The Europeans No 19: Primo Levi
The Italian chemist was an Auschwitz survivor who wrote equally well about evil and the intricacies of the physical world
Encouraged by his bookish engineer father, Levi excelled at school despite fragile health, and in 1937 he enrolled at the University of Turin to study chemistry. In 1938, however, the Italian state introduced legislation barring Jewish citizens from various public offices and occupations, forcing them to sell property and, in some cases, expelling them from education. Levi narrowly escaped such expulsion on the grounds that he was already in the second year of his course. He graduated in 1941 into an Italy at war.
In 1943, the Germans invaded northern Italy. Levi joined a partisan movement in the mountains near Turin. He was quickly captured and sent to a camp. In late winter 1944, the camp was taken over by the Germans and the Jews were deported. Levi was to spend 11 months at Monowitz, one of the camps of the Auschwitz complex. Of the 650 Jews in his shipment, only 20 survived.
Levi attributed his survival of Auschwitz primarily to the fact that his knowledge of chemistry and sketchy technical German got him an indoor job in the IG Farben laboratory there, which was working on the production of synthetic rubber. He was also fortunate to fall ill in January 1945 as the Red Army approached and was thus left behind, avoiding a forced march to the west that few survived.
It was while commuting to work on the Turin-Milan express after his return home that Levi first felt the compulsion to communicate his experiences at Auschwitz. These stories of camp life, worked over in collaboration with his wife Lucia over the following year, became the book If This Is a Man , which was published in 1947 and which remains unsurpassed as an account of the day-to-day operation of Nazi Germany’s extermination programme.
There seems to have been little enthusiasm at this early period, in Europe or America, for reading about the Holocaust. It was 1958 before the book was reprinted and 1959 before it was translated into English. Levi returned to the subject in 1986 with The Drowned and the Saved , an attempt to answer the question of why some people survived in the camps and other did not. The disturbing conclusion he came to was that it was often the best who perished, while those who were able to come to some kind of accommodation with the regime survived.
As well as being a writer, Levi worked for most of his life as an industrial chemist, and he also wrote on science for a general audience. If his books on the Holocaust convinced that he had an enormously clear and penetrating view of that catastrophe, his occasional journalism in La Stampa , for example, showed he had an enormously penetrating view of almost everything, and that he was able to make the most surprising and inspiring connections between different aspects of human experience.
In such a column he wrote of “[A] world in which everything seems stable and is not, in which awesome energies . . . sleep a light sleep”. He was in fact writing of the physical world and the combustibility of wood, but he might equally well have been thinking of the barbarism that lurked behind 20th-century civilisation.
What to read
If This Is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved, Other People’s Trades