• Art S.

Birthday of Primo Levi, 1919

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

On This Day in Jewish History: July 31, 1919



.Born #onthisday in Turin, Italy on July 31st, 1919, Primo Levi would survive the horrors of Auschwitz to become an internationally acclaimed author.


Growing up in Fascist Italy, Levi’s intellectual gifts were recognized at a young age and he entered the Lyceum at age 14. He would then study chemistry at the University of Turin amidst a turbulent period during which Italy passed its Race Laws and the rights of Jews were severely restricted.


After Germany occupied northern Italy, and he joined the resistance movement, Levi was arrested by a fascist militia and sent to an internment camp. When the Nazis assumed control of the camp, he was deported to Monowitz, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. The eleven months he spent in the death camp are the subject of his first book, the masterful "If This is a Man" (English title "Survival in Auschwitz"), first published in October 1947 and later in English and German in 1959.


Alongside Elie Wiesel’s "Night", but composed in a radically different style and tone, Levi’s book is a seminal work of survivor literature. Its prose eschews excessive emotion to better record the everyday reality of Levi’s experience, but it still conveys a powerful voice. It is the voice of humanity in hell, subtlety descriptive, not a cold chronicle but a soberly told account with stark and moving images of victims and their criminal tormentors.


Several factors helped Levi survive Auschwitz—he spoke German, his chemistry skills helped him escape hard manual labor, a fellow prisoner shared his ration of food, he contracted scarlet fever and was left behind when the Germans took the remaining prisoners on a death March before the camp was liberated. And yet Levi’s conclusion was simple and profound: he was saved by luck.


Of the 650 Italian Jews deported to the camp, he was one of 20 to survive. He met Lucia Morpurgo in 1946 and they narried after the war, over several decades, he moved from chemistry to full-time writing, authoring personal accounts, short stories, longer fiction earning him numerous literary prizes.


Primo Levi died from injuries sustained in a fall from a third story balcony on April 11, 1987. Although his death was ruled a suicide, and he had suffered with depression for years, recent biographers, as well as friends, have questioned that conclusion. Either way, his death, at 67, robbed the world of one of its most compelling voices on humanity and its suffering under the boot of 20th Century totalitarianism.



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