of Turin into a Jewish family. His father, Cesare Levi, was an engineer, employed with a manufacturing firm based in Hungary, as a result of which he spent considerable time abroad.

His mother, Ester Levi, came from a well-to-do family and was highly accomplished. However, she was not very demonstrative; Levi could not remember being kissed by her. Yet, he was very protective of her because of his father’s infidelity.

Born elder of his parents' two children, he had a younger sister called Anna Maria.  They grew up in a comfortable household under the care of his Catholic nanny, who was the center of Primo’s world.

Books were another important part of his childhood. Both his parents were enthusiastic readers and collected all sorts of books, including children's literature, Max and Moritz and Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia being two of his favorite books.

In the autumn of 1925, he began his elementary education at Felice Rignon. A slim boy with pale face and pale blue eyes, he soon began to excel in academics; but tended to avoid sports.  However, he remained popular in class and was everybody's friend.

In 1929, Primo Levi became seriously ill. He was then taken out of school to be coached at home under distinguished tutors, eventually entering Massimo d'Azeglio Royal Gymnasium in 1930, a year ahead of general age requirement.

At Massimo d'Azeglio, he was bullied for being the youngest, shortest and the only Jew in the class, by two of his classmates. That he was the cleverest could be another reason for their animosity.

In 1934, he entered the Liceo Classico D'Azeglio, a Lyceum specializing in the classics. Although there were other Jews in the class he continued to be bullied here. Until then, the Italian Jews believed that unlike German Jews, they were safe from any kind of prosecution.

In 1937, a day before his final school-leaving exam, he was served a notice, accusing him of ignoring a draft notice from Italian Navy. It unnerved him so much that he failed the exam. However, he retook the examination in October and on passing the test enrolled at the University of Turin with chemistry.

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Under Italian Racial Laws

In October 1938, Italian Racial Laws were enacted, which deprived the Italian Jews of their basic rights. But because Primo Levi had already entered the university, he was allowed to continue with his course. To take his mind away from the situation, he now began hiking.

When it was time to write his graduation thesis, he initially could not find a supervisor because of the Racial Laws. Eventually he found one and graduated summa cum laude in chemistry in mid-1941.  That he was of Jewish race was written on his certificate.

Because his certificate bore his race, Primo Levi could not find any proper job even after graduating summa cum laude. Finally in December 1941, he obtained employment at an asbestos mine under false name and paper. His job was to extract nickel from the mine spoil.

In June 1942, he was able to escape the Racial Law by joining a Swiss pharmaceutical firm, based in Milan. But it all came to an end when the Germany occupied northern Italy and installed a puppet government headed by Mussolini in July 1943.

On losing his job, Primo Levi moved to Turin. There he found that his mother and sister had already left the city and were hiding in their holiday home in the hills outside the city. Since it was not safe enough, he eventually took them to Saint-Vincent, located in north-western Italy.

By September 1943, Saint-Vincent too became unsafe for the family as by then the Germans had declared handsome awards for information regarding the whereabouts of the Jews. Primo and his family moved up the hillside to Amay in the Col de Joux, a rebellious area suitable for guerilla activities.

In October 1943, Primo Levi formed a partisan group; but untrained and ill-equipped they were taken prisoner by Fascist militia on 13 December 1943. When it was revealed that he was a Jew, he was sent to an internment camp at Fossoli near Modena at the end of January 1944.

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At Auschwitz

As long as Fossoli was controlled by Italian Social Republic, the prisoners were treated well. But shortly the Nazis took it over and on 21 February 1944, 650 inmates, including Levi, were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to the Auschwitz concentration camp complex.

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Detained at Monowitz, a sub-camp of the Auschwitz, and recorded as number 174517, he quickly started orienting himself to the camp condition, learning German in lieu of bread. He also developed friendship with Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian civilian bricklayer, who supplied him with additional food.

In mid-November 1944, he secured a position as an assistant in IG Farben's Buna Werke laboratory. The job as well as the additional ration he received in exchange of material he stole from the factory helped him to survive the harsh winter.

That he was down with scarlet fever and was too weak to walk at the time of liberation of the camp on 27 January 1945 was another reason for his survival. Most prisoners perished in the long death march they were forced to take just before the arrival of the Red Army.

Author

On returning from the Auschwitz, Primo Levi spent months in recouping, eventually joining Du Pont Company on 21 January 1946. It was during that period that he started scribbling his experience at Auschwitz, also writing poems about it.

His first book, Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man, or Survival in Auschwitz), was first published in 1947.  It was followed by two more war-time memoires; La tregua (The Truce or The Reawakening), published in 1963 and I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), in 1986.

He became involved in several organizations pledged to remembering and recording the horror of the Holocaust, regularly attending anniversary events since 1958. Concurrently, he also continued to work. He was appointed the general manager of the SIVA paint factory in 1961 and retired from the post in 1977 to devote himself to full-time writing.

Around 1963, Primo Levi suffered from his first depression, unable to forget what he had witnessed nearly two decades ago. Despite that, he continued to write, contributing regularly to various magazines, publishing several collections of short stories including The Sixth Day and Other Tales (1966), The Periodic Table (1975) etc.

He also published two collections of poems, L'osteria di Brema (1975) and Ad ora incerta (1984). Both of which have been translated in English as Collected Poems.  Among his two novels, the first, La chiave a stella (The Wench), was published in 1978 and the second, Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), in 1982.

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Major Works

Primo Levi is best known for his first work, If This Is a Man. First published in 1947, it describes his arrest and incarceration at Auschwitz.  Its English translation was published in 1959 and German translation in 1961. Currently, the work is often published alongside his second memoire, The Truce.

He is equally known for his 1975 publication The Periodic Table. The work is a collection of short stories named after the periodic table in chemistry. In 2006, it was named as the best science book ever by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Awards & Achievement

In 1963, Primo Levi received the Premio Campiello prize for The Truce.

In 1979, he received the Strega Prize for his novel The Wrench.

In 1982, he received the Premio Campiello and Viareggio prizes for his novel, If Not Now, When?

Personal Life & Legacy

At a Jewish New Year party in 1946, Primo Levi met his would-be-wife Lucia Morpurgo, who offered to teach him to dance. Eventually they fell in love and got married in September 1947. They had two children, Renzo, and Lisa.

Primo Levi died on 11 April 1987 after a fall from his third-story apartment in Turin to the ground floor below. While the coroner ruled his death a suicide, many who knew him disagreed. According to them, he might have lost his balance due to a post-operation dizziness and died accidentally.

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