Primo Levi was born into a Jewish-Italian family in 1919 in the industrial city of Turin. Except for a period of time during World War II, Levi spent most of his life in the apartment in which he was born—which was the same place where he would die at his own hands in 1987. In the years that occurred in between, the chemist-turned-writer created literary works as remarkable as his career as a laboratory chemist was unremarkable, and put words to the most unspeakable events in history.
Levi’s family had moved from the countryside in the northwest region of Piedmont to the region’s capital Turin a generation before he was born, and they were assimilated into broader society in Italy. In 1922, when Levi was just a young boy, Benito Mussolini came to power, but although Levi grew up under fascism his Jewishness was not much of an issue until the Italian Race Laws of 1938. Even then, thanks to a professor who ignored the discriminatory legislation precluding Jews, Levi managed to continue to study chemistry at the University of Turin. But for the first 18 years of his life, Levi’s Jewishness was somewhat incidental to him—he was not a religious man—and his integration into the general population was not atypical of Italian Jews.
There have been Jews in Italy for two thousand years, since before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Although Italy was the country (or rather Venice was the city) that gave the world the ghetto to separate Jews from Christians, by the 20th century ghettoes seemed a thing of the past. The Jewish population of Italy may have been small—it was around 55,000 out of a total population of 40 million in 1938—but it was generally an old and well established community.
The Levis were Sephardim from Piedmont, a community that had settled the area in the 15th century as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. The situation for Jews in the northern region had improved in the wake of the political upheaval of 1848, a year in which there was a push for progressive liberalism across Europe. Among other events, 1848 was the year in which Jews in Piedmont were emancipated. Once emancipated, it didn’t take long for Jews to become actively involved in mainstream life in Italy and before World War I the country had had two Jewish prime ministers, Luigi Luzzatti and Alessandro Fortis. Indeed the Italian Fascist Party even had a Jewish minister of finance in 1932.
This is not to say there was no anti-Semitism in Italy. There was, of course. The most egregious was the as-racist-as-advertised Race Laws, which restricted the civil rights of Jews and their ability to travel, banned their books, excluded Jews from public office and higher education and took their assets. The laws also meant that Jews could be interned in internal exile. However assimilated or without religion a Jew might have been, the laws and World War II made his or her Jewishness a central, defining feature. “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate,” Levi recalled. “At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the Star of David on me and not only on my clothes.”
Nevertheless life continued during World War II, until the fall of Mussolini in July 1943. Then German troops invaded Italy, which had been an ally of Nazi Germany, and Germany occupied the north of the country. An Italian resistance movement operated against the Germans in response. As a liberal Levi joined a leftwing partisan movement that was active in the foothills of the Alps in the north of Italy. Although he was politically and personally motivated for a fight, Levi and his comrades in arms were not trained soldiers or partisans, and they were quickly caught and arrested by fascist militia.
Upon discovering Levi was a Jew, the fascists sent him to an internment camp for Jews at Fossoli, where he met generally poor and pious Jews form the Italian colony of Libya as well as upper-middle-class Italian Jews like himself. Italian fascists controlled Fossoli at that time, and as long as the camp remained in their hands and not under German control, Jews were relatively safe. Unfortunately, Fossoli did fall to the Germans, however, whereupon Jews were deported to death camps. For a year and a half Italian Jews suffered terribly under Nazi occupation. Around 7,000 were deported and killed.
In February 1944, Jews interned at Fossoli were packed into 12 cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz. On arrival, their average life expectancy was three months. Levi was one of 650 Italian Jews in his transport, of whom only 20 lived to see the camps liberated. Levi was at Auschwitz for 11 months before the Russian army liberated the camp in January 1945. But the 11 months at Auschwitz were more than enough to irreparably change and define his life, even they didn’t take it.
Apart from his time as a partisan fighter and concentration camp prisoner, Levi led a rather unremarkable life. But he was clearly a brilliant man and used his training and work as a chemist to see the world in a way of which few others—including most writers—are capable. In his work as a writer he clearly set out his thoughts and feelings, and perhaps his most powerful, irrepressible emotion was guilt at surviving Auschwitz where he was saturated by death and had seen so many lose their lives.
The guilt of the survivor is not simply guilt at surviving when so many others did not. It is also guilt at failing to adequately convey the horrors that those who died went through, explaining how they suffered so it wasn’t in vain. It can be guilt at not spending every minute of every day testifying to the monstrosities perpetrated on innocent people who have no voice. In this way, no one ever survived a camp and the Nazis’ victory was irrevocable. As the Italian Jewish writer and survivor Nedo Fiano explained, “At bottom I would say that I never completely left the camp.”
Levi was intensely preoccupied with his shame of escaping death by virtue of an unearned privilege, as he saw it. This was a primary concern of his first book, “If This Is A Man.” Levi opens the book with a poem, which reads:
Consider If This Is A Man
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
In another poem, “The Survivor,” Levi addresses his guilt head on.
Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.
Levi tried to set out his experience of the Holocaust, and the product was some of the twentieth century’s most importing, most affecting literature. He was initially a chemist, not a writer, but he wrote beautifully and matter of factly about horrors that were unimaginable. Levi never truly escaped the camps and took his own life more than 40 years after the war. But in the intervening years, he did manage to address the issue of our humanity, exploring what it is that makes us human. Primo Levi explored how the Nazis attempted to take away their victims’ humanity. And he found that however bestial his persecutors were, they too were human. As he recalled, “Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.”