When Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, many thought that he’d killed himself because his wartime imprisonment in Auschwitz had at last made it impossible for him to go on living; many others (this writer among them) believed that if it hadn’t been for Auschwitz, Levi would have killed himself years earlier—that the war, in fact, had lengthened his life because the experience of the concentration camp gave him writing, and it was writing alone that controlled the life-threatening anxiety against which he had struggled from earliest youth. Bearing witness to the historic catastrophe of Nazi Germany allowed (nay, commanded) Levi’s inner agitation to retreat far enough and long enough to let him exercise the talent for philosophical observation that had always been his, but, until the war, had been without sufficient content to find form. It was Auschwitz that freed Levi to become the artist he so clearly was, and writing about it held his inborn despair in check for a good forty years; only then did it fail to win the day.
Primo Levi was born in the northern Italian city of Turin in 1919, into a family of secular, middle-class Jews who had been living in the Piedmont for generations. He grew up in one of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors, most of whom remained solidly in place until World War II and, since most of them survived the war, even long after. Levi, too: except for a year in Milan, a year in Auschwitz and another year spent getting back to Turin, he lived and died in the apartment house in which he was born. When he married in 1947, it was to a girl from the neighborhood, and she readily agreed to move into the building and share the family flat with his sister and widowed mother. At the time of his death—he leaped from the third floor into the open stairwell of this very building—his grown son was living across the hall, his daughter a few blocks away, and his childhood friends on the streets all about. As Levi himself said, Auschwitz was his only adventure.
He grew up physically small, intellectually gifted, emotionally nervous—possessed of (or by) a trembling insecurity that did not abate with the passage of time. People who knew Levi in his youth have testified to one biographer after another that his timidity was his torment. He wanted the world but did not dare to leave home; he fantasized about being a visionary physicist but settled for industrial chemistry; he fell rapturously and repeatedly in love, but only from the waist up: sex terrified him. This last was surely the enduring bane of his existence.
In his 20s, Levi was often infatuated, and the inability to approach a woman made him desperate: “I thought myself condemned,” he wrote years later in the “Zinc” chapter of The Periodic Table, “to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman’s smile forever, which I nevertheless needed as much as air.” And in the “Phosphorus” chapter, he wrote that looking into the future, he saw this morbid shyness as “a condemnation without appeal which would accompany me to my death, confining me to a life poisoned by envy and by abstract, sterile, and aimless desires.” As late as 1975, he was writing as though this problematic condition had never been corrected.
Once, also in his 20s, Levi went mountain climbing with another chemist, a down-to-earth, unimaginative fellow whose joy in risk-taking during the climb was infectious; for Levi, scaling the mountain with this man was like eating some exotic food of life. Of this incident, he wrote in middle age, “Now that many years have passed, I regret that I ate so little of it, for nothing has had, even distantly, the taste of that meat, which is the taste of being strong and free, free also to make mistakes and be the master of one’s destiny.”
Throughout these trials and tribulations of the soul, Levi, when considering the major elements of his identity, inevitably thought of himself as an Italian, a chemist, a would-be writer, even a mountain climber and a failed lover. Like most Italian Jews, who felt as assimilated before the war as the German Jews, Jewishness per se was last on his list. Even in 1929, when Mussolini signed an agreement with the Catholic Church that established Catholicism as the state religion and relegated all other religions to the status of “tolerated cults,” Jews like Levi shrugged. Nine years later, however, in 1938, the race laws were passed and Italian Jews were shocked when they lost their civil rights, property, positions in public office and right to higher education. As Levi had matriculated a year earlier at the University of Turin, he was allowed to continue his studies in chemistry and eventually received a compromised degree in 1941. “I had in a drawer an illuminated parchment on which was written in elegant characters that on Primo Levi, of the Jewish race, had been conferred a degree in Chemistry summa cum laude…. A dubious document, half glory and half derision, half absolution and half condemnation.” Now he knew that in the eyes of his government, he was to be stigmatized as a Jew, and shortly after that branded nothing but a Jew. Little could he have imagined that this turn of events would lead him to his great and abiding subject: the experience of finding oneself transformed into a creature unworthy of being treated like a human among humans.
In the fall of 1942, Levi was in Milan in the company of seven other boys and girls from Turin. The war, at that point, was still at a distance from these youthful anti-Fascists, who went on living from day to day with ironic contempt for the regime but no real sense of urgency: we “accepted with irresponsibility the nightly bombings by the English,” Levi recalled. “We went to the theater and concerts.” The bombs weren’t meant for them, they thought. However, in November 1942 the Allies landed in North Africa; soon after, the Soviets turned back the German Army at Stalingrad. “In the space of a few weeks each of us matured.” Now, when “out of the shadows came men whom Fascism had not crushed…we recognized in them our teachers.”
Soon enough, the virginal summa cum laude and his not much more experienced comrades went up into the mountains to join the partisans, although none of them knew the first thing about soldiering: our mentors “told us that our mocking, ironic intolerance was not enough…but they did not teach us how to make bombs or shoot a rifle.” Within months, Levi’s encampment was raided by the Fascist police, which turned its entire population over to the Germans. By February 1944, nearly every one of these twentysomethings was in Auschwitz.
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The British critic John Gross, in reviewing Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved in 1988, wrote: “The guards and the prisoners in the camps had at least one thing in common. Both groups knew that by the standards of the outside world, what they were taking part in was incredible. Even if someone lived to tell the tale, who was going to believe him?”
In later years, Levi said that he counted himself lucky to have been caught in 1944, because by then, although the daily selections for death were still in operation, the Germans were more concentrated on slave labor than on liquidation. What they never reduced their interest in, however, was the application of what Levi called “useless violence”: administering blows and curses for no reason; withholding food and drink for no reason; ordering prisoners to stand naked in the yard for no reason (“in the blue and icy…dawn…all our clothing in our hands”). At first, Levi writes, “It was so new and senseless that we felt no pain…. Only a profound amazement: how can one hit a man without anger?”
Why? is the question that the 24-year-old Primo—a child of the Enlightenment, committed to the rule of reason—kept asking himself. Why, when the Germans had already determined on mass murder, was it necessary to torment the prisoners every hour that they lived? He knew that “our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man,” but the Primo Levi who had trembled before women now stood remarkably alert before the Nazis, and was becoming a man who would spend the rest of his life absorbed by an experience for which there would never be enough of the right words.
Once in the camp, Levi quickly realized that what he was witnessing was the phenomenon of men having to reduce other men to the subhuman so that they could go on killing without themselves becoming deranged; and analogously, what it meant, as a prisoner, to fight (or seek) derangement while waiting to be killed. Then he realized there was more to it than that—much more. The situation was that of the boy pulling the wings off a fly in order to see how it was put together; the Nazis were the boy, the Jews the fly, and Auschwitz the “laboratory” of dissection. Why one set of human beings had brought themselves to treat another set of human beings thus was something he could not explain, but how it was being done he found he could—in incidents both dramatic and homely—describe brilliantly.
In a single famous incident in his memoir If This Is a Man (published in English as Survival in Auschwitz in 1959), Levi writes that he was brought before an SS officer who was to decide whether he could be put to work as a chemist in the Auschwitz rubber factory. The officer is sitting at his desk, writing, when Levi is admitted to his office:
When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.
From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. [W]hen I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.
Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.
After his meeting with Dr. Pannwitz, Levi is taken back to his barrack by Alex the Kapo. Alex reaches out for a cable running along the wintry road to steady himself as he walks. When he takes his hand away, it is blackened by grease. “Without hatred and without sneering,” Levi writes, “Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute, if someone told him that today, on the basis of this action, I judge him and Pannwitz and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.”
The German plan to reduce the Jews to a state of animal cunning succeeded to a frightening degree. Levi shuddered both during and after the war at the often astonishing behavior of his fellow prisoners. Once, after what proved to be the final selection for the gas chamber, a man in his hut fell to his knees thanking God out loud that he had not been chosen, even though a man lying in the bunk above him had been. Of this incident, Levi wrote, “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”
Nonetheless, Levi could understand the Kuhns all around him: “In the Lager…the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone…. If [one] vacillates, he will find no one to extend a helping hand; on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no one’s interest that there will be one more” of the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection, taking up space.
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What Levi would never understand was the willing remove of the Germans from their fellow humanity. The ability to look—for years on end—at a human being and see not a person but a thing became and remained for Levi the crime of crimes. Yet for this, he very nearly blamed not the Germans but life itself. After all, if thousands upon thousands of people were capable of not seeing themselves in others, could this capacity be anything other than innate? Life itself, he concluded, was to be pronounced guilty for having made possible such a monstrous divide within the human organism. This pronouncement became the unyielding indictment—enlarged upon many times in books, essays and stories—that made Primo Levi one of the greatest of the Holocaust writers. As Berel Lang, Levi’s newest biographer, puts it in Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, “That someone who was himself” struggling to remain human was “capable at the same time of recognizing and reflecting on” the existential meaning of his incarceration “makes Levi’s work distinctive both as philosophy and as history and memoir.”
Lang is an emeritus professor of philosophy at SUNY Albany who has written widely on the Holocaust. His book on Levi is an intellectual biography characterized by a somewhat schematic set of speculations on some of the basic elements of Levi’s life, each one arranged around the central experience of Auschwitz. Among the questions Lang ponders: If it wasn’t for Auschwitz, would Levi have written at all? If it wasn’t for Auschwitz, would he have become a self-conscious Jew? If it wasn’t for Auschwitz, would he have killed himself? The book begins with the question of Levi’s suicide, which Lang rightly says is almost always the first thing people talk about when Levi’s name comes up. Here is an example of how Lang proceeds:
The cause of death was judged to be a fall from the landing of Levi’s apartment on the third floor…. There were no witnesses…. The verdict of suicide was thus an inference….
Claims attributing Levi’s suicide to his months in Auschwitz surfaced quickly…
As Elie Wiesel wrote: “Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.” Lang continues:
Those who dissented entirely from the verdict of suicide…claimed (and still continue to hold) that for Levi to commit suicide would diminish or contradict too much else in his life and work, what he had lived through and for…he should not have done it or, more strongly, that he could not have done it….
Neither personal relationship nor independent analysis can fully settle the issue, although each item of evidence may add to or subtract from a conclusion in different measures….
Some of his readers have argued that to accept the verdict of Levi’s suicide…would undo the intellectual and emotional strength credited to Levi as survivor and witness.
Around each of these assertions, Lang gathers a prodigious amount of rumination that includes his thoughts on suicide in general, Levi’s in particular, and those of the imagined reader. Each of the chapters that follow treats Levi’s relation to another of the aspects previously named—writing, thinking, Jewishness—in the same manner.
Lang’s book does not represent an introduction to the life of Primo Levi. If the reader is expecting to find Levi, the flesh-and-blood man, on the page, he is not here. What is here is a philosophically minded investigation into the contextual nature of Levi’s life, mainly as a prisoner of Auschwitz. It asks: Under what conditions does suicide represent a “free death”? How does the mind of a trained scientist come to a prisoner’s aid? How does the visceral experience of the camp differ from the intellectual act of thinking about it?
The writing in Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life is not always felicitous. A great many of Lang’s sentences are awkward to the point of unintelligibility. Burdened as they are by the academic habit of piling clause upon clause upon clause, they sometimes fail to arrive, grammatically speaking. However, the book is carried by a rich and absorptive interest in the social and psychological realities that endow Primo Levi’s life with a sense of largeness. If you read it after rereading Survival in Auschwitz, you will inevitably experience a renewed sense of wonder at the near-epic value of its subject.
Levi was undeniably himself, but he was also like those hysterics who become commanding figures in the face of true crisis, when some previously untested essence within them is brought to life. In the concentration camp, a force greater than the fears that had routinely plagued him asserted itself. It was the force of the seriously stunned humanist who, trapped in an “end of civilization” scenario, looks into the void where the human condition in all its color and variety, beauty and horror, waywardness and firmness is expiring, and knows that should he live, he will be ordained to spend the rest of his days describing the unimaginable and the indescribable.
Ironically enough, it was precisely because Levi remained as human in the camp as he had been outside it that the person he had been before the war was there, waiting to claim him, as soon as he was once more a “free” man. Slowly, the old fears, anxieties and depressions seeped back into his inner being. That he kept them from closing in long enough to become one of the great tellers of those tales that warrant rewriting the Bible is a matter of true amazement.