By: Vickie J. Rubinson
The writer Primo Levi (1919-87) once said that "No one can say what his past would have been like 'if.'" If it had not been for what happened to Levi at the age of 24, this unassuming Italian chemist might have lived and died unknown to all but his family and friends. The Holocaust changed his life and gave him an intense need to testify.
Until now, the world's representation of Primo Levi came almost entirely through his own writings. His public self--shy, intelligent, diffident--in some respects disguised the man within. This first bio delves deeply into the life and mind of a controversial writer, one who was really a philosophical student of life itself.
"Primo Levi" explores the complex nature of a man who was both a strong and spirited survivor as well as a man prone to severe depression, a man who felt misunderstood and certain that future generations would forget and deny what many would call the central informing disaster of the century.
Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, the son of an educated middle-class Jewish family. In 1941, he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in chemistry. Even with honors, as a Jew he could not get a job until he was finally hired to work under a false name at a nickel mine in the mountains near Turin. In 1942 he transferred to a pharmaceutical firm in Milan. Within a year the Nazis had arrived and Levi joined a group of partisans in the Val d'Aosta. In December 1943 he was captured by the Fascist militia and deported to Auschwitz in a convoy of 650 "items" of whom 525 went directly to the gas chambers, the rest to the labor camps. Levi and a few others survived.
After his liberation Levi returned to his native village with one ambition: to bear witness to all that he had seen. "I had a torrent of urgent things to tell the civilized world. I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore."
His testimony is conveyed in a series of extraordinary books, the first of which "If This is a Man" (1947) bears crucial witness to the horrors of the Holocaust while at the same time asserting through calm, almost serene prose the triumph of dignity and reason over brutality and baseness. It is as Philip Toynbee wrote, " a great book because this man was able to match his experiences both with his character and with his words."
On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi fell to the bottom of the staircase of the building in which he was born, widely believed a suicide.