Primo Levi

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

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Tortured Body, Tortured Mind

Although he wrote prolifically about his wartime experiences, Levi was plagued by a fear of not being fully understood or believed. In Survival in Auschwitz (originally titled If This is a Man), Levi describes a recurring dream: he is at home, with his sister and many others. "They are all listening to me," as he tells his story, but he soon notices that his "listeners do not follow" him, "they are completely indifferent...."

In Auschwitz, Levi worked as a chemist in the camp laboratory. There, he was better off than many of his fellow inmates, but he was not spared daily humiliations, minimal food rations, and beatings that were part and parcel of life as a Jewish slave laborer in the Nazi war machine. Levi credited his survival in large part to Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian civilian working in Auschwitz, who, over the course of the last few months of the war, managed to smuggle extra food to Levi every day. Perrone (for whom Levi named his son Renzo) also helped by writing a letter to Levi's family in Italy and bringing him the reply, as well as supplying him with extra clothing to withstand the winter.

According to Levi, it wasn't so much for the "material aid as for his having constantly reminded me, by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own…a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving." It was thanks to Lorenzo, Levi believed, "that I managed not to forget that I myself was a man."

Perhaps the most poignant element of Survival in Auschwitz is the book's final chapter, "The Story of Ten Days," which recounts Levi's experiences during the 10 days immediately following liberation. Because he was a patient in the camp infirmary when the camp was liberated, Levi was spared the final march of the inmates, during which the vast majority met their deaths.

Levi and his fellow sick inmates were left to fend for themselves. Against tremendous odds, Levi, with two of the more robust inmates, successfully found the means to feed themselves and their fellow bunkmates--a sack of potatoes was located just outside the camp gates and the snow that has not yet been contaminated was melted for washing and cooking.

With the exception of one fatally ill patient, all the inmates in Levi's bunk survive these 10 days (five, however, ultimately succumb and die in the weeks following liberation). It is over the course of these 10 days that humanity, for Levi, returns to itself. An atmosphere of kindness and generosity towards fellow inmates, unthinkable under Nazi rule, suddenly pervades the bunk. Though harrowing, these 10 days mark the extraordinary transformation from imprisonment to freedom.

After Auschwitz

In October 1945, nearly 10 months after Auschwitz was liberated, Levi returned to his home, barely recognizable and visibly shaken by the traumas he had endured. Though his immediate family had survived the war, many of his friends were not as fortunate, and Levi was never able to shake the shadow of Auschwitz.

Levi published Survival in Auschwitz in 1948, three years after being liberated. He initially had difficulty finding a publisher, and when the book was finally released, sales were disappointing. Perhaps the world was not yet ready for such an honest account of what really happened in Auschwitz.

In 1958, when the book was rereleased, it gained international acclaim. Widely recognized as a literary masterpiece, Survival in Auschwitz offers readers an unsentimental portrayal of life in the death camp. A sequel, The Reawakening (or The Truce), soon followed, which related Levi's experiences during his arduous 10-month journey home. Along the way, Levi encounters other Holocaust survivors, and a host of other characters, as he rediscovers the world.

Among Levi's other books are The Periodic Table, a collection of short stories and personal anecdotes each tied to one of the chemical elements, and two novels, If Not Now, When? and The Monkey's Wrench, as well as poems, essays and several collections of short stories.

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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.