Move the mouse pointer over a red word in the main text, to view the glossary entry for this word.

Reception of Primo Levi’s Writings

 a  “Whereas in Europe Levi’s supposed Christian characteristics made him the ideal survivor, in the United States his publishers feared that he was not ‘Jewish’ enough and therefore would not reach his principal audience [...] Instead of the marginalized Levi, the iconic survivor of the Holocaust in the United States was Elie Wiesel, whose religiosity and popularism set the terms for the reception of Holocaust memoirs in America.”

(Bryan Cheyette: “Appropriating Primo Levi.” In: Robert S. C. Gordon, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 67–85, here pp. 74–75.)
 b  “Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp. I said my prayers every day. On Saturday I hummed Shabbat songs at work, in part, no doubt, to please my father, to show him I was determined to remain a Jew even in the accursed kingdom. My doubts and my revolt gripped me only later. Why so much later? My comrade and future friend Primo Levi asked me that question. How did I surmount these doubts and this revolt? He refused to understand how I, his former companion of Auschwitz III, could still call himself a believer, for he, Primo, was not and didn’t want to be. He had seen too much suffering not to rebel against any religion that sought to impose a meaning upon it. I understood him, and asked him to understand me, for I had seen too much suffering to break with the past and reject the heritage of those who had suffered. We spent many hours arguing, with little result. We were equally unwavering, for we came from different milieus, and even in Auschwitz led different lives. He was a chemist; I was nothing at all. The system needed him, but not me. He had influential friends to help and protect him; I had only my father. I needed God, Primo did not.”
(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 82–83.)
 c  “In its form, this book is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony […] At a certain point, it became clear that testimony contained at its core an essential lacuna; in other words, the survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to. As a consequence, commenting on survivors’ testimony necessarily meant interrogating this lacuna or, more precisely, attempting to listen to it.”
(Giorgio Agamben: Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2005), p. 13.)
 d  Agamben celebrates the witness as icon, falsely attributing to him thoughts that are not really full of insight: “If we give the name ‘Levi’s paradox’ to the statement that ‘the Muselmann is the complete witness,’ then understanding Auschwitz—if such a thing is possible—will coincide with understanding the sense and nonsense of this paradox.”
(Giorgio Agamben: Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2005), p. 82.)
 e  Tzvetan Todorov writes that as Levi saw it, the experience of humanity in the camp consisted of having mustered the strength to resist; from this Todorov derives a threefold sense of guilt and shame on the part of the survivors: "This shame of having been the object of humiliation and insult [...], survivor’s guilt [...], the shame of being a human being."
(Tzvetan Todorov: Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), pp. 264–265.)

“One must remember that only fifteen years had passed since Auschwitz: the Germans who would read me were ‘those,’ not their heirs. Before they had been oppressors or indifferent spectators, now they would be readers: I would corner them, tie them before a mirror. The hour had come to settle accounts, to put the cards on the table. Above all, the hour of colloquy.”[1]


In the mid-1970s, the best-known of Primo Levi’s books, Se questo è un uomo (Engl. Survival in Auschwitz or If This Is a Man), was translated into seven languages. That book and his subsequent ones as well have been widely available ever since. While Levi, owing to his renunciation of any condemnation of a group of perpetrators, was stylized as a Christ figure, so to speak, his reflective approach and description of the proceedings in Auschwitz shaped the perception of people all over Europe with an interest in Holocaust literature. The author kept a close eye on this reception and played an active part in it; in particular, Levi hoped that the reception of Survival in Auschwitz in Germany would help him understand and establish a dialog with “the Germans.” In I sommersi e i salvati (Engl. The Drowned and the Saved), he describes the difficulties of this dialog as conducted in the form of letters exchanged with German readers: The approximately 40 letters that reached him from Germany came primarily from younger readers.


“[T]he more recent they are, the more pallid they become: the writers are by now the children and grandchildren, the trauma is no longer theirs, it is not being lived in the first person. They express vague solidarity, ignorance, and detachment. For them, that past is truly the past, hearsay.”[2]


Levi’s works are now part of the canon of Holocaust literature and have found recognition in a variety of disciplines: “His work has been used to engage with the issues of ethics, humanism and perpetrator history after the Nazi genocide and has, in particular, been incorporated into theoretical readings of the Holocaust.”[3]


This special position was accorded him and his books principally in Europe; in the United States, Primo Levi’s books did not begin to reach a wider audience until the mid-1980s. There were several reasons for that  a : his areligious tendencies caused his publisher to worry that his writings might not be well received by the general public, and the “place” of the iconographic Holocaust survivor, the “principal interpreter of the Holocaust”[4] in the public’s perception, was already occupied by Elie Wiesel.  b  Levi was admired as the author of texts in an extremely clear, economical style. Among those who paid him homage was the writer Saul Bellow, and at the outset of his book-signing tour in 1985, the International Herald Tribune proclaimed Primo Levi “the Jewish equivalent of a saint.”[5]


But European readers, too, untiringly emphasized the pithiness of Levi’s works, and their stylistic clarity and reflectiveness; Levi’s texts are among the most frequently quoted accounts written by Holocaust survivors. In many secondary-school textbooks, they quite simply serve as the description of Auschwitz and are—in a repetition of Levi’s emphasis on his self-imposed duty to bear witness—read, analyzed, and assimilated. In the process, there is a danger of oversimplification, especially where Levi’s repeatedly emphasized skepticism regarding the position of witness is disregarded, where “anyone who adapts Levi, in whatever form, ‘fulfils the testimonial imperative of Levi’s writing’.”[6]


A different path is taken by Giorgio Agamben in his homo sacer trilogy:[7] The words of Primo Levi—“a perfect example of the witness”[8]—also provided a foundation for his attention-getting book Quel che resta di Auschwitz (Engl. Remnants of Auschwitz).  c  While Levi writes in order to remember, however, Agamben casts doubt on the possibility of linguistic testimony and thus wraps not only the witness, but “Auschwitz” as well, in mystery.  d  At the same time, Agamben reads Levi’s testimony in confirmation of his thesis of the “camp as the paradigm of modernity,”[9] and he stylizes Auschwitz as a reflection of human life, and represents the “Muselmann” in the camp, say, as the image of the declining human being par excellence. Implicitly, he thus professes the Nazi social ideal as the archetypical image of humanity’s “being as it is” (Heidegger’s So-Sein) on the basis of Primo Levi’s testimony. Levi himself vehemently countered attempts to declare continual violent altercation, fraught with conflict, to be the basis of human relations: “It has obscenely been said that there is a need for conflict: that mankind cannot do without it.”[10]


In addition, Levi’s concept of the “gray zone,” the position between life and death, like that occupied by the prisoners who were part of the Sonderkommando, met with wide response among researchers: Besides Agamben, the historians Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning also took up this idea. However, while Browning follows Levi in his rejection of a clearly outlined distinction between good and evil, Goldhagen’s analysis assumes a clear distinction between victim and perpetrator.


In summary, one can say that the reception of Primo Levi’s texts (and also of his individual personality, which was always central) revolves around the question of speaking of the concentration camps and around the assessment of eyewitness accounts. The philosopher Tzvetan Todorov reads accounts, including Levi’s, “to grasp some of the problems encountered by those who speak of the camps and seek to draw lessons from them.”[11] Todorov inquires into the moral implications of the camp experience for the survivors after surviving, and links Levi’s statements to reflections on shame and feeling guilt.  e  Exaggerating statements from several survivor accounts to make his point, he formulates an approach to their “guilt,” as survivors would perceive it: “Those who died in the camps had died for nothing; having failed to change the world, the survivors felt they had betrayed their dead comrades.”[12]


The attempts at interpretation that are presented here only in abbreviated form point in two directions: to different ways of approaching Primo Levi’s writings and, conversely, to the influence of these writings on the humanities. Particularly in Europe, Levi’s books frequently serve as a starting point for questions about bearing witness and its significance for understanding the Holocaust.

(SP; transl. KL)


Agamben, Giorgio: Homo sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1998.

Agamben, Giorgio: Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

Browning, Christopher R.: Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Cheyette, Bryan: “Appropriating Primo Levi.” In: Robert S. C. Gordon, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 67–85.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Gordon, Robert S. C., ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Levi, Primo: The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Todorov, Tzvetan: Facing the Extreme. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

[1] Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 168.

[2] Primo Levi: The Drowned, p. 175.

[3] Bryan Cheyette: “Appropriating Primo Levi.” In: Robert S. C. Gordon, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 67–85, here p. 79.

[4] Cheyette: Appropriating, p. 76.

[5] Cited in Cheyette: Appropriating, p. 76.

[6] Cheyette: Appropriating, p. 80.

[7] The cycle includes Homo Sacer (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1998), State of Exception (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), and Remnants of Auschwitz (New York: Zone Books, 1999); interestingly, the third book, Remnants of Auschwitz, was the first to be translated into German.

[8] Giorgio Agamben: Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999), p. 16.

[9] A key thesis of Giorgio Agamben’s in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1998).

[10] Levi: The Drowned, p. 200.

[11] Tzvetan Todorov: Facing the Extreme (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 260.

[12] Todorov: Facing, p. 266.