Primo Levi

A prominent Holocaust survivor and author who lost the will to survive.

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On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi jumped to his death from the third-floor stairwell of the apartment building in which he had resided as a child, and to which he returned after the Holocaust.

An Italian-Jewish chemist, poet, and author, Levi was renowned for his autobiographical accounts of his experiences during and immediately following World War II. His Survival in Auschwitz was one of the first autobiographical accounts of the Holocaust to be published, a mere three years after the end of the war. But it was in the decades that followed that Levi reached his greatest heights of public acceptance, and the greatest depths of his personal tragedy.

Levi's suicide came as a shock to many readers. It flew in the face of the principles that Levi had stood for, and seemed to undermine his steadfast commitment to the value of perseverance, which he had stressed repeatedly in his writings as in his life. But close friends and peers were less surprised. Elie Wiesel, also a survivor of Auschwitz, said of Levi that he had in fact died "in Auschwitz, 40 years later."

The Life of Levi

Primo Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy. As a child, he was frail and sickly, and was mocked for his small frame and timid disposition. Though socially withdrawn, Levi excelled academically, and was among the last Jews to receive academic degrees before racial laws made it illegal for Jews to study in universities.

While his mother and sister hid during the Holocaust, Levi joined a partisan group. The group was infiltrated by fascists, and Levi was sent to a labor camp in Fossoli, Italy. Within a few weeks the entire camp was transferred to Auschwitz. Levi survived 11 months in Auschwitz and the 10-month journey home that followed. For the rest of his life, he would be consumed by these experiences.

A Nuanced Approach to Evil

As an author, Levi was admired as much for his close attention to detail as for his objective style, which was neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing. Levi's writings took a nuanced approach to a subject that is almost always portrayed in strict terms of good and evil. He saw Auschwitz as a complex system in which the Nazis had devised a process of dehumanization that pitted victims against each other in an animalistic fight for survival. By oppressing their victims, writes Levi, the Nazis themselves became dehumanized, because to act inhumanely, as Levi explains, is to deny one's own humanity. The Nazis, he wrote, sought "to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards."

Similarly, Levi noticed even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion that took place in the camp against all reason. For him, these served as a testament to human dignity and the inherent ability to transcend the darkness of Auschwitz through acts that affirm essential humanity.

In an interview with Philip Roth in 1986, Levi said of himself: "I never stopped recording the world and people around me, so much that I still have an unbelievably detailed image of them. I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by a curiosity."

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Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.