Books: An ugly secret

Sergio Luzzatto plumbs the depths of Primo Levi’s experience as a partisan fighter – and his own sense of displacement living in Italy.

Primo Levi (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Primo Levi
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sergio Luzzatto tries his hardest to persuade the reader he is writing a book about the Italian resistance and a certain ominous secret that haunted Primo Levi’s entire life. On the surface, he surely is, and does so with brilliant and imaginative flair. But his narrative is really a clever smokescreen for his anxieties about Italy’s uncertain future. It is a pervasive fear that is heightened each day when he teaches at the University of Turin and stares into the blank faces of his students – who seem disconnected somehow from the anti- Fascist teachings of his own childhood.
In Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy, Luzzatto remembers emotionally how his now-deceased mother would spend evenings reading heartfelt letters to him written by partisan martyrs before they were executed.
Luzzatto wants to believe he will be able to pass this same prideful legacy on to his own children and grandchildren, but fears his words won’t be heeded.
Change is in the air.
Luzzatto, 52, is half-Jewish. Both his parents were young children – 10 and 12 – in September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies and the German troops seized control of Italy’s northern half. His parents’ repeated traumas growing up during the war have become his own.
Luzzatto has always been consumed by the Nazi horror and what followed in Italy – a brutal civil war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, as all struggled to redefine what Italy should become. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Italians had lived under the Fascist rule of Mussolini for a long time, and many were entranced by the all-encompassing power with which he ruled. The general population did not have a solid blueprint in their psyches of what a viable democracy was, nor did they seem to yearn for one.
Luzzatto has written many books about Italy’s fractured past. He wrote The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy, which explores in depth the distressing fascination with Mussolini that continues to this present day. He has written about the presence of the crucifix (The State Crucifix) on every structure in Italy as a damaging bequest to a secular democratic state and has been met with fierce criticism, even by prizewinning Italian author Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote an essay in defense of the crucifix’s innocuousness.
His most controversial book was Padro Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, which examines the cult that formed around Padre Pio beginning in 1918 and continuing for decades. Padro Pio was a modest monk who claimed the marks on his hands and feet were the mark of the stigmata, which agitated the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership, who attempted to have him declared insane. Luzzatto examines the story of Padro Pio’s life within the larger context of faith versus science, raising the ire of many leading critics who were not above asking the “Jewish historian” to focus his attention elsewhere.
We sense Luzzatto has long been living in Italy with a perpetual sense of displacement.
He claims to be an agnostic but shows little interest in exploring or learning about his own Jewish heritage or the effect it has had on his life in Italy – where fewer than 50,000 Jews reside in close proximity to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. This appears to the reader as a glaring and incomprehensible blind spot.
A similar blind spot seems to have affected Primo Levi. Levi was a shy and awkward man who was pursuing a degree in science. He was born in 1919 in Turin, and grew up the son of a suffocating mother who showed him little affection but had a strange hold upon him always. When he married after the war, his wife moved into his family house – a contentious house with animosities spewing between his wife and his mother. He made his living as a chemist for a paint factory, and was an avowed atheist who never gave much thought to his Jewish identity until he was threatened.
Luzzatto idolized Levi and saw in him an enlightened restraint and secular dignity that he aspired to. He had the utmost respect for the man who had chosen to bear witness to the unspeakable with brutal candor and moral clarity. Luzzatto recalls what Levi wrote in 1986 in The Drowned and the Saved, about Auschwitz, words he never forgot. Levi wrote that the saga of Auschwitz “has been written almost exclusively by people who, like me, did not plumb the depths. The ones who did never returned, or if they did, their capacity for observation was paralyzed by pain and incomprehension. Those who were ‘saved’ in the camps were not the best of us... they were the worst: the egotists, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators....”
When Levi died, Luzzatto was just a 24-year-old graduate student in Paris shell-shocked by the news that Levi had taken his own life decades after the war.
Luzzatto attempts to find out more about Levi’s experiences as a partisan. He knew something terrible had happened back then that Levi had referred to only once or twice briefly in muddled terms. It was two murders, not by Levi himself but by others in his group, of two of their own men whom they suspected of severe transgressions.
Perhaps they were spies, or had been threatening them in some way. No one seems certain. But the act left Levi despondent, and he remembered it like this: “An ugly secret weighed in on us, in every one of our minds. Conscience had compelled us to carry out a sentence, and we had carried it out, but come away devastated, empty, wanting everything to finish and to be finished ourselves, but also wanting to be together, to talk, to help each other exorcise that still so recent memory....”
Levi was captured shortly after this event and sent to Auschwitz.
Luzzatto is able to track down a member of Levi’s ragtag partisan group. Aldo Piacenza is still sharp and eager to speak and well over 90. He tells Luzzatto that they hadn’t really begun to fight when Levi was arrested. They were still in the process of recruiting and acquiring weapons.
But Piacenza understood what they were fighting for in a way Levi did not yet comprehend. Piacenza had already volunteered in 1941 for the Eastern Front with the Italian Expeditionary Corps and glimpsed the Final Solution taking place.
He saw Jewish towns with only children left behind; the adults had already been murdered and the children soon would be, too. He also witnessed the execution of more than 12,000 Jews in the Dniepropetrovsk massacre, where Jews were lined up and shot into mass graves.
Luzzatto is tempted to ask Piacenza about the rumored murders that took place years ago that had so disturbed Levi, but decides at the last moment not to, fearful that he might in some way upset Piacenza. It is this exquisite sensitivity that Luzzatto brings to his entire text, a living and breathing humanity that he intermingles with impeccable research.
The partisans would gather steam and go on to fight for 16 months after Levi’s arrest and eventually liberate Turin and other major cities. But Luzzatto seems disappointed when he realizes many were drawn to the fight for less heroic reasons than Piacenza.
Many of the men who did join the partisans had just recently been soldiers fighting against the Allies. They were caught in circumstances that were confusing and scary. Luzzatto realizes some came aboard looking for adventure, and others simply got caught up in the spirit of anarchy, without any real understanding of the fight they were undertaking.
Their nation was floundering after the armistice, and there was still no clear outline of what it would become. The local civilians were for the most part wary of the partisans, whom they did not trust.
The world was in the throes of madness and the darkest impulses in people had been given free rein.
We sense Luzzatto feels the rumblings of those impulses again lurking quietly inside the shadows of his classroom in Turin.