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