Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist
by Myriam Anissimov, Translated from the French by Steve Cox
Overlook, 452 pp., $37.95
Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, in the apartment where he would live for most of his life and where he killed himself in April 1987. Like many Jewish families in the region, the Levis had moved from the Piedmontese countryside to Turin in the previous generation, and were culturally assimilated. Primo grew up under Fascism, but it was only with the imposition of the Race Laws, in 1938, that this had any direct impact upon him. He studied chemistry at the university in Turin, with the help of a sympathetic professor who took him on notwithstanding the regulations excluding Jews, and afterward found work of a sort in various establishments willing to take on a Jewish chemist in spite of his “race.”
With the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, everything changed. For a brief, confusing interlude Italy lay suspended between the Allies, who had occupied Sicily and the far south, and the Germans, who had not yet invaded from the north. But in September the Italian occupying army in France straggled back through Turin, “a defeated flock” in Levi’s words, followed shortly after by the inevitable Germans, “the gray-green serpent of Nazi divisions on the streets of Milan and Turin.” Many of Levi’s Jewish contemporaries from Turin were already involved in the resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (whose local leadership, until his arrest, had included “my illustrious namesake” Carlo Levi, the future author of Christ Stopped at Eboli), and after the German invasion Primo Levi joined them. He spent three months with the armed resistance in the foothills of the Alps before his group was betrayed to the Fascist militia and captured on December 13, 1943.
Levi, who declared his Jewish identity, was sent to the transit camp at Fossoli di Carpi and thence, on February 22, 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz with 649 other Jews, of whom twenty-three would survive. Upon arrival Levi was stamped number 174517 and selected for Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where he worked at the synthetic rubber plant owned by I.G. Farben and operated for them by the SS. He stayed at Auschwitz until the camp was abandoned by the Germans in January 1945 and liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27. For the next nine months he was swept from Katowice, in Galicia, through Byelorussia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and finally home to Turin in a picaresque, involuntary odyssey described in La tregua (The Reawakening).
Once back in Turin he took up the reins of his “monochrome” life, following the twenty-month “Technicolor” interlude of Auschwitz and after. Driven by an “absolute, pathological narrative charge” he wrote Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), a record of his experiences in Auschwitz. The book found hardly any readers when it appeared in 1947. Primo Levi then abandoned writing, married, and began work for SIVA, a local paint company where he became a specialist, and international authority, on synthetic wire enamels. In …
Justice to Primo Levi August 12, 1999