Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, was born and raised in a middle class family in Turin, Italy, that lived through the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. For the rest of his life Levi wrote many books, including If this is a Man and The Truce, to bear witness to the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. If this is a Man is about Primo’s capture, stay and liberation while The Truce is about his long journey home. At the age of 67, Primo committed suicide in Milan. He has been claimed as the most influential Holocaust-surviver writer because of his detailed account and his powerful philosophy about human nature.
Primo Levi grew up in Mussolini-led Fascist Italy. He knew very little about Judaism, but was still greatly affected by the anti-Semitic laws of the Catholic country. He was lucky enough to obtain his university degree in chemistry at the University of Turin just before the government started reinforcing a racial law which forbade Jews to high educational status. Primo was the first of his class and wrote for a resistance magazine, Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), after Italy entered the war allied with Nazi Germany in 1941.
Capture and Sent to Auschwitz
After the Allied invasion of Italy and fall of Mussolini’s regime in 1943, Primo Levi contacted an anti-fascist armed resistance movement in northern Italy. At the end of the year he was captured by a Fascist militia loyal to Mussolini. “I preferred to admit my status of Italian citizen of Jewish race” (Levi 19). Since he was Jew he was sent to the Jewish interment camp at Fossoli. The arrival of the German SS officers prompted the deportation all of the Jews from the camp and to Moniwitz, one of the main camp complexes in Auschwitz, Poland. When the ‘pieces’ arrived at the camp, families were separated. Men that appeared fit to work were sent to the barracks and the rest were sent directly to the crematorium including women and children. Primo Levi was then became Haftling (prisoner) number 174517, slowly annihilated, and turned non-human. His number was his only thing that made him unique and different from every other Jewish prisoner. All of them were starving to death, wore rags as clothes and shoes, tattooed on their left arm, and a shaved head. Of the 650 Italian Jews that arrived at Auschwitz only 20 of them survived. The average life expectancy of a new prisoner was three months.
Levi passed almost a year doing hard labor from dawn to dusk in the freezing temperatures moving rails and other heavy loads. On the brink of being chosen to be sent to the gas chambers because of his extremely unhealthy appearance in mid-November ’44, Primo Levi was saved because of his prior career and university degree. He was one of the three Jews chosen by the Nazi Command to work in the Farben laboratories. He was able to avoid performing hard labor the following winter in which he would not have survived. In the lab, Primo Levi made synthetic rubber for Nazi war machines. In the process, Levi created an extremely illegal underground market (punishable by public hanging), in which he stole everything and anything in the lab, (including brooms, knives, pins, thread, and cotton) to buy food for his himself and his accomplices, and pay a german political prisoner to teach him german. Food and understanding the enemies’ language were key to Primo Levi’s survival.
In the winter of ’44, Levi fell extremely ill with scarlet fever and was displaced to the sanatarium (camp hospital). On January 18th, 1945, the SS (paramilitary group under Hitler and technically not part of German Army) evacuated Auschwitz because of the advancing Red Army (USSR). They forced all but the extremely ill to go on the march, now called the Death March, in which all of the prisoners died.
On January 27, 1945, after 20 months of imprisonment, Primo Levi and the rest of the prisoners at Auschwitz were liberated by the Soviet troops. This event marks the end of Levi’s first book, If This is a Man. The Truce is on Primo’s 8 months journey back to Italy. The Russians took the Italians on a circuitous route, transporting them east through Poland to USSR (modern-day Ukraine), north to Minsk (modern-day Belarus), and back to Italy through Romania, Hungary, and Austria. During this time the Italian Jews were given good food and living quarters in liberated concentration camps and were asked for nothing in return. There was no role call, and the ex-prisoners were no restrictions to them whatsoever. This period of change, but yet not overwhelming change, might be considered as a sort of detox. The prisoners slowly became human again through the interaction with the Russian soldiers.
Back to Normal Life
Returning to Turin, Primo Levi suffered from strong psychological trauma while integrating back into normal society. He He became the manager of a paint producing factory and after several months began writing a memoir about his experience on loose sheets of paper. Encouraged by his wife, Primo refined and patched all of his writings to create his first book, If this is a Man, in 1947. He went all over town trying to get his book published, but the pains of what he so descriptively wrote were too fresh.
If This is A Man then went on to sell 500,000 copies in Italy, and Primo Levi wrote the sequel, The Truce. Levi then retired from his job and started writing ful-time. He wrote many novels, short essays, and poems.