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Primo Levi (1919–1987)

 a  “Those who experienced imprisonment […] are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak. [Those who] speak, and often speak a lot, [obey] different impulses […] They speak because they know they are witnesses in a trial of planetary and epochal dimensions. [...] But they speak, in fact (I can use the first person plural: I am not one of the taciturn) we speak also because we are invited to do so.”

(Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), pp. 149–50.)

“[T]he distinctive feature of the Nazi camps—I don’t know about the others, because I’m not familiar with them, maybe it’s just the same in the Russian ones—is that the personality of the people is destroyed both inwardly and outwardly, and not only the personality of the prisoner; the guard, too, loses his humanity in the camp.”[1] 


Primo Levi was born in Turin on July 31, 1919. After Fascist Italy proclaimed racial laws based on the National Socialist model in 1938, he joined an anti-Fascist student group. Primo Levi studied chemistry at the University of Turin and received his doctorate in July 1941. He took a job in the chemical lab at an asbestos mine and provided financial support for his family, particularly his father, who was suffering from cancer. In 1942, Levi changed jobs and began working for a Swiss pharmaceutical company, doing diabetes research in Milan.


Primo Levi went “to the mountains” in fall 1943 to join an antifascist partisan group, but on December 13 he was arrested by the Fascist militia, and in January 1944 he was taken to the Carpi-Fossoli concentration camp. From there the SS deported him, along with 650 men, women, and children, to Auschwitz. On arrival he was chosen for forced labor in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp.


In the camp he had to work for several months in the transport and excavation detachments at first, until he was assigned to the chemists’ detachment in November 1944. From then on, he could work in a lab, out of the wind and cold, and thus had a chance to survive the Polish winter. In January 1945, Levi came down with scarlet fever and had to report to the prisoner infirmary. When the SS drove the prisoners on the death march on January 18, only the patients were left behind. With the few others who survived disease, hunger, and lack of medical care, Primo Levi experienced the liberation of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. First he was sent to an emergency collection camp in Katowice, and finally his long journey back to Italy began in June 1945. His path took him through the Ukraine to Romania, Hungary, and Austria before reaching Turin on October 19, 1945. This odyssey later formed the basis for Levi’s autobiographical novel La tregua (1963; published in English as The Reawakening).


Levi resumed his career in chemistry and started as a lab chemist at the small SIVA paint factory. Only a few years later, he advanced to the position of its director. In the mid-1950s, the prestigious publishing house Einaudi reprinted Primo Levi’s account of his survival, Se questo è un uomo (1946/1958; published in English as If This Is a Man and Survival in Auschwitz), with great success.  a  In the following years, Primo Levi published numerous stories, journalistic reflections, and also a translation of Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial). Not until 1977, however, did Levi give up his career as a chemist to devote himself exclusively to writing. He produced several important novels and numerous articles. Levi could not escape his memories of the past: depression and anxiety tormented him until his suicide on April 11, 1987.

(SP; transl. KL)


Levi, Primo: Si questo è un uomo. Torino: Einaudi, 1958.

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: La tregua. Torino: Einaudi, 1963.

Levi, Primo: The Reawakening. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987.

Levi, Primo: The drowned and the saved. New York: Summit Books, 1988.

Levi, Primo / de Benedetti, Leonardo: “Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz—Upper Silesia).” In: Primo Levi: Auschwitz Report. London/New York: Verso, 2006, pp. 31–78.

Levi, Primo: Auschwitz Report. London/New York: Verso, 2006.

Toaff, Daniel / Ascarelli, Emanuele: “Rückkehr nach Auschwitz. Interview mit Primo Levi.” In: Primo Levi: Bericht über Auschwitz. Philippe Mesnard, ed. Berlin: BasisDruck, 2006, pp. 111–125.

[1] Daniel Toaff / Emanuele Ascarelli: “Interview mit Primo Levi.” In: Primo Levi: Bericht über Auschwitz. Philippe Mesnard, ed. (Berlin: BasisDruck, 2006), pp. 111–125, here p. 123. (Translated by KL)