Primo Levi

(1919—1987) Italian novelist and poet

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Italian novelist, one of the foremost writers on the Holocaust.

Born into a Jewish family in Turin, Levi graduated in chemistry at the University of Turin but, as a Jew under the Fascist regime, found it difficult to secure regular work. In 1943 he joined the anti-Fascist resistance and attempted to establish a small band of guerrillas in the mountains. Betrayed and arrested, Levi was sent to Auschwitz aboard a train with 650 other deportees, of whom only 24 arrived alive. Levi survived ten months in Auschwitz and was spared from deportation by the fleeing Nazis as he was thought to be dying of scarlet fever. Liberated by the Red Army, he eventually returned to Turin after an arduous journey through war-torn eastern Europe.

Levi's first novel, If This Is a Man, based on his partisan and concentration-camp experiences, was published in 1947 (English translation 1959). Its detached prose served to heighten the enormity of the horrors it described. Levi returned to his work as an industrial chemist, becoming an acknowledged expert on ceramic coatings for wire. His second book appeared after a gap of eighteen years. The Reawakening (1965) drew on the encounters of his epic postwar journey home, exploring the Holocaust survivor's spiritual struggle to come to terms with his own survival. In 1975 Levi published a collection of semiautobiographical sketches, The Periodic Table, whose title and organizing principle he took from the chemist's basic map of the elements. If Not Now, When? (1982) chronicled episodes of Jewish resistance during World War II, which exposed the lie that Jews had universally acquiesced in their own extinction. Torn between what he regarded as his moral obligations to the dead and his own unending trauma as a survivor, Levi died after falling down the stairwell of the house in which he had been born – an act widely regarded as suicide.

Subjects: Literature.

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