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Primo Levi sitting at a desk
Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian-Jewish chemist who survived Auschwitz to become one of the great Holocaust writers.

The cleverest in his class

Born in 1919 in Turin, Italy, Primo grew up in a well-educated Jewish family. When he started primary school it became clear he was a bright child and home tuition from Emilia Glaudia and Marisa Zini (daughter of the philosopher, Zino Zini) was further support for his gifts. An academic year ahead, Primo entered Massimo d’Azelglio Royal Gymnasium where he was the youngest, the cleverest and the only Jew.

At the age of 14, he sat exams for the sixth form and there he read Concerning the Nature of Things by Sir William Bragg and decided he wanted to become a chemist. Primo was called up by the Italian Royal Navy a week before his exams, and sadly due to this, suffered a nervous breakdown, which caused him to fail his Italian exam. He went on to pass this second-time around and enrolled at the University of Turin on a competitive full-time chemistry course.

In a time where the situation for Jews was rapidly changing, Primo found it difficult to find a supervisor for his graduation thesis on Walden inversion (the study of asymmetry around carbon centres in organic molecules). Primo eventually worked with Dr. Nicolo Dallaporta and graduated in 1941 with merit. He also submitted additional theses on x-rays and electrostatic energy. Despite having a clear natural aptitude, Primo's degree certificate was branded with the statement: “of Jewish race”, which prevented him from finding a job due to strict racial laws at the time. 

Secret existence

Primo Levi

Using a false name and papers, Primo found work at an asbestos mine in San Vittore, where he extracted nickel from the mine soil to aid the German war effort. With the situation worsening in Turin, Primo fled to Milan where he was recruited by a fellow student at Swiss firm, A Wander Ltd. Free from the racial laws that had prevented his employment, Primo worked on a project to extract anti-diabetic substances from vegetable matter.

With the German occupation of northern and central Italy, Primo returned to Turin to be reunited with his family but was arrested as he tried to flee through the foothills of the Alps. He was taken to the internment camp at the village of Fossoli, near Modena.

“Our conditions in the camp were quite good. There was no talk of executions and the atmosphere was quite calm. We were allowed to keep the money we had brought with us and to receive money from the outside. We worked in the kitchen in turn and performed other services in the camp. We even prepared a dining room, a rather sparse one, I must admit.”

When Fossoli was taken over by German troops, Primo was transported with other Jews, in twelve cramped cattle trucks, to Auschwitz concentration camp. With his, albeit limited, knowledge of German, picked up through German chemistry publications, he quickly found ways to aid his survival. He used bread to pay for further German lessons from a more experienced fellow Italian prisoner, and found his chemistry knowledge and professional qualifications useful. Primo secured a privileged position as an assistant in IG Farben’s Buna Werke laboratory, which produced synthetic rubber using almost solely slave labour from the camp. In this way, he was able to avoid hard manual labour in the freezing temperatures. Eleven months later, the Red Army liberated the camp; Primo was one of only 20 survivors of the 650 Italian Jews originally transported.

Telling his story

After the war, Primo returned to Turin and had a varied chemical career, finding work at DUCO, a Du Pont Company paint factory. He later set up a chemical consultancy company with an old friend, and most of their money was made supplying stannous chloride to mirror-makers, delivering the unstable chemical by bicycle across the city. Later in his life, Primo was promoted to technical director at SIVA (the acronym translates as 'company for paint and allied products'), where he travelled abroad and made several trips to Germany. Making full use of his freedom, he typically wore short-sleeved shirts to ensure the prison camp number tattooed on his arm was seen. Primo was heavily involved in organisations remembering and recording the horror of the camps and attended many anniversary events where he recounted his own experiences.

Primo was an avid writer. Whilst staying in a DUCO factory dormitory, he began to note down his memories and these became the first draft of If This Is a Man. The book was eventually completed in late 1946 and published by an amateur publisher, Franco Antonicelli. Primo’s anecdotes from his time running the chemical consultancy were also made into short stories, recounting his trials making lipsticks from reptile excreta, designing coloured enamel to coat teeth and of course, the numerous accidents that accompanied this work!

Later in his life, he continued his writing, winning the Premio Campiello literary award for The Truce. He also collaborated with a state broadcaster to produce a radio play of If This Is A Man and later on, with a theatre production. Along with many other books and poetry collections, he wrote Il Sistema Periodica (The Periodic Table): a collection of short pieces from throughout his life, with each story relating to one of the chemical elements. In 2006, it made the shortlist for the best science book ever written, at the Royal Institution in London.

Primo died in 1987 having fallen from his 3rd story apartment. This was initially ruled a suicide; a decision based on the many indications that he was suffering from depression. The Nobel laureate and fellow Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel said at the time “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.” It was later thought more likely that Primo had simply lost his balance and fallen accidentally, as he left no suicide note and had made plans for the short and long-term future. Another Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini, a close friend of Primo's, agreed:

“As a chemical engineer he might have chosen a better way of exiting the world than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralysed.”

Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © Gianni Giansanti /Sygma/Corbis
Published November 2014

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