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
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.