Primo Levi was a prophet who resisted the moral nihilism that is the particular mark of the 20th century. Deported in 1944 to Auschwitz, to which he always referred as the Lager, its German name, he survived and then spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of what he had been through. “Someone who has experienced the Lager,” he summed up, “feels that he is the repository of a fundamental experience, inserted into the history of the world, a witness by right and by duty.”
Other survivors have written in anger, recrimination, and self-pity. At times Levi gives way to these natural reactions, but a unique spirit of inquiry informs his books, especially If This Is a Man (1947) and The Drowned and the Saved (1986). How had it come about that mass murder was now a modern industrial process? On one memorable occasion in the Lager, the extreme brutality of one of the SS guards prompted Levi to dare to ask him, “Warum?” — that is to say, Why? “Hier ist kein Warum,” this SS guard answered: Here there is no Why.
The whole range of Italian academic specialists have been taken on board as editors and translators of these hefty thousand-page volumes of Levi’s collected work, with the obvious intention of raising a lasting literary monument. Fame looked unlikely for Levi. Born in Turin in 1919, he might have expected to enjoy a quiet, well-ordered life. True, Benito Mussolini had seized power, but there was no compelling reason to pay attention to his high-decibel speechifying away in Rome. Numbering about 4,000, the Jews of Turin were a close-knit community in which everyone knew everyone else, but they were loyal and assimilated Italians, and proud of it. Levi’s father was a cheerful extrovert, a successful businessman quite prepared to wear the black shirt of the Fascists if that was what all the others were doing. To be Jewish was a matter of little or no importance to any of them. Young Primo never went to synagogue and came to think that a Jew was just someone who didn’t have a Christmas tree. The family had an apartment on the fifth floor of a solid old building in a largely Jewish residential district. Fitting into the Italian family-minded mold, Levi’s mother never moved out, not even when his wife moved in with him. Levi himself was away just once, for the year he spent in the Lager.
Slight, even frail, Levi has a haunted, bespectacled look in most of the photographs included in these volumes. Plenty of people are still around who remember him at every stage, and they have talked themselves out in interviews to biographers and journalists, often at cross-purposes. His youthful timidity, his reserve, his self-doubt, and his fear of women are treated as articles of faith. Following the example of Giacomo Leopardi, the great Italian poet of permanent melancholy, Levi was supposedly unhappier than any of his contemporaries — except that he happened to make close friends easily and go mountain-climbing with them. Some say that reading Thomas Mann (his favorite), Joseph Conrad, Aldous Huxley, Rabelais, and Kafka had made him determined to become a writer — except that in 1937 he enrolled as a chemistry student at the University of Turin. Some of Levi’s fans assert that his primary talent is literary; others say that he has the approach of a chemist, analyzing, defining, weighing, distilling according to a set formula.
Mussolini’s racial laws deprived Jews of basic rights. Primo Levi and his friends began to resist, though they had no idea “how to make bombs or shoot a rifle,” as he put it. Then, in September 1943, Italy declared an armistice, and the German army immediately occupied the country of its former ally. Jews had to decide how to meet the Nazi threat. For about six weeks, Levi was with partisans in the Val d’Aosta. There were some 15 in the group. Fighting, he was to say, was something he had not been taught. Carole Angier, author of an exhaustive biography, writes that the necessity of killing went against Levi’s nature: “He would spend his brief career as a partisan tormented by it.” Afterward, he dismissed that short period as “stupid.” A local Fascist crudely infiltrated and trapped them. Levi was held at Fossoli, a clearing station for onward deportation to Auschwitz.
In the Lager, violence had the purpose of reducing human beings to the level of beasts or things. Pure chance saved Levi from the gas chamber. A subsection of the Lager had the task of manufacturing synthetic rubber for the Wehrmacht, and chemists were required. Passing an exam and mastering sufficient German, Levi was able to stay indoors in a laboratory, spared the weather and physical work that otherwise would have killed him. The Lager developed what he calls “the grey zone,” in which it was each man for himself. Guards, of course, were able to do as they pleased. Possession of a spoon, a mess tin, or a button might be an issue of life or death for prisoners. In the conduct enforced in the grey zone, Levi, like every other inmate, had to become accustomed on the one hand to collaboration with the guards, and on the other to stealing anything that could be stolen. In spite of their orders, chemists and slave laborers alike produced no synthetic rubber. The grey zone’s total absence of morality was a troubling form of verification of the SS view of Jews as beasts and things rather than human beings.
Levi fell ill with scarlet fever at the very moment when the SS were evacuating the Lager and organizing an atrocious death march to the west in the depth of winter. Abandoned in the Lager, he was therefore one of a handful alive when soldiers of the Red Army overran it. The Truce (1963) is Levi’s account of his tragicomic roundabout journey home on a Russian train that seemed to have no destination and might well have abandoned him somewhere in the Soviet Union.
Of the 650 men and women who had been with Levi on the train to Auschwitz, 23 survived. For reasons that go deep into the shame and guilt of Europeans over their collusion with mass murder, Levi’s testimony was pushed aside at first. Publishers rejected him, and Natalia Ginzburg, the best-known Jewish writer from Turin, thought they were right to do so. “I was a chemist,” Levi said of himself, as though in a literary dead end, “an expert in insulating varnishes who happened to have written two books by working overtime evenings and Sundays.” To settle in his own mind whether to forgive or forget, he made contact with German chemists under whom he had been a slave laborer in the Lager. Twice he revisited the Lager.
Levi lived long enough to see changes in attitude. Adolf Eichmann had been responsible for the logistics of mass murder, and his trial, which started in 1961, helped to inform public opinion. Levi did not attend but provided evidence, and considered that justice had been done when Eichmann was executed. He also testified at the trial of an SS colonel accused of deporting several thousand Italian Jews. What had happened to Levi, and what conclusions were to be drawn, became a test of conscience.
Famous at last, Levi published fiction, stories, poems, and occasional pieces on all sorts of subjects for the newspaper La Stampa. Collecting this material for the first time, the editors make great claims for its importance, perhaps for fear that it might be taken as the kind of writing a chemist does in his spare time. But Levi’s memories of the Lager convey a passion and involvement of quite a different order.
Toward the end of his life, Levi apparently suffered from depression. His friends, biographers, and interviewing journalists say so, and some offer quite good evidence for it. Perhaps that is why, in 1987, with his aged mother and his wife nearby, he threw himself off the landing outside his front door, and fell five floors to his death. The suicide of an Auschwitz survivor particularly raises the tormenting question of Why. Perhaps moral nihilism had turned the whole world into a grey zone, and he didn’t want to struggle in it any longer.