Levi, Primo Michele

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Levi, Primo Michele

Levi, Primo Michele (1919-1987) Jewish-Italian memoirist and essayist

A survivor of Auschwitz in Poland, Primo Levi augmented literature of the European Holocaust with eyewitness details. A native of Turin and the son of an engineer who encouraged his children to read, Levi grew up in a musical and intellectual environment. Homeschooled in his youth, he gained an understanding of language, history, and literature before majoring in chemistry at the University of Turin. The expansion of Nazi anti-Semitism into Italy in 1938 forced him to work under a false name. While fighting the Germans in the Alps with the Italian Resistance, he was arrested in December 1943 and interned in a Jewish concentration camp outside Modena; he was then 24. In 1944, Nazi troops transported him by cattle car to Auschwitz. From inmates, he learned enough German to work in the laboratory at Buna, where the need for press gangs “suspended killings at the whim of individuals” (Levi 1996, 9). Later, he wrote of the scramble for essentials—“a hiding place, a fire, a pair of shoes”—as his life devolved into “a collective, uncontrolled panic” (13, 16). Liberation in 1945 left him traumatized, malnourished, and weakened by scarlet fever.

Publication of Levi's Se questo e un uomo (If This Is a Man, 1947; published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz) and La truega (The Truce, 1963; published in the United States as The Reawakening) as well as articles in La Stampa bear testimony to the vicious Nazi drive to exterminate European Jewry. The first narrative established the guile of prison comrades who smuggled in bread and soup for meals. The concept of community as a source of strength during the Holocaust infuses his only novel Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?, 1984), a salute to Jewish partisans and their struggle for Zionism. The text muses on changes in the concept of empire in the modern era. After the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini is overthrown, Levi asks, “What is a king? a kind of czar, bigoted and corrupt, a thing of the past, a fairy-tale character with brain, plumes, and ornamental dagger, arrogant and base” (Levi 1986, 66). The complex relationship between English and Russian imperialism shifts dramatically as Hitler's hegemony approaches collapse. The character Jozek declares, “The Russians will help us, because in Palestine there are the English, and Stalin is trying to weaken them every possible way because he envies them their empire” (232).

In a book published posthumously, The Black Hole of Auschwitz (2005), Levi regretted that the collapse of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dauchau, and Mauthausen rid the world of one monster but did not halt subsequent hellholes in Brazil, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam. The survival of imperialism drove him to write more testimonials to rescue youth from a future of oppression and fanaticism. On April 11, 1987, Levi died by falling from the third story of his home. Whether the fall was an accident or deliberate is still debated.


Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography. New York: Macmillan, 2002.

Levi, Primo. The Black Hole of Auschwitz. Translated by Marco Belpoliti and Sharon Wood. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2005.

----- . If Not Now, When? Translated by William Weaver. New York: Penguin, 1986.

----- . Survival in Auschwitz. Translated by Giulio Einaudi. New York: Touchstone, 1996.