Historical grounding

'Primo Levi' is an elegant and cogent assessment of Levi as a moral thinker, writer and witness to the Holocaust, and as a commentator on Jewish identity.

Turin, Italy; Primo Levi's birthplace. (photo credit: reuters)
Turin, Italy; Primo Levi's birthplace.
(photo credit: reuters)
Until 1938, “it had not meant much to me that I was a Jew,” Primo Levi claimed in The Periodic Table (1975). “Within myself and in my contacts with Christian friends, I had always considered my origin as an almost negligible but curious fact: a small, amusing anomaly, like having a crooked nose or freckles.”
In December 1943, Levi, a partisan fighting against Benito Mussolini, was captured by the Fascist Militia. Less than two months later, he was deported to Auschwitz.
After 11 months there, he returned home – one of fewer than 25 survivors of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport. He resumed work as an industrial chemist, specializing in enamel coatings for wires, and began to write, producing essays, short stories, memoirs and novels on the Holocaust and other subjects, which won him international acclaim.
On April 11, 1987, he threw himself down the stairs of the apartment building in Turin, where he had been born and was still living. His experiences in Auschwitz may or may not have “caused” him to kill himself. What is clear, however, is that his suicide looms large in what Berel Lang calls his “afterlife in this world.”
In Primo Levi, Lang, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York, Albany, provides an elegant and cogent assessment of Levi as a moral thinker, writer and witness to the Holocaust, and as a commentator on Jewish identity. By beginning his narrative at the end and ending it at the beginning of Levi’s life, Lang helps address the question of what he refers to as “when Primo Levi became Primo Levi” – as well as more important and perennial issues, including human nature, the force of evil, the role of chance in survival, and the claim that the Holocaust is “beyond words.”
Lang’s chapter on “The Jewish Question” is especially informative, insightful and nuanced. In denying the earlier significance of his Jewish identity, he points out, Levi exaggerated. The Italian author spent two years preparing for his bar mitzva, for example, and made a commitment to put on tefillin every day. But this qualification, Lang writes, does not diminish the impact Auschwitz had on Levi: It was his first exposure to Yiddish as a mother tongue and to religiously observant Jews.
That Jewish identity became more important to him than it would have “under ‘ordinary’ circumstances is certain,” Lang concludes, “but then, too, even ordinary circumstances often reveal themselves as more than ordinary; only a moment is required.”
As he presents Levi’s “tough minded and imaginative” philosophical reflections, Lang emphasizes that they were always grounded in historical experience.
Levi drew on Auschwitz, Lang indicates, to challenge, “as a facile deduction,” the claim that the barbaric behavior of the Nazis in concentration camps revealed human nature as it really is. The behavior actually proved that under certain circumstances, people act badly, he argued, and nothing more. Levi believed that raising one context above all others as a window into human nature was a moral error.
At the same time, Lang continues, although Levi acknowledged the reality of a “Gray Zone” – applicable to morally charged conduct in a middle ground between right and wrong, where Jewish Kapos and the members of the Judenrat, for example, faced consequences that constrained them from acting in accord with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative – he had no doubt about the legitimacy of ascribing good or evil to human acts. And he overrode objections that ethics were less objective than “assertions of matters of fact,” Lang writes. According to Lang, Levi’s two basic claims – the intelligibility of nature and the objective existence of evil that for him was unintelligence – were incompatible with one another, but Levi chose to live with the inconsistency rather than relinquish either one of them.
Equally important, Lang reminds us that Levi castigated those who asserted that the Holocaust is “unspeakable, ineffable, incomprehensible, and indescribable.”
Such assertions constitute a “dangerous falsehood,” Levi insisted, because they placed the Holocaust outside of history.
Lang cannot solve the mystery of Primo Levi’s death. No one can. His friends attributed his depression to a demanding 91-year-old mother, recently paralyzed by a stroke, whom he considered moving to a nursing home but did not, out of a sense of obligation; a blind mother-in-law who required constant attention; his own physical maladies, which included prostate cancer, foot surgery and shingles; and increasingly ineffective medication. Levi himself, Lang notes, did not attribute his depression to the specter of Auschwitz.
To assert a decisive, causal connection to the camps, Lang states, effaces the 40 years of Levi’s life following his return to Turin, ignores his oft-repeated claims that he was an optimist, “projects backward a shadow” on his life, and alters his texts. In any event, Lang concludes, whether we begin thinking about Levi from the last day of his life and move backward in time, or begin elsewhere, his suicide should – and can – “leave everything else unaltered and, still more certainly, undiminished.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.