LEVI, PRIMO (1919–1987), Italian author. Levi was born in Turin and trained as a chemist, receiving his degree from the University of Turin three years after Mussolini had barred Jews from higher education. Although he had a bar mitzvah he was far from his Jewish background until the enactment of the Italian racial laws in 1938. After the German takeover of Italy in 1943, he fled to the north intending to join the partisans but was caught, imprisoned first at the Fossolo camp and in February 1944 sent to Auschwitz. "I was not a very good partisan," he said in an interview. Of that train trip he wrote: "Now in the hour of decision, we said to each other things that are never said among the living… everybody said farewell to life through his neighbor." He survived there for ten months, one of the very few on his transport to survive until liberation, partly due to his employment by the Germans as a chemist in the Buna Works. His number in the camp was 174517. He wrote: "We have been baptized, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die." Unlike most prisoners in the Auschwitz camp complexes, Levi did not leave on the death march. He stayed behind for ten days. The Germans abandoned the camp, fleeing from Soviet troops who arrived on January 27, 1945. Levi wrote of liberation: "Liberty. The breach in the barbed wire gave us a concrete image of it. To anyone who stopped to think, it signified no more Germans, no more selections, no work, no blows, no rollcalls, and perhaps, later, the return." After the war he wandered for nine months, including journeys through Soviet Russia, before he got back to Turin,   which he described in great detail in his 1963 work The Reawakening. Unlike most survivors, Levi had a home and a community to which he could return. He came back to the apartment his family had occupied for three generations and that he was to live in until his death. He wrote his works in the very room in which he was born. He resumed work as a chemist at the Turin paint factory SIVA where he managed the plant from 1961–74. His first book was Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959) which described the Auschwitz extermination camp, and is regarded as a classic of Holocaust literature. The book was republished in 1961 under the title Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. He described his experience in Auschwitz with meticulous detail, with scientific precision and seemingly without pathos. Survivors were no heroes to Levi. They were simply survivors. In La Tregua (1963; The Truce, 1965; U.S. ed. The Reawakening, 1965), he told of his wanderings and unusual adventures on his return to Italy with rich detail. Levi broadened his scope in Storie naturali (1966), moralistic and fantastic tales published under the pseudonym of Damianos Malabaila. In 1979 he was awarded the Strega Prize, one of Italy's top literary awards. His autobiographical Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984), containing episodes named after the elements in the periodic chart, describes his ancestry and his own experiences. Se non ora, quando (1982; If Not Now, When?, 1985) is a novel telling the story of a Holocaust survivor crossing Europe after the war in order to reach Israel. The Drowned and the Saved appeared in 1986. Levi also wrote several volumes of short stories. He was regarded as one of the great Italian writers of the post-war period and by many as the man who offered the most telling depiction of Auschwitz. No one has described life in Auschwitz more directly, more objectively, with greater scientific precision. He was insistent that life inside the camps required a new language, a new way of speaking. "Our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man. In a moment with a prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; … Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, as we were, still remains." Levi's work as a writer was gaining recognition just as he died. He was honored but retained the simple discipline of writing. philip roth , who had brought many European Jewish writers to the attention of the American reading public said: "With moral stamina and intellectual poise of a 20th century titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest works of the most endearing human events and with the much contemptible." In April 1987 he was found dead at the bottom of the stairwell in the apartment building where he was born and where he lived with his wife and mother. His son lived on the very same floor. Friends spoke of anxiety over the deteriorating condition of his mother, left paralyzed by a stroke. He had been depressed and had had a bout with cancer. His anti-depression drug had been changed and he had written of suicide. In writing of the Belgian writer Jean Amery, who had been in Auschwitz and wrote of torture starkly and eloquently and who himself had committed suicide, Levi quoted his famous aphorism: "He who was tortured, remains tortured. He who has suffered torment can no longer find his place in the world. Faith in humanity – cracked by the first slap across the face, then demolished by torture – can never be recovered." His death was considered by most a suicide; though others have disputed this account. But if it was a suicide then Levi has given a clue as to its reason. The period of the imprisonment of survivors "is the center of their life, the event that for better or worse has marked their entire existence." -BIBLIOGRAPHY: H.S. Hughes, Prisoners of Hope (1983); Dizionario enciclopedico della letteratura italiana, 3 (1967), 383; I. Calvino, in: L'Unità (May 6, 1948); A. Cajumi, in: La Stampa (Nov. 26, 1957). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Stille, "Primo Levi: Reconciling the Man and the Writer," in: New York Times (July 5, 1987); L. Langer, Versions of Survival (1982). (Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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