Primo Levi, chemist and award-winning writer, was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, to a family of Italian Jews. His family were mostly non-practising, as was Levi himself. However, in 1938, his Jewish ancestry became a sudden and serious liability. That year, Mussolini's government enacted a series of anti-Semitic regulations that outlawed mixed marriages, expelled Jews from the universities, and forbade them even to own certain kinds of property. Despite the Fascists' racial laws, Levi managed to complete his degree in chemistry at the University of Turin in 1941. But he had difficulty finding work. And two years later, when the Germans invaded northern Italy, Levi fled to the mountains with a pearl-handled pistol, joining an ineffectual band of partisans. He was captured almost immediately by a troop of Fascist militia, and soon found himself crossing the Brenner Pass in a cattle car, en route to Auschwitz.

Out of the 650 Italian Jews in his "shipment," Levi was one of the 20 who left the camps alive. He attributed his survival to luck, to his skills as a chemist - which the Germans utilized in the Buna synthetic-rubber factory attached to the camp - and to the help and support of his friends. He also had the paradoxical good luck to come down with scarlet fever just as the Germans began to evacuate the Auschwitz complex. Left behind for dead, he survived, and was liberated along with a handful of other disease-ridden inmates in January 1945.

The Truce tells the story of his difficult journey back to Italy. He returned to his childhood home (until his death he lived in the house he had been born in), established himself in the field of industrial chemistry, married and raised a family, and wrote several books including If Not Now, When? a fictional story about the war, drawn from the experiences outlined in The Truce; the award-winning The Periodic Table, a series of short stories related to chemical elements; The Sixth Day, a book full of fanciful, almost SF stories of weird inventions mingled with folk tales, and also The Wrench, Other People's Trades and The Mirror Maker. He also translated Franz Kafka, and produced a series of Piedmontese folk tales. However, he is probably best-known for his non-fiction writings on the concentration camps.

What kept him alive through the Holocaust was an intense need to bear witness, as he explains in the books. If This Is a Man offers reasoned, poignant witness to the horrors of Auschwitz and describes effectively what life was like in the camp. The Drowned and the Saved, his last book, is more questioning: it attempts to answer the questions raised by the phenomenon of the camps, such as why some survived - from reading his work it is evident that he was tortured by guilt about the fact that he made it out, while others died. While writing the books he also lectured, gave interviews, and led tours to Auschwitz, yet he always wondered if he had done enough. Once, pointing to the number tattooed on his arm, he said, "That is my disease."

He died mysteriously in April 1987 after toppling four floors down the stairwell of his home apartment block: whether his death was accidental or suicidal remains unknown. His tombstone in Turin bears his name; his dates of birth and death - and his number, 174517.

NB: Non-UK titles of these books may be different in other countries.
There is also a self-titled biography by Myriam Anissimov.

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