Primo Levi, Author of the 'Best Science Book Ever Written'

Primo Levi Portrait
Primo Levi, Italian writer and Holocaust survivor, portrait. Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor. His classic book “The Periodic Table” was named the best science book ever written by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

In his first book, a 1947 autobiography titled, “If This Is a Man,” Levi movingly recounted the year he spent imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration and death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

Fast Facts: Primo Levi

  • Full Name: Primo Michele Levi
  • Pen Name: Damiano Malabaila (occasional)
  • Born: July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy
  • Died: April 11, 1987, in Turin, Italy
  • Parents: Cesare and Ester Levi
  • Wife: Lucia Morpurgo
  • Children: Renzo and Lisa
  • Education: Degree in Chemistry from the University of Turin, 1941
  • Key Accomplishments: Author of several noted books, poems, and short stories. His book “The Periodic Table” was named the “best science book ever” by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
  • Notable Quotations: “The aims of life are the best defense against death.”

Early Life, Education, and Auschwitz

Primo Michele Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy. His progressive Jewish family was headed by his father, Cesare, a factory worker, and his self-educated mother Ester, an avid reader and pianist. Despite being a social introvert, Levi was dedicated to his education. In 1941, he graduated summa cum laude in chemistry from the University of Turin. Days after his graduation, Italian fascist laws banned Jews from studying in universities.

At the height of the Holocaust in 1943, Levi moved to northern Italy to join friends in a resistance group. When fascists infiltrated the group, Levi was arrested and sent to a labor camp near Modena, Italy, and later transferred to Auschwitz, where he worked as a slave laborer for 11 months. After the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945, Levi returned to Turin. His experiences in Auschwitz and on his 10-month struggle to return to Turin would consume Levi and shape the rest of his life.

1950 photograph of Primo Levi
Primo Levi circa 1950. Mondadori Publishers / Public Domain

Chemist in Confinement

In earning an advanced degree in chemistry from the University of Turin in mid-1941, Levi had also gained recognition for his additional theses on x-rays and electrostatic energy. However, because his degree certificate bore the remark, “of Jewish race,” the fascist Italian racial laws prevented him from finding a permanent job. 

In December 1941, Levi took a clandestine job in San Vittore, Italy, where, working under a false name, he extracted nickel from mine tailings. Knowing that the nickel would be used by Germany to produce armaments, he left the San Vittore mines in June 1942, taking a job in a Swiss company working on an experimental project extracting anti-diabetic drugs from vegetable matter. While working in Switzerland allowed him to escape the race laws, Levi realized the project was doomed to fail.

When Germany occupied northern and central Italy in September 1943 and installed fascist Benito Mussolini as head of the Italian Social Republic, Levi returned to Turin only to find his mother and sister hiding in the hills outside the city. In October 1943, Levi and some of his friends formed a resistance group. In December, Levi and his group were arrested by the fascist militia. When told he would be executed as an Italian partisan, Levi confessed to being a Jew and was sent to the Fossoli Italian Social Republic internment camp near Modena. Though in confinement, Levi was safe as long as Fossoli remained under Italian rather than German control. However, after Germany took over the Fossoli camp in early 1944, Levi was transferred to the concentration and death camp at Auschwitz.

Surviving Auschwitz

Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz’s Monowitz prison camp on February 21, 1944, and spent eleven months there before his camp was liberated on January 18, 1945. Of the original 650 Italian Jewish prisoners in the camp, Levi was one of only 20 who survived.

According to his personal accounts, Levi survived Auschwitz by using his knowledge of chemistry and ability to speak German to secure a position as an assistant chemist in the camp’s laboratory used to make synthetic rubber, a commodity desperately needed by the failing Nazi war effort.

Weeks before the camp was liberated, Levi came down with scarlet fever, and because of his valued position in the laboratory, was treated in the camp’s hospital rather than being executed. As the Soviet Army approached, the Nazi SS forced all but the gravely ill prisoners on a death march to another prison camp still under German control. While most of the remaining prisoners died along the way, the treatment Levi had received while hospitalized helped him survive until the SS surrendered the prisoners to the Soviet Army.

After a recovery period in a Soviet hospital camp in Poland, Levi embarked on a difficult, 10-month-long railway journey through Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, not reaching his home in Turin until October 19, 1945. His later writings would be peppered with his recollections of the millions of wandering, displaced people he saw on his long journey through the war-ravaged countryside.

Primo Levi
Primo Levi circa 1960. Public Domain

Writing Career (1947 – 1986)

In January 1946, Levi met and instantly fell in love with his soon-to-be wife Lucia Morpurgo. In what would become a life-long collaboration, Levi, assisted by Lucia, began writing poetry and stories about his experiences in Auschwitz.

In Levi’s first book, “If This Is a Man,” published in 1947, he vividly recounted the human atrocities he had witnessed during after his imprisonment in Auschwitz. In a 1963 sequel, “The Truce,” he details his experiences on his long, difficult journey back to his home in Turin after his liberation from Auschwitz.

Published in 1975, Levi’s most critically acclaimed and popular book, “The Periodic Table,” is a collection of 21 chapters or meditations, each named for one of the chemical elements. Each chronologically sequenced chapter is an autobiographical recollection of Levi’s experiences as a Jewish-Italian doctoral-level chemist under the Fascist regime, confinement in Auschwitz, and afterward. Widely considered to be Levi's crowning achievement, “The Periodic Table” was named the “best science book ever” by the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1962.

Death

On April 11, 1987, Levi fell from the landing of his third-story apartment in Turin and died shortly thereafter. Although many of his friends and associates argued that the fall had been accidental, the coroner declared Levi’s death to have been a suicide. According to three of his closest biographers, Levi had suffered from depression in his later life, driven primarily by his gruesome memories of Auschwitz. At the time of Levi’s death, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.”

Sources: