After almost four years of warfare, Italy capitulated to the Allies in the summer of 1943 and was subsequently occupied by German forces in September. Until this time Italian Jews had not been subject to arrests and deportations, but now, in a period of around eighteen months, an estimated 10,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Among these deportees was a young chemist named Primo Levi. He would survive almost a year in Auschwitz and, in the second half of the twentieth century, become respected as one of the most significant literary voices to emerge from the Holocaust.
Primo Levi was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Turin on 31 July 1919. While virulent anti-Semitic policies had been increasingly enforced in Nazi Germany from 1933, Italian Jews suffered relatively little under Mussolini’s rule until the introduction of racial laws in 1938. These included legislation that forbade Jews from entering university, but as he had already commenced his studies, Levi was permitted to continue reading for his degree in chemistry. It was nevertheless hard for him to find secure work after graduating and in 1943, he joined the Italian partisans. He was captured by fascists in December of that year, handed to Nazi soldiers, and deported to Auschwitz in February 1944.
Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp and extermination centre built by the Nazis; a vast complex formed of three main camps and around forty sub-camps. Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, was an old Polish army barracks that predominantly housed male prisoners. Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, was the women’s camp and also evolved into the main killing centre. Auschwitz III, Buna-Monowitz, was the location of the I.G. Farben industrial factory, which manufactured synthetic rubber. This was where Primo Levi was sent after he passed the initial selection upon his arrival to the camp.
Like the majority of inmates who entered Auschwitz, Levi was subjected to hard labour in the open air and had to adapt quickly to the deprivations of camp life. He sustained a wound to his foot and spent three weeks convalescing in Ka-Be, the name given to the Krankenbau (infirmary), before he was discharged and sent to a new Block and labour Kommando. Concentration camp prisoners would sometimes be assigned work related to their trade, and due to his professional chemistry qualifications, in November 1944 Levi was moved to a laboratory in the Buna factory. Here he was largely sheltered from the harsh Polish winter and had access to resources which, if stolen without detection, could be traded with other prisoners for extra soup or bread rations.
Nevertheless, disease was rife in all areas of the Nazi concentration camps and in January 1945, Levi fell ill with scarlet fever. Because of his fragile condition, he was not sent on one of the infamous death marches out of Auschwitz. He later reflected that his survival may have been partially due to the timing of this illness, as had he been forcibly evacuated it is likely that he would have perished in the snow, along with thousands of others. Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945 and Levi was one of an estimated 7,600 starving prisoners found alive in the camp.
A Chemist and a Writer
After a convoluted journey through war-torn Europe that lasted some nine months, Levi eventually returned to Turin. He married in 1947 and had two children called Lisa and Renzo. His chemistry background led him to a research position in a paint factory, of which he later became the manager, but it was for his skill with a pen that he was to become renowned. Levi felt a psychological need to write about what he had experienced during the war years and his first book, If this is a Man (also published as Survival in Auschwitz), chronicled his incarceration in Buna-Monowitz in a voice that was both calm and non-judgemental. In the preface to this work he wrote, ‘The need to tell our story to “the rest”, to make “the rest” participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse…’
In clear, unembellished language, without ever over-dramatizing his memoir, Levi detailed the routines and idiosyncrasies of Auschwitz: from the importance of comprehending the complex prisoner hierarchy and the advantages of speaking German; to the appalling hygiene conditions and death that was omnipresent even when SS guards had fled the camp. In subsequent works he endeavoured to understand the mind-set of those who had carried out the atrocities of the Holocaust and in spite of what he had suffered, he earned a reputation for optimism and humanity.
An Accidental Death?
Levi retired from the paint factory in 1977 to dedicate his time to literary pursuits. Among his acclaimed works were The Truce, The Periodic Table and The Drowned and the Saved. He lived almost all of his life in the same apartment in Turin, which he shared with his wife and elderly mother.
On 11 April 1987, aged 67, Levi fell headfirst from the third floor landing of his apartment building and died instantly. He had suffered regularly from depression in his later years and it remains a matter of debate whether his death was suicide, stemming from what he had endured in Auschwitz as a young man, or a tragic accident. Unlike some Holocaust survivors, Levi never had his concentration camp tattoo surgically removed and his prisoner number, 174517, is inscribed on his gravestone.