Primo Levi as a young man
Public DomainPrimo Levi as a young man

Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, into a family of assimilated Jews. Bullied at school, he excelled academically and entered University a year early. He received his degree in Chemistry in 1941. After the occupation of Northern Italy by the German army in September 1943, Levi joined a partisan group. Inexperienced and untrained, the group was betrayed by one of its own members, and in December 1943 they were imprisoned in Fossoli.

In February 1944, Levi and 650 other interned Italian Jews were transported in cattle wagons to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Levi wrote that it was his 'good fortune' to be deported to Auschwitz in 1944, after the SS had ended arbitrary killings. Although luck was a vital factor in his survival, aptitude and intelligence most certainly played a role. 

In January 1945, Levi caught scarlet fever and was left behind when the Germans evacuated the camp ahead of the approaching Russian army. His illness saved him from the fate of the 20,000 prisoners evacuated from the camp, most of whom perished on the march westwards. After eleven months in the camp, Levi was liberated by the Soviet Army. He was housed first in a camp for former concentration camp inmates, and then embarked on a ten-month circuitous journey around Europe, eventually arriving back in Turin in October of 1945.

Resuming his career, Levi began working as an industrial chemist. With the camps still constantly in his mind, he began to write down everything he could remember. By December 1946, he had completed the first draft of If This is a Man (Se questo è un uomo). It was turned down by several major publishers. Finally, in 1947, 2,500 copies were published; fewer than half sold. During this period, Levi became technical director of a chemical company in Turin, and married Lucia. They had two children. He finally managed to have If this is a man republished in 1958. It was an immediate success, and has since been translated into numerous languages and adapted for stage, television and radio. Levi continued to balance his writing and chemistry careers until 1977, when he retired to devote himself full time to writing.

By the 1980s, Levi was an acclaimed figure both at home and internationally, and was in great demand publicly. His writing career was cut short by his untimely death in 1987, when he fell from the third floor of his stairwell. Some controversy still surrounds the circumstances of his death. A long time victim of depression, Levi also spent decades battling memories of the concentration camp. A suicide note was never found, and many dispute the suicide verdict. At the time of his death, Levi was working on a novel, The Double Bond, of which six chapters are known to exist. In them, he explores the roots of the depression that he struggled with throughout his life.

 

 

Levi's other works include:

The Truce (1963), the second part of his memoirs, detailing his return from Auschwitz, which won the Campiello prize

Two collections of short stories: The Sixth Day and other Tales (1966), which won the Bagutta Prize in 1967, and Vizio di forma (1971)

The Periodic Table (1975), which won the Prato Prize for Resistance 

Later works include L'osteria di Brema (1975), a collection of poetry; The Wrench (1978), winner of the Strega Prize in 1979; The search for roots: A personal Anthology (1981); Moments of Reprieve (1981); If Not Now, When? (1982), which won him the Campiello Prize for the second time as well as the Viareggio Prize in 1982; Collected Poems (1984); Other People's Trades (1985); and The Mirror Maker (1986).

Levi's last published work, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), takes its title from a chapter of If This is a Man and deals with issues of survival, shame and memory.