Primo Levi—Brief Biography


·        Born in 1919 in Turin, Italy, into a Jewish middle-class family. His grandmother Bimba was a baroness. She and her entire family had been made barons by Napoleon because they had supported him economically.

·        As a youth Levi knew very little about Jewishness, but Mussolini’s anti-Semitic policy soon taught Levi that it was not “a cheerful little anomaly” in a Catholic country.

·        An underdeveloped, quiet boy, Levi was ridiculed at school for his size. Through cycling and mountain climbing he acquired friends, but according to a biography he did not have any sexual experience before meeting his wife, Lucia, in 1946.

·        Just before the Fascist racial law of 1938 forbade Jews access to academic status, Levi started his chemistry studies at the University of Turin. He graduated first in his class in 1941, the year after Italy had entered World War II as an ally of Germany. He eventually landed a position in a pharmaceutical laboratory where he worked until 1943, when the Germans invaded Northern Italy.

·        During the war Levi wrote for the resistance magazine Giustizia e Libertà.

·        After the collapse of Mussolini’s regime, he tried to contact a partisan group in the north of Italy. Leaving his job, the young chemist traded his glassware for a pistol, joining a band of partisans devoted to fighting Germans and Italian fascists.

·        After being betrayed by one of their own number, Levi was handed over to the Germans and interned in a transit camp in Fòssoli. Two months later, he was deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. From the railroad convoy of 650 people of which Levi was included, fifteen men and nine women survived. He spent 10 months at Auschwitz, where he survived in the Monowicz section of the camp (Auschwitz III) by working in one of three I. G. Farben laboratories making synthetic rubber. As a chemist he knew he could safely eat cotton wool and drink paraffin. A non-Jewish guest worker secretly gave him extra helpings of soup.

·        Falling ill to scarlet fever, he was left behind when the Germans evacuated the camp in anticipation of advancing Russian forces.

·        In January 1945, Levi was liberated by the Red Guard, forever changed by his experience and bearing the indelible tattoo 174517. Levi returned to Turin in October, after a long odyssey. He took up his work as a chemist, living in a stately old building that his family had occupied for three generations.

·        In 1961 Levi became the general manager of a factory producing paints. He retired in 1977 to become a full-time writer.

·        40 years after his imprisonment, in the spring of 1982, Primo Levi returned to Auschwitz (“in the role,” as he put it, “of a tourist”). For the last forty years of his life, Levi devoted himself to attempting to deal with the fact that he was not killed in Auschwitz. “The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died,” he said.

·        Levi died in Turin on April 11, 1987. His death was apparently a suicide—in his home building Levi hurled himself down the central stairwell. Before and after Auschwitz, Levi had suffered from depression, but his death was interpreted by many as a sign that he had not triumphed over his horrible experiences during the war.