This Day In Literary History
On July 31st, 1919, the famous Italian writer Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy. He was born to a liberal, intellectual Jewish family. His father worked for a manufacturing firm in Hungary, his mother played piano and spoke fluent French.
He had a younger sister, Anna Maria, to whom he was always close. As a young boy, Primo Levi was thin, shy, and sickly. When he entered the Massimo d'Azeglio Royal Gymnasium at the age of eleven, he was a year ahead of his schoolmates.
He was shorter than his peers, smarter than them, and the only Jew in school, which resulted in bullying. Despite his chronic illness, he passed his high school entrance exams at 14. Like all Italian schoolboys, he was required to join the Opera Nazionale Balilla.
The Opera Nazionale Balilla was the Italian Fascist equivalent of the Hitler Youth. Unlike the Nazis, Italian fascism did not include racist ideology. The National Fascist Party even had Jewish members. But this would change in a few years.
The teenage Primo Levi attended the Liceo Classico Massimo d'Azeglio, a high school known for its antifascist teachers, including philosopher Norberto Bobbio and novelist Cesare Pavese. Then, while he was studying chemistry in university, everything changed.
In 1938, a group of prominent Italian fascist scientists and intellectuals published the Manifesto of Race, a collection of theories in line with Nazi ideology. It declared Italians part of the Aryan race and Jews the enemy.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini personally had no anti Semitic convictions and was criticized by Hitler for not ridding Italy of its Jews. After the publication of the Manifesto of Race, the criticism intensified.
Believing it was necessary to strengthen the alliance between Italy and Germany, he passed the infamous Racial Laws, which stripped Italian Jews of their civil rights, public positions, and assets. Books by Jewish authors were banned.
This proved to be a huge mistake on Mussolini's part, as many non-Jewish Italians - including his own supporters - hated the Racial Laws, which would be the catalyst that led to Mussolini's overthrow and public execution after the war.
As Primo Levi had matriculated a year earlier, he was allowed to remain in university, but he had difficulty finding a supervisor for his graduation thesis. Still, he obtained his degree, though the Racial Laws blacklisted him.
So he took clandestine jobs, often using a fake name and fake papers. In 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III deposed and imprisoned Mussolini, prompting the Nazis to invade Italy and liberate him. By then, Levi was fighting for the Italian Resistance.
After he and his comrades were arrested by the fascist militia, Levi was sent to the Fossoli internment camp. When the Nazis took it over, he was sent to the Auschwitz death camp. Fortunately, as a professional chemist, he was useful.
This kept Levi alive - barely, as he subsisted on starvation rations. Then he met a man named Lorenzo Perrone. Perrone was neither a Jew nor a prisoner - he was an Italian civilian laborer who had been forced by his employers to work at Auschwitz.
A master bricklayer, Perrone was horrified by what he witnessed in the camp. He struck up a friendship with Primo Levi and smuggled him a soup ration every day, which kept him from starving to death. He would never forget this act of kindness.
During his time in Auschwitz, Levi worked in a laboratory on a project to produce synthetic rubber. He saw his fellow Jews brutalized and exterminated en masse while he somehow survived. This would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Primo Levi had spent nearly a year in Auschwitz when the death camp was liberated by the Red Army in January of 1945. Malnourished and suffering from scarlet fever, he returned home a living corpse with a bloated face and traumatic memories.
Unable to find work in his hometown of Turin, he took long train trips to work in Milan. He would tell people he met on the train stories about Auschwitz. He decided to write about these experiences. His first book, a memoir, was published in 1947.
If This Is a Man opened with Levi's arrest by the Italian fascist militia and ended with the liberation of Auschwitz. He wrote the book in a calm, sober prose style, which made the horrors he described even more vivid and haunting.
At the time If This Is a Man was published, Levi had quit his job and started an independent laboratory with his old friend Alberto Salmoni. He had just married his wife Lucia as well. She gave birth to their daughter Lisa the following year.
That year, Primo Levi was reunited with Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer who saved his life. Unable to cope with what he'd seen inside Auschwitz, Perrone became an alcoholic wreck and was suffering from tuberculosis when Levi rescued him from the streets.
Levi would close his laboratory, which had been located in Salmoni's parents' house, after it became too dangerous to produce chemicals there. He worked as a chemist for various companies while he wrote. He also became a Holocaust education activist.
Over the years, he visited over 130 public schools to talk about his experiences in Auschwitz and was stunned by the historical revisionism being employed in the conservative government's schools, which downplayed the scope of the Holocaust and Italy's role in it.
Levi also took Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to task for falsely claiming that the number of Russians killed in the Soviet gulags was the same as he number of Jews exterminated by the Nazis. The numbers were not even close.
Approximately 30% of prisoners in the gulag died, while the Nazis exterminated between 90 and 98% of their prisoners. Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize, was later exposed as a virulent anti Semite, a fact he had hidden from the Nobel committee.
Primo Levi's writings would include a second memoir, The Truce (1963), two novels, a poetry collection, several short story collections, and several essay collections, with the Holocaust and his work as a chemical engineer being major themes.
In April of 1987, a few months before his 68th birthday, Levi was killed by a fall from his third story apartment. His death was ruled a suicide. His biographers agreed with this, as he was suffering from depression and the stress of caring for his elderly mother and mother-in-law.
Other factors included his traumatic memories of Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel, his fellow writer and fellow Holocaust survivor, said that "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later," but Levi's friends disputed the suicide ruling as he left no note and there were no warning signs.
They believe that Levi's death was an accident. He had plans for the short and long term future, and a few days before his death, he had complained to his doctor that he was suffering from dizzy spells.
Quote Of The Day
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” - Primo Levi
Today's video features a documentary on Primo Levi. Enjoy!