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More on Primo Levi

“Alas for the dreamer: “the moment of consciousness that accompanies the awakening is the acutest of sufferings. “But it does not often happen to us, “and they are not long dreams. We are only tired beasts.” (- If This Is a Man) Primo Levi was born in Torino in 1919 to an old Italian-Jewish family. After graduating from the prestigious Massimo d’Azeglio School he began chemistry studies at the University of Turin. During his term at the university the Fascist regime enacted race laws which made it difficult for him to complete his studies, but he eventually graduated with honors. Levi and several other Jewish students founded a resistance group against the Fascist regime.
When the Germans took over northern Italy in the autumn of 1943, following the removal of Mussolini from power and the government’s surrender to the Allies, the group took to the hills where they tried to rendezvous with a local anti-Fascist underground group. The unskilled members were informed upon and soon captured in December 1943. Levi, who didn’t want to be identified as an anti-Fascist called himself an “Italian citizen of Jewish extraction” and was sent to the Fossoli transit camp near Modena. In February 1944 the prisoners were sent to Auschwitz. Levi was imprisoned in the Auschwitz camp complex for over ten months. Of the 650 Italian Jews deported with Levi, only some 20 survived.
Fortunately for him he knew some German, he managed to find work in a rubber factory, and he finally fell sick and so wasn’t taken on a death march. After the camp was liberated at the end of January 1945 Levi returned, in a long, tortuous journey through Eastern Europe, to his home in Torino. He also returned to his job as a factory chemist and started a family. However, alongside his daily life, Levi turned to literary writing, both prose and poetry, which was impressively powerful. Levi’s writings are some of the most honest, sober and human expressions of the experience of Auschwitz and of the world of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
Levi’s first book, published in 1947, is entitled “If This Is a Man,” his most direct book, which deals with the experiences of an Auschwitz prisoner in a situation in which man’s human dignity has been taken away and the difference between human and inhuman existence was never more unclear. In his writing, detailed, matter-of-fact and sensitive but never flowery or sentimental, Levi managed to convey a glimpse of the world known as Auschwitz.
Levi also describes the constant sense of alienation which every prisoner felt whose name, family and every connection with their previous life was taken away and which was all the more prevalent among the Italian prisoners who didn’t know German or Yiddish and who were, even in the eyes of the other Jews in Auschwitz, to some extent, strangers.
“Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: “as many as there are different human characters. “All implied a weakening struggle of one against all, “and a by no means small sum of aberrations and compromises. “Survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world - “apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune - “was conceded only to very few superior individuals, “made of the stuff of martyrs and saints.” “If This Is A Man” wasn’t accepted immediately but in time its importance and power were recognized. Levi’s second book “The Truce” is a product of his experiences as a migrant during the year after his liberation.
His famous book “The Periodic Table” is a sort of literary autobiography which avoids dealing directly with his time in Auschwitz but relates to it front and back. His last book was “The Drowned and the Saved” in which he returns to Auschwitz and ponders, this time from a greater distance, the big, unsolved questions concerning the Holocaust. Levi wrote several other books and collections of stories and poetry, some of which don’t deal with the Holocaust at all, at least not directly. Alongside the piercing, chilling, pessimistic style of “If This Is A Man” Levi also reveals other sides of his character in his writings with a veil of wry humor and optimism. Primo Levi fell to his death on April 11, 1987.

In this short biographical video on Primo Levi, made by Yad Vashem, there are several sketches and paintings done by survivors that have been laced into the dialogue.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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