Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Pete's Pantheon: Primo Levi, Enduring Witness
Primo Levi should have been an obscure chemist, leading a quiet and useful life formulating paint in his hometown of Turin in Northern Italy. This was not to be. As a Jewish man in Mussolini's Italy, he was caught up in the brutal history of the time. A brutality he unconsciously prepared for with rigorous climbing trips in the mountains near Turin. In those mountains he learned lessons in endurance he would rely on later as prisoner number 174517 in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.
Part of what drew him to chemistry was a need for truth in an era of big lies. Water was made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom no matter what Il Duce said. Science did not bow to bullies. As civilization began to crumble around him, H2o remained H2o.
Levi joined the anti-fascist Italian Resistance, and was soon caught. When he was arrested, he identified himself as Jewish and was eventually sent to the concentration camp.
He went into the camp as a chemist, survived through intelligence, luck, and courage, and emerged as a writer. Before Auschwitz he had no need or desire to be a storyteller. As a survivor, his deep need to tell his tale was equaled by his eloquence. He told it again and again, finally writing it down in the slim but overwhelming book "Survival in Auschwitz".
He wrote of his experience with elegance and scientific clarity. The depravity of the camps, and the loss of his own humanity are described unsparingly. In subsequent writing his long odyssey home, and his post-war dealings with Germans are recounted with a restraint that is his gift to the reader. Primo Levi stands between you and the abyss. In his urgent need to make sure humanity doesn't forget and return, he gathered strength, relived his passage through Hell, and wrote it all down as a witness.
Having found his voice, and growing acclaim, as a writer, Levi nevertheless continued to work as a chemist in a Turin paint factory. For many years he produced poetry, short stories, memoirs and newspaper articles marked by elegance, clarity and grace notes of humor. Near the end of his life, he finally dedicated himself full-time to writing.
His death in 1987 was ruled a suicide. He was found at the bottom of the stairwell in the home in which he had spent most of his life. His fellow death camp survivor Elie Weisel said at the time "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later". But there is evidence that the fall was an accident. No suicide note? From a passionate writer? And would this thoughtful and restrained man make a messy and melodramatic plunge down a stairwell his last act? Also, consider: As a chemist he certainly knew tidier, and more certain ways to end his life. Add in the fact that he was taking medication that made him dizzy and prone to falls, and one begins to doubt that a man who endured and escaped his would-be murderers would surrender to them forty years later.