1.

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. 1 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, 1943.2

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”3 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 1958 the prestigious Turin publishing house Einaudi republished his book, and—encouraged by its relative success—Levi wrote La tregua, its sequel, which appeared in 1963. Over the next decades Levi gained increasing success and visibility as a writer, publishing Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) and La chiave a stella (The Monkey’s Wrench), two collections of short pieces; Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), a novel about Jewish resistance in wartime Europe; Lilit e altri racconti (Moments of Reprieve), further recollections and vignettes of his camp experience; a variety of essays and poems; and regular contributions to the culture pages of La Stampa, the Turin daily. In 1975 he left SIVA and devoted himself to writing full-time. His last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), was published in 1986, the year before his death. A small esplanade in front of the Turin synagogue on Via Pio V was named after him in April 1996.4

The fate of Levi’s books, in Italian and in translation, is instructive. When he took Se questo è un uomo to Einaudi in 1946 it was rejected out of hand by the publisher’s (anonymous) reader, Natalia Ginzburg, herself from a prominent Turinese Jewish family. Many years later Giulio Einaudi claimed to have no knowledge of the reasons for the book’s rejection; Levi himself laconically ascribed it to “an inattentive reader.”5 At that time, and for some years to come, it was Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, not Auschwitz, that stood for the horror of Nazism; the emphasis on political deportees rather than racial ones conformed better to reassuring postwar accounts of wartime national resistance. Levi’s book was published in just 2,500 copies by a small press, owned by a former local resistance leader (ironically, in a series dedicated to the Jewish resistance hero and martyr Leone Ginzburg, Natalia Ginzburg’s husband). Many copies of the book were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there twenty years later.

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La tregua did better. Published in April 1963, it came in third in the national Strega Prize competition that year (behind Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare…), brought renewed attention to his first book, and began Levi’s rise to national prominence and, eventually, critical acclaim. But his foreign audience was slow in coming. Stuart Woolf’s translation of Se questo è un uomo was published in Britain in 1959 as If This Is a Man, but sold only a few hundred copies. The US version, with the title Survival in Auschwitz (which captures the subject but misses the point), did not begin to sell well until the success of The Periodic Table twenty years later. La tregua was published here under the misleadingly optimistic title The Reawakening, whereas the original Italian suggests “Truce” or “Respite”; it is clear as the book ends that for Levi his months of wandering in the eastern marches of Europe were a kind of “time out” between Auschwitz-as-experience and Auschwitz-as-memory. The book closes with the dawn command of Auschwitz, “Get up!”—“Wstawach!

German translations followed in time, and Levi eventually gained an audience in the Federal Republic. French publishers, however, avoided Levi for many years. When Les Temps Modernes published extracts from Se questo è un uomo, in May 1961, it was under the title “J’étais un homme” (“I was a man”), which comes close to inverting the sense of the book. Gallimard, the most prestigious of the French publishing houses, for a long time resisted buying anything by Levi; only after his death did his work, and his significance, begin to gain recognition in France. There, as elsewhere, the importance of Levi’s first book only came clearly into focus with the (in some countries posthumous) appearance of his last, The Drowned and the Saved. Like his subject, Primo Levi remained at least partially inaudible for many years.

In one sense, Primo Levi has little to offer a biographer. He lived an unremarkable professional and private life, save for twenty months, and he used his many books and essays to narrate and depict the life that he did lead. If you want to know what he did, what he thought, and how he felt, you have only to read him. As a result, any retelling of his “life and works” risks ending in a self-defeating effort to reorder and paraphrase Levi’s own writings. And that is just what Myriam Anissimov has done in her new account of Levi, which has already appeared in French and Italian to mixed reviews. Some mistakes of fact in the Italian and French editions have been cleared up, and the English translation, while unexciting, is readable and contains much information. But Anissimov’s prose is uninspired and mechanical. Her lengthy narrative of his life is a choppy mix of long excerpts and rewordings from Levi himself interspersed with clunky and inadequate summaries of “context”: Italian Jewry, Fascist race laws, the postwar Italian boom, 1968 in Turin, and the publishing history of his books. Some of the background material seems to have been inserted at random, as though the author had come upon a misplaced file card and inserted its contents, then and there, into the text.

Worse, the author somehow fails to explain to the reader just why Primo Levi is so very interesting. She alludes to the distinctive quality of his prose style and is rightly critical of reviewers and specialists for their failure to appreciate him; but she has little feel for just those features of Levi’s writings that make him stand out, both in contemporary Italian literature and in Holocaust memoirs. An ironist and a humorist who travels playfully back and forward across an extended keyboard of themes, tones, and topics, Primo Levi is presented in this account as an optimistic, assimilated Italian Jew brought low by the tragedy of Auschwitz. This is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses, Levi’s favorite literary figure and alter ego, as an old soldier on his way back from the wars who encounters a few problems en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.6

2.

Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community—and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it:

It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.7

Like most Italians, though, Levi was first of all from somewhere more circumscribed—in his case, Piedmont. This is a curious place, a small corner of northwest Italy squeezed up against the Alps; the homeland of the Savoy royal family, Italian laicism, and, in Turin, its austere, serious capital city, the headquarters of Fiat. Parts of what used to be Piedmontese territory are now French, and the local dialect is permeated with French or almost-French words and phrases. Levi, like most Piedmontese, was immensely proud of his region of origin, and that sentiment suffuses his writings. The “dazzling beauty” of its mountains, lakes, and woods is referred to more than once—for Levi was an enthusiastic amateur climber and much of Piedmont is Alpine or pre-Alpine terrain. The distinctive dialect of the region plays a part in Levi’s writing—as it did in his life, for Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer from Fossano who saved him in Auschwitz, was recognized there by Levi thanks to his Piedmontese speech. A number of the characters in Levi’s writings use local dialect, and in both The Monkey’s Wrench and The Periodic Table he apologizes for the difficulty of capturing the cadences of their conversation in the written word.8

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The Piedmontese are famously reserved, restrained, private: in short, “un-Italian.” Italo Calvino wrote of the “Piedmontese eccentricity” in Levi’s “science fiction” tales; Levi, who thought that he was credited with altogether too much wisdom by his readers, was nonetheless willing to concede that he did possess the distinctive quality of “moderation…that is a Piedmontese virtue.” And his roots in Turin, “a mysterious city for the rest of Italy,” played a part in his fate, too. The Turinese, he writes, don’t leave: “It is well known that people from Turin transplanted to Milan do not strike root, or at least do it badly.” Should his family have got away while they could—to somewhere else in Italy, to Switzerland, to the Americas? Not only would it have been difficult and expensive, and required more initiative than he or his family possessed, but the very idea of leaving home did not cross their minds: “Piedmont was our true country, the one in which we recognized ourselves.”9

The constraint and correctness of Primo Levi’s Piedmont are duplicated and reinforced by his vocation, the “sober rigor” of chemistry. The decision to study science was shaped in part, under Fascism, by the fact that it “smelled” good—in contrast to history or literary criticism, warped and degraded by ideological or nationalist pressure. But Levi the student was also drawn to the chemist’s calling:

The nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter…. I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility.

Moreover, the chemist must perforce describe the world as it is, and the precision and simplicity of this requirement seems to have conformed closely to Levi’s own distaste for gloss, for commentary, for excess of any kind. “I still remember Professor Ponzio’s first chemistry lesson, from which I got clear, precise, verifiable information, without useless words, expressed in a language that I liked enormously, also from a literary point of view: a definite language, essential.”10

In chemistry, moreover (as in climbing), a mistake matters—a point made with casual emphasis in the story “Potassium,” where the young apprentice chemist Levi mistakes potassium for its near neighbor sodium and sets off an unexpected reaction:

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade” [emphasis added].11

Chemicals appear frequently in Levi’s writing, and not just in The Periodic Table. Sometimes they are subjects in their own right, sometimes they serve as metaphors for human behavior, occasionally as illuminating analogies. Dr. Gottlieb, in The Reawakening, is described as emanating intelligence and cunning “like energy from radium.” But the impact of his training upon his writing is most obvious in Levi’s distinctive style. It has a taut, tight, distilled quality; contrasted with the florid, experimental, syntactically involuted writing of some of his contemporaries and commentators, it has the appeal of medieval plainsong. This was no accident—“I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile.”12

In an essay “On Obscure Writing,” Levi castigates those who can’t write in a straightforward way: “It is not true that disorder is required in order to describe disorder; it is not true that chaos on the written page is the best symbol of the extreme chaos to which we are fated: I hold this to be a characteristic error of our insecure century.” And in an open letter, “To a Young Reader,” Levi reminds his audience that textual clarity should never be mistaken for unsophisticated thinking. Levi’s style did not endear him to professional critics; until the late Seventies “in the eyes of critics he remained an appealing, worthy, but uninfluential outsider in the world of literature.”13

Levi’s style is not just simple, it is unerringly precise; he modeled Survival in Auschwitz on the weekly production report used in factories. All of that book and some of his other writing is in an urgent, imperative present tense, telling the reader what must be known: “It has to be realized that cloth is lacking in the Lager.” The force of Levi’s testimony, like the appeal of his stories, comes from this earthy, concrete specificity. When men left Ka-Be (the “infirmary” of Auschwitz III) their pants fell down, they had no buttons, their shoes hurt: “Death begins with the shoes….” The very density of the detail, the point-by-point reconstruction of how men worked and how they died—this is what gives the narrative its power and its credibility.14

The same is true of Levi’s many accounts of individuals, which glide imperceptibly forward from description to analogy, from analogy to juxtaposition and thence to judgment. Of “the Moor,” one of the Italians at Auschwitz, he writes: “It was quite clear that he was possessed by a desperate senile madness; but there was a greatness in his madness, a force and a barbaric dignity, the trampled dignity of beasts in a cage, the dignity that redeemed Capaneus and Caliban.” Of ruined Munich, where Levi wandered the streets when his train stopped on its interminable journey back to Italy: “I felt I was moving among throngs of insolvent debtors, as if everybody owed me something, and refused to pay.” Of “Cesare” (Lello Perugia, his Italian companion on the journey home): “Very ignorant, very innocent and very civilized.” In The Periodic Table Levi writes that “today I know that it is a hopeless task to try to dress a man in words, make him live again on the printed page.” But he does.15

It is the detail in Levi’s writing that is doing the narrative work, and the moral work too. Like Albert Camus, he has a feel for the “thingness” of experience. He was well aware that this could cause discomfort to some modern readers. In The Monkey’s Wrench he is gently ironic as he heaps on the technical description: since there just are no synonyms, the reader “must be brave, use his imagination or consult a dictionary. It may be useful for him anyway, since we live in a world of molecules and ball-bearings.” The emphasis on work in many of his stories was no accident—a number of the writers and novels he most admired deal explicitly with the honor and autonomy that come from skilled labor; “Faussone,” the composite protagonist of The Monkey’s Wrench, is a Conradian character drawn in part on Renaud, the skipper in Roger Vercel’s novel Remorques, which Levi openly acknowledged as one of his influences. Levi himself identified with skilled work, saying “I’ve always been a rigger-chemist.” In “The Bridge” he goes further and explicitly states that being good at your job and taking pleasure from it constitutes if not the highest, then at least “the most accessible form of freedom.”16 The cynical inscription over the gates of Auschwitz held a special resonance for Primo Levi: he truly believed that work makes you free.

3.

Primo Levi was Piedmontese, a chemist, a writer—and a Jew. Were it not for Hitler, this last would have been a matter of near indifference to him. Jews in Italy had been present since before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 AD); and with the exception of the Roman Jews, whose ghetto had only been abolished upon the liberation of Rome in 1870, they were virtually assimilated into the general population. Even the Sephardic Jews of Piedmont, relatively “recent” arrivals, could trace their origins to the fifteenth-century expulsions from Spain (as their names, often drawn from the towns in France where they had lived en route to Italy, suggest), while the earliest recorded permission for Jews to settle in Turin dates from 1424. There had indeed been a ghetto system in Piedmont, established in the early eighteenth century (rather late by European standards), and the Savoyard monarchy was not always benevolent toward the Jews. But following the emancipation decrees of March 1848 their situation rapidly improved, and with the coming of liberal Italy Jews entered without difficulty into the mainstream of Turinese and Italian life. The country had a Jewish prime minister, and Rome a Jewish mayor, before 1914. There were Jewish generals in the army, fifty of them during World War I. Even the Fascist Party had a significant share of the Jewish population among its members (and a Jewish finance minister as late as 1932).

To be sure, there was anti-Semitism—especially in Trieste, where it was inherited from Austrian rule. And however cynical or even ambivalent Mussolini himself felt about the Race Laws, these cut deep into the self-confidence of the Italian Jews. But the significant Jewish presence in the Italian anti-Fascist resistance owed more to deep traditions of free-thinking liberalism than to any sense of Jewish victimhood. In any case, there were not many Jews. Even by West European standards the Jewish population of Italy was small: just 33,000 in a population of nearly 35 million in 1911, increased to 57,000 by 1938, thanks to the annexation of Trieste, new “racial” definitions, and the presence of some 10,000 foreign Jewish refugees from Nazism. The largest concentration of Jews was to be found in Rome (about 12,000 in the 1931 census); there were fewer than 4,000 in Turin, where they made up about 0.5 percent of the local population. 17

The Jews of Italy suffered badly during the eighteen months of German occupation, though not as badly as Jews elsewhere. Nearly seven thousand Italian Jews died in deportation; but the rest survived the war, a better rate than in most of the rest of Europe. In part this is because the Holocaust came late to Italy (not that this helped the Jews of Hungary); in part because the Jews of Italy were so scattered and well integrated; and in some measure because they found support and sustenance among their fellow Italians, with the usual dishonorable exceptions. From Turin, just 245 Jews were deported, most to Auschwitz: twenty-one returned after the war, Primo Levi among them.18

Thanks to the war, Primo Levi’s Jewishness moved to the center of his being: “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.” This was in part a result of his encounter for the first time with other Jews—the Libyan Jews at Fossoli (exhibiting “a grief that was new for us”) and the Ashkenazim in Auschwitz. Jewishness posed difficulties for Levi, and not just because he had no religion; his concern with work, with Homo faber—man the maker—made him peculiarly sensitive to the etiolated, overintellectual qualities of Jewish life: “If man is a maker, we were not men: we knew this and suffered from it.” It also explains his initial enthusiasm for the Zionist project in its innocent, agrarian incarnation. But the very difference of Jews was also their virtue. In “Zinc” he sang the praises of “impurity,” in metals and in life, the impurity which the Fascists so abhor with their longing for sameness, that impurity “which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life…. I too am Jewish…. I am the impurity that makes the zinc react.”19

Levi found it embarrassing and constricting to be treated “just as a Jew,” as he was by many in the US; predictably he has been criticized by some in the American Jewish community for the insufficiencies and partial quality of his Jewish identity.20 But he was not inhibited about writing and speaking as a survivor, bearing witness and obeying the distinctively Jewish exhortation to remember. All of his writing is shadowed by his experience in Auschwitz—you cannot read anything by Levi without prior knowledge of that experience, for he assumes it in the reader and expects it. His first and last books are devoted to it. In The Periodic Table it is omnipresent, even in stories unrelated to that past, but which at unexpected moments suddenly twist back to it. In The Monkey’s Wrench the point is made explicitly, following his explanation to Faussone of the story of Tiresias: “In distant times I, too, had got involved with Gods quarreling among themselves; I, too, had encountered snakes in my path, and that encounter had changed my condition, giving me a strange power of speech.”21

As a survivor, Levi’s trajectory was quite representative. At first, people didn’t want to listen to him—Italians “felt purified by the great wave of the anti-Fascist crusade, by participation in the Resistance and its victorious outcome.”22 Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, had a comparable experience—

I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps…. They used to say, “For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,” and so I remained quiet for a long time.

In 1955 Levi noted that it had become “indelicate” to speak of the camps—“One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure.” Thus was confirmed the terrible, anticipatory dream of the victims, during and after the camps: that no one would listen, and if they listened they wouldn’t believe.23

Once people did start to listen, and believe, the other obsession of the survivor began to eat away at Levi—the shame, and guilt, of survival itself, made worse in his case by the embarrassment of fame. Why should he, Levi, have survived? Had he made compromises that others had refused? Had others died in his place? The questions are absurd, but they crowd in upon Levi’s later writings, obscurely at first, openly toward the end. In the poem “Il superstite” (“The Survivor,” February 1984), their implications are explicit:

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.

The guilt of the survivor—for surviving, for failing to convey the depths of others’ suffering, for not devoting every waking hour to testimony and recall—is the triumphant legacy of the SS, the reason why, in Nedo Fiano’s words, “At bottom I would say that I never completely left the camp.”24

The shame of not being dead, “thanks to a privilege you haven’t earned,” is tied to Levi’s central concern and the title of his first book: What does it mean to reduce a person to “an emaciated man, with head drooped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen”? Levi, like other surviving witnesses, was ashamed of what he had seen, of what others had done; he felt “the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist….” That, too, is how he explained the death of Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer working outside Auschwitz who had saved him but had been unable to live, as the years passed, with the memory of what he had seen: “He, who was not a survivor, had died of the survivors’ disease.”25

As a survivor, then, Levi was tragically typical; as a witness to the Holocaust he was not. Like all such witnesses, of course, he wrote both to record what had happened and to free himself from it (and was driven forward by the sense that he was doomed to fail on both counts). And like all survivors, his testimony is by definition partial: “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses…. We are…an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications, or their attributes or their good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it, or they returned mute.”26 In Levi’s case he survived Auschwitz through good health (until the end, when his fortuitous sickness kept him in the infirmary and off the final death march), some knowledge of German, his qualifications as a chemist, which gave him indoor work during the final winter, and simple luck. Others have similar stories.

Levi knew little of the political organization among some of the prisoners. He did not benefit from protekcja, privileges and favor from other prisoners. His view of the camp as an accumulation of isolated “monads,” rather than a community of victims, is contested by others (though not by all). But it is not for these reasons that Levi is a distinctive and unique witness to the Holocaust, perhaps the most important. It is because he writes in a different key from the rest; his testimony has a fourth dimension lacking in anything else I have read on this subject. Tadeusz Borowski is cynical, despairing. Jean Améry is angry, vengeful. Elie Wiesel is spiritual and reflective. Jorge Semprun is alternately analytical and literary. Levi’s account is complex, sensitive, composed. It is usually “cooler” than the other memoirs—which is why, when it does suddenly grow warm and glow with the energy of suppressed anger, it is the most devastating of them all.27

Where some have tried to draw meaning from the Holocaust, and others have denied there is any, Levi is more subtle. On the one hand, he saw no special “meaning” in the camps, no lesson to be learned, no moral to be drawn. He was revolted at the notion, suggested to him by a friend, that he had survived for some transcendental purpose, been “chosen” to testify. The romantic idea that suffering ennobles, that the very extremeness of the camp experience casts light on quotidian existence by stripping away illusion and convention, struck him as an empty obscenity; he was too clearheaded to be seduced by the thought that the Final Solution represented the logical or necessary outcome of modernity, or rationality, or technology.

Indeed, he was increasingly drawn to pessimism. The revival of “revisionism,” the denial of the gas chambers, depressed him intensely and toward the end of his life he began to doubt the use of testimony, feeling the “weariness of a man who kept on having to repeat the same thing.” The near-pornographic exploitation of human suffering—in Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter, for example—brought him close to despair. His only resource to ward off the enemies of memory was words. But “the trade of clothing facts in words,” he wrote, “is bound by its very nature to fail.”28

And yet there was something to be gleaned from the camps: “No human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis….” The offense against humanity was ineradicable and could return—indeed, it is never absent. But in his first book and his last, Levi has something—not redemptive, but essential—to say about the human condition. In “The Gray Zone,” the most important chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi brings into focus a theme he has intimated in various earlier works: the infinite gradations of responsibility, human weakness, and moral ambivalence that have to be understood if we are to avoid the pitfall of dividing everything and everybody into tidy poles: resisters and collaborators, guilty and innocent, good and evil. Chaim Rumkowski, the “king” of the Lodz ghetto, was part of “a vast zone of gray consciences that stands between the great men of evil and the pure victims.” So was “Dr. Müller,” Levi’s overseer in the Auschwitz chemical laboratory and future correspondent: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.”29

Just as it is too reassuringly simple to treat the camps as a metaphor for life, thereby according to the SS a posthumous victory, so we should not compartmentalize Auschwitz as a black hole from which no human light can emerge. The importance of language—that we can communicate and we must communicate, that language is vital to humanity and the deprivation of language the first step to the destruction of a man—was enforced within the camp (words were replaced by blows—“that was how we knew we were no longer men”); but it can be applied outside. For life outside is beautiful, as Levi notes in Survival in Auschwitz, and human identity is multifold, and evil does exist and goodness too, and much in between. There is no meaning in all this, but it is true and has to be known and made known.30

Levi’s dispassionate capacity to contain and acknowledge apparently contradictory propositions frustrated some of his critics, who accused him of failing to condemn his tormentors, of remaining altogether too detached and composed. And the idea of a “gray zone” worried some who saw in it a failure to exercise judgment, to draw an absolute moral distinction between the murderers and their victims. Levi resisted this criticism. It is true that his early writings were deliberately cool and analytical, avoiding the worst horrors lest readers prove incredulous—“I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional.” And Levi certainly preferred the role of witness to that of judge, as he would write many years later. But the judgments, albeit implicit, are always there.31

To Jean Améry, who suggested that Levi was a “forgiver,” he replied that “forgiveness is not a word of mine.” But then, as he acknowledged, his experience had been different from that of Améry, an Austrian Jew in the Belgian resistance who was captured and tortured before being sent to Auschwitz (and who would take his own life in 1978). Levi was no less obsessed with the Germans, but sought, he insisted, to understand them, to ask how they could do what they had done. Yet Améry’s suggestion was pertinent, and it speaks to the astonishing exercise of self-control in Levi’s writings; for there can be no doubt that he had very, very strong feelings indeed about Germans, and these began to come out toward the end of his life. In Survival in Auschwitz there are already references to “the curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” Germans are addressed in the vocative—“You Germans you have succeeded.” And there are hints of collective condemnation: “What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen.”32

By the time he came to write The Drowned and the Saved, Levi was less inhibited. Survival achieved its goal, he claims, when it was finally translated into German. “Its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed like a gun, were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded.” Later he writes that the “true crime, the collective, general crime of almost all Germans of that time, was that of lacking the courage to speak.” And the book ends with an unambiguous accusation of collective responsibility against those Germans, “the great majority” who followed Hitler, were swept away in his defeat, and have “been rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.” And while he was careful to insist that blanket stereotyping of Germans both was unjust and explained nothing, Levi took pains to emphasize again and again the specificity of the Holocaust, even when compared to the crimes of other dictators or the Soviet camps.33

Primo Levi, then, could judge and he could hate. But he resisted both temptations; the very space that he preserved between the horrors he had witnessed and the tone he used to describe them substitutes for moral evaluation. And, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote of Albert Camus, “he had the courage to make the elementary points.” The clarity with which he stripped down his account of the essence of Evil, and the reasons why that account will endure and why, in spite of Levi’s fears, the SS will not be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers, are exemplified in this excerpt from The Reawakening, where Levi is describing the last days of a child who had somehow survived in Auschwitz until the Russians arrived:

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgement, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish….

During the night we listened carefully: …from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.34

This Issue

May 20, 1999

  1. 1

    Levi left no suicide note, but he was known to be depressed. His death is widely regarded as deliberate, but some uncertainty remains. 

  2. 2

    I soldati passavano come un gregge disfatto,” Levi in La Repubblica, September 7, 1983, quoted in Claudio Pavone, Una Guerra Civile: Saggio storico sulla moralità nella Resistenza (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1991), p. 16. See also “Gold,” in Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1984), p. 130; “Arsenic,” in The Periodic Table, p. 170. 

  3. 3

    See Levi’s interview with Risa Sodi in Partisan Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (1987), p. 356; and Giuseppe Grassano, Primo Levi, Il Castoro (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1981), quoted in Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 257. 

  4. 4

    The main works by Levi in English are Survival in Auschwitz (first published by the Orion Press, 1959); The Reawak- ening (Touchstone, 1995); The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1984); The Monkey’s Wrench (Penguin, 1995); If Not Now, When? (Penguin, 1995); Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (Penguin, 1995); The Mirror Maker (London: Abacus, 1997); The Drowned and the Saved (Vintage, 1989); Other People’s Trades (Summit, 1989). 

  5. 5

    See Giulio Einaudi, “Primo Levi e la casa editrice Einaudi,” in Pietro Frassica, editor, Primo Levi as Witness (Florence: Casalini Libri, 1990), pp. 31-43; and Levi in Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi (Marlboro Press, 1989), published in Italian as Autoritratto di Primo Levi (Padua: Edizioni Nord-Est, 1987), p. 51. 

  6. 6

    The only sustained element of metaphor, or at least of literary indulgence, in Levi’s writing is the repeated allusion to the odyssey of Ulysses. The mnemonic significance in Survival in Auschwitz of the Canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno is famous: 

  7. 7

    “The Story of Avrom,” in Moments of Reprieve, p. 81. Among the Italian virtues that Levi prized highly was a relative unconcern for national or ethnic difference: “‘Italy is an odd country,’ Chaim said…’but one thing is certain, in Italy foreigners aren’t enemies. You’d think the Italians are more enemies to one another than to foreigners…it’s strange, but it’s true.”‘ (If Not Now, When?, p. 323). 

  8. 8

    In the story “Arsenic” Levi is quite specific about one character, the client who comes to seek chemical analysis of some poisoned sugar: he spoke “excellent Piedmontese with witty Astian tones” (The Periodic Table, p. 170). Asti is a small town just forty miles from Turin, distant enough to give its speech a multitude of subtle local identifying marks of its own. 

  9. 9

    Calvino is quoted by Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 300; for moderation as a Piedmontese virtue, see Primo Levi’s interview with Roberto di Caro in L’Espresso, April 26, 1987, also cited by Anissimov, p. 401. See also “Gold” and “Potassium” in The Periodic Table, pp. 51, 127; for “a mysterious city,” see Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, p. 75 (afterword to US edition). 

  10. 10

    See “Iron,” in The Periodic Table, p. 41; Primo Levi and Tullio Regge, Dialogo (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 19. 

  11. 11

    “Potassium,” The Periodic Table, p. 60. 

  12. 12

    The Reawakening, p. 97; Primo Levi, interview in La Stampa, June 5, 1983, quoted by Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 357. 

  13. 13

    Primo Levi, “Dello scrivere oscuro,” Opere II (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1997) p. 677; “A un giovane lettore,” Opere II, p. 847. See also his troubled comments on Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” in “La ricerca delle radici,” Opere II, p. 1513: “Scrivere è un trasmettere; che dire se il messagio è cifrato e nessuno conosce la chiave?” (“To write is to transmit; but what if the message is coded and no one knows the key?”) On Levi’s critics see Domenico Scarpa, “Un anno di Primo Levi” in La Rivista dei Libri, May 1998, p. 35. 

  14. 14

    See Survival in Auschwitz, pp. 29-30, 51. 

  15. 15

    See The Reawakening, pp. 99, 204; “Iron,” The Periodic Table, p. 48. 

  16. 16

    See The Monkey’s Wrench, pp. 139, 143, 146. See also Levi, “L’avventura tecnologica,” in Opere II, pp. 1444-1452. 

  17. 17

    Contrast the contemporary Jewish population of Greece, 76,000; of the Netherlands, 140,000; or of France, 350,000. For Mussolini’s motives in introducing the Race Laws, see Gene Bernardini, “The Origins and Development of Racial Anti-Semitism in Fascist Italy,” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 49, No. 3 (September 1977), pp. 431-453. 

  18. 18

    On the history of Italian Jews under Fascism see Susan Zuccotti, The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival (University of Nebraska Press, 1996); for details of deportations from Turin, see Liliana Picciotto Fargion, “Gli ebrei di Torino deportati: notizie statistiche (1938-1945),” in Fabio Levi, editor, L’ebreo in oggetto: L’applicazione della normativa antiebreica a Torino, 1938-1943 (Turin: Silvio Zamorani, 1991), pp. 159-190. 

  19. 19

    See Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, p. 68; Survival in Auschwitz, p. 12; “Hydrogen” and “Zinc” in The Periodic Table, pp. 24, 34-35. 

  20. 20

    See, e.g., Fernanda Eberstadt, “Reading Primo Levi,” in Commentary, Vol. 80, No. 4 (October 1985), who finds much of his work “fastidious” and “insubstantial” (p. 47); also Levi’s comments to Risa Sodi in “An Interview with Primo Levi,” pp. 355-366. 

  21. 21

    The Monkey’s Wrench, p. 52. On the concept of “shadowing,” and the problem of reading literature “backshadowed” by the Holocaust, see the sensitive and insightful remarks of Michael André Bernstein, notably in Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (University of California Press, 1994). 

  22. 22

    Furio Colombo, “Introduction,” in Zuccotti, The Italians and the Holocaust, p. x. 

  23. 23

    Giuliana Tedeschi in Nicola Caracciolo, Uncertain Refuge: Italy and the Jews During the Holocaust (University of Illinois Press, 1995), p. 121. Levi is quoted from L’Eco dell’educazione ebraica, in Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 273. 

  24. 24

    Moments of Reprieve, prologue. For the Italian original see Levi, Opere II, p. 576. Nedo Fiano is in Caracciolo, Uncertain Refuge, p. 69. 

  25. 25

    See If Not Now, When?, p. 295; Survival in Auschwitz, p. 82; The Reawakening, p. 16; Moments of Reprieve, p. 118. 

  26. 26

    The Drowned and the Saved, pp. 83-84. 

  27. 27

    Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Penguin, 1976); Jean Améry, Par-delà le crime et le châtiment: Essai pour surmonter l’insurmontable (Arles: Actes Sud, 1995); Elie Wiesel, Night (Hill and Wang, 1960); Jorge Semprun, Literature or Life (Viking, 1997). 

  28. 28

    Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 5; “Carbon,” in The Periodic Table, p. 232. 

  29. 29

    For Rumkowski, see Moments of Reprieve, p. 127; for Dr. Müller, see “Vanadium,” in The Periodic Table, pp. 221-222. 

  30. 30

    Io pensavo che la vita fuori era bella…” (“I was thinking that life outside was beautiful”), Opere I, p. 160. Contrast the testimony of Franco Schönheit, in Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (Summit, 1991), p. 347: “Certainly these are experiences, but always absurd experiences. How can you learn something from an experience of this kind? That’s part of the reason I never talk with my children about it; those experiences teach nothing. They belong to a world of the impossible, totally outside the sphere of ordinary humanity.” 

  31. 31

    The Reawakening, “Afterword,” pp. 210, 222; contrast the report that Levi and Leonardo de Benedetti drew up in 1945 at the request of the Soviet authorities in Katowice, which describes gas chambers, crematoria, and disease in unadorned detail. It was later published in Italy in the journal Minerva Medica. See Opere I, pp. 1331-1361. 

  32. 32

    See Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 288; Survival in Auschwitz, pp. 15, 128, 135-136. 

  33. 33

    The Drowned and the Saved, pp. 168, 182, 203; Primo Levi, “Buco Nero di Auschwitz,” La Stampa, January 22, 1987. 

  34. 34

    The Reawakening, pp. 25-26.