Primo Levi: A Life

by Ian Thomson. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company,
2003, xviii + 583 pp., $32.50.

On his tombstone we read his dates, his name, the number tattooed on his arm:

Primo Levi

Levi arrived at Auschwitz on February 26, 1944; Russian troops liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. His year at Auschwitz was one year of his life, but it was all of his life. It is the way we know him.

Levi was many things. He was a Jew, an atheist, and an Italian. He was a scientist with a doctorate in chemistry. He was the author of memoirs, stories, poems, essays, science fiction, and a novel. He was a man with very many friends, who nevertheless was isolated from the world by his depression. And he was 174517. He once signed a letter to a fellow survivor that way (p. 219). We are told, "And he always wore a short-sleeved shirt with a suit, even in winter, so that his prison tattoo was exposed whenever he removed his jacket" (p. 250). Later in the book, we read a letter to Ian Thomson from a Professor De Felice telling us of an occasion when Levi looked out a window, "rolled up his sleeves and placed his hands on his hips, elbows nearly touching behind him. I then saw the tattooed serial number on his forearm" (p. 426).

Levi was determined to be a witness. Slowly and with difficulty, he wrote his story of life in the camp. Surprisingly, he had trouble getting it published. He had a cousin in Massachusetts, Anna Yona, who translated a chapter into English and passed it on to an editor at Little, Brown and Company, which, in turn, passed it on to Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, who was quite well known at the time as the author of the book Peace of Mind. Rabbi Liebman, for some reason, recommended that the book not be published. Levi "would have to wait forty years until America took notice of him" (p. 228). The book eventually appeared in America with the title Survival in Auschwitz. In England, it is called If This Is a Man, a translation of the Italian title.

Survival in Auschwitz is a lacerating book. Any account of life in a death camp would be upsetting, but Levi's narration, filled with details of existence in the camp, minute by minute, presents the reader with more horrors than one could have imagined, even though one knows about what happened at Auschwitz. Furthermore, Levi's history of his experience is written without expressing the anger and grief he felt. The book is awful fact after awful fact.

Levi believed in facts. His commitment to reality was linked in his mind to his opposition to fascist theory. Ian Thomson has written a biography filled with facts, just as Levi himself did in his memoirs. And, consequently, Thomson's description of the experiences of Levi and his friends after they were captured is upsetting as Levi's own writings. Levi was caught on December 13, 1943, and eventually imprisoned at a Nazi-Fascist internment camp in a town called Fossoli, near a railroad line that led to Auschwitz. After four weeks, the Jews at Fossoli were placed on a train. The ride to Auschwitz took six days, much longer than it had to, with no bathrooms and with only one opportunity to get water to drink.

On the train with Levi were two women who were his friends. One was Luciana Nissim, who survived the war. The other was Vanda Maestro, whom Levi loved and might have married had she lived. In the camp Vanda said to Luciana, "If I die, promise to call your baby Vanda" (p. 171). "Nissim kept her promise," writes Thomson at the end of this tragic scene. Later in the book we read about Luciana, "she had a baby girl named Vanda, who died during labour" (p. 221). I am confused. Did Luciana name a baby who hadn't been born? Or did the baby Vanda eventually grow up and then die during labor twenty years or so later? In any event, the death of both Vandas is doubly lacerating.

Levi was a chemist and for 30 years worked for a varnish company named SIVA, whose English name is "Industrial Firm of Varnishes and Associated Products" (p. 241). In 1973, he began work on a book called The Periodic Table, in which every chapter was the name of a chemical element. The book made him famous. A translation of the book by Raymond Rosenthal was published in 1984. Before then, my translations of "Vanadium" and "Titanium" had appeared in Commentary (March 1977) and Midstream (June/July 1981). A translation of "Iron" by Sylvia Hunter and Mirna Risk was published in Commentary in August 1977. All of these were superseded by the Rosenthal translation. The success of his book in which memoirs and fantasies are linked to chemistry enabled him to retire from his career as a chemist and to become a full-time writer.

Levi's recognition and fame came late. Two major biographies appeared after his death. One of them, The Double Bond: Primo Levi by Carole Angier, was reviewed in Midstream by Arnold Ages (September/October 2002). Ian Thomson's biography was originally published in Great Britain in 2002 but did not come out in the United States until 2003. Thomson, as mentioned above, has written a book filled with facts. It is a fascinating work because the world is vast and mysterious, because human life is complex and unpredictable, and because facts are beautiful — a view shared by Levi and Thomson.

Thomson begins with the family before Primo Levi. Levi lived in Turin, in the Italian province of Piedmont. Piedmontese Jewish surnames often reflect the names of towns in southern France, and Levi points this out in "Argon," the first chapter of The Periodic Table. Levi concludes that most of the ancestors of the Jews of Piedmont arrived from Spain by way of Provence. Thomson goes along with this theory, saying that "the Levis claimed descent from the Sephardim (after Sepharad, Hebrew for 'Spain') who had fled anti-Semitic Castile in the fifteenth century" (p. 6). However, Jews had probably lived in southern France since the Roman Empire, perhaps even before there were Jews in Spain. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, "Recent archaeological discoveries prove that the settlement of Jews in Provence is of ancient date and goes back to at least the end of the first century C.E." (volume 13, column 1259). There is no particular reason to assume that the Jews of Provence came from Spain, and it surprising that an Italian Jew like Levi would make that assumption, considering that Italian Jews divide themselves into three groups: Italian rite, Sephardic rite, and Ashkenazic rite (see my "The Jews of Italy," Midstream November/December 2003).

Levi's grandfather and great-grandfather were bankers. In July of 1888, rumors spread that the bank "had run out of credit. Angry creditors descended on the family bank in Piazza Botero; they intended to lynch Michele Levi and his father Giuseppe" (p. 9). One doesn't think of Italy as a place where Jews might have run the danger of being lynched, and as it turned out, they weren't. Giuseppe and Michele were saved by the carabinieri. Four days later, Michele Levi killed himself by jumping from a window. Perhaps it was because of his near-lynching experience. But there was another factor at work: Michele's wife was having an affair with a man she married after the death of her husband. It is impossible to know precisely what caused Michele Levi's suicide. Be that as it may, Primo Levi was named after his grandfather; his full name was Primo Michele Levi.

Primo Levi, like his grandfather, died by jumping — or perhaps falling — to his death. Some people have argued that Levi's death was an accident, since he left no note, and since a chemist would have found an easier way than jumping down a stairwell. By and large, however, Levi is believed to have committed suicide. The rabbi at his funeral, Rabbi Emmanuele Artom, said that Levi's death was not a suicide but that Levi was the victim of delayed homicide (p. 502). We may ponder the parallels of Michele Levi and Primo Michele Levi, both of whom apparently jumped to their deaths after escaping the anti-Semites who wanted to kill them — one four days later, one four decades later.

There are always other factors. Primo Levi suffered from depression all his life. He was a timid child, good in school but ill at ease with his peers. He joined the Fascist youth movement at the age of five (p. 27). I am reminded of the fact that when I lived and taught in China in 1984 and 1989, all the children belonged to the Young Pioneers and wore red neckerchiefs to indicate their membership. Totalitarian movements are all alike. One of the ways they are alike is that they betray their supporters. It is stretching things a bit to say that the five-year-old Levi was a supporter, but by the time he reached the age of 19, in 1938, that would no longer have been a possibility. Anti-Jewish legislation was passed. It did not matter whether a Jew had supported Mussolini. A Jew could not even own a radio (p. 83). In October of 1943, despite his timidity, Levi joined the Italian Resistance. His group was betrayed by an infiltrator and he was captured on December 13, 1943.

The horrors of Auschwitz make words like "depression" or "timidity" irrelevant. Levi survived, miraculously, and returned to a life that seemed normal. The depression grew worse as the years went by. We can never know how depressed Levi would have been without the Auschwitz experience that was such a major part of his identity.

His Auschwitz identity happened to him because of his Jewish identity. His family was assimilated and he wasn't religious; nevertheless, he was named after his grandfather, following Jewish tradition. His family "dipped bread and apple in honey" at the time of the Jewish New Year (p. 94). At Passover, "a goblet of wine was poured for the Prophet Elijah" (p. 32). Levi's son, Renzo, was bar-mitzvahed (p. 400).More to the point, he knew the Judeo-Italian dialect of Piedmont, which was already disappearing during Levi's childhood, and wrote about it at length in his chapter "Argon" of The Periodic Table.

Levi's feelings about Israel are hard to pin down. Before the Six Day War, "Levi was filled with anguish; he believed that his own people stood on the brink of a second catastrophe within a quarter-century" (p. 311). After the war, Thomson writes that he had different feelings: "As the days went by, Levi was increasingly unhappy with Israel's aggression and national self-absorbtion. On 10 June, with twenty-two other Turin Jews, he signed a manifesto in the leftist journal Il Ponte calling for urgent dialogue between Jews and Arabs" (p. 311). But calling for such a dialogue at that moment was not at all an expression of unhappiness with Israel. It was the Arab world, meeting at the Khartoum Arab Summit Conference in August 1967, that issued the Three Noes of Khartoum: no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel.

Opposition to the policies of a country may reflect either support or hostility. One may oppose a policy for the country's good and because of one's need to identify with that country; on the other hand, one may oppose a policy because one thinks the country is bad and everything it does is bad. Levi co-authored a statement that was signed by many Italian Jews in 1982 opposing Israel's actions in southern Lebanon. "Levi applied himself to a Begin Must Go campaign" (p. 399). My own analysis is that he did so because he identified with Israel. When visited by a reporter from the anti-Israel newspaper La Repubblica, he responded to the question "Are the Palestinians in the same position as the Jews under the Nazis? " with the answer "There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians" (p. 403). Perhaps that single sentence said everything. It was a polite and accurate answer to an unspeakably rude question. Or perhaps politeness was inappropriate as a response to an accusation of genocide. Appropriate or not, sticking to facts without editorializing was Levi's way of dealing with the world.

Levi's novel If Not Now, When? is about East European Jews who go to Israel at the end of World War II. When Levi went to talk about his novel to a group of Italian Communists, "a group of Palestinians verbally attacked him. Levi was seen as an emissary of Israel's officialdom and a supporter of Begin's militant Zionism ... the Palestinians raised such a clamor that Levi had to be bundled out of the clubhouse back door" (p. 404).

We can't read the minds of the Palestinians who forced Levi to flee from the room, but I find it hard to believe that they thought he supported "Begin's militant Zionism." Levi had made it clear that he disapproved of Begin's policies. If a group of Palestinians felt they had to verbally attack him, it almost certainly was because they felt that Levi was not an anti-Zionist.

We can conjecture about the depth of Levi's Jewish identity or his commitment to Israel. We can speculate about his depression and the reasons for his death. Conjecture and speculation are useful and rewarding, but, as Levi would have agreed, they must be consistent with facts. There is nothing as beautiful as a fact. However, when we try to understand the complexities of the human soul, we can never have enough facts. A human being is as vast a subject as the universe.

This review appeared in the April 2004 issue of Midstream.