Primo Levi, the power of bearing witness

The often invisible suffering created by torture is complex and long lasting. This suffering is difficult to express by people who survived the humiliating treatment aiming to destroy them as human beings. Based on the experience acquired in the care centre, the organization aims to relentlessly bear witness on the consequences of torture. From this ambition arose the choice to name the organization after Primo Levi, because of his name’s symbolic value, representing the refusal of inhumane, cruel or degrading treatment, and because the weight of his historic testimony helped establish the necessity of the Primo Levi Centre actions.

Primo Levi – a writer and witness of his century

Since his death in 1987, Primo Levi’s fame continues to grow in Italy, where he is now recognized as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Throughout the world, his books have been translated into numerous languages, making him the most famous Auschwitz survivor.

« We are witnesses, and we bear the weight »

« I survived, I bear witness. »

Primo Levi was born in Turin in July of 1919, in a family of Piedmont Jews originally from Spain. After his return from the extermination camps, he lived in his beautiful native home until his brutal death on April 11, 1987. He studied at Azegli high school, where he was more inclined towards scientific subjects rather than the arts. He enjoyed mountain hiking and, despite the racial laws introduced under Mussolini, he attended university, where he graduated brilliantly in chemistry in 1941.

He had hardly even begun his professional life when he went to Val d’Aoste to join the Resistance Army. Denounced, then arrested on December 13, 1943, he was detained near Modena, in the centre of Italy. In February 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. He was among the 7,500 Italian Jews deported and one of the 88 who saw their homeland once again.

at Auschwitz

« It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination… ».

These are the first lines of his fundamental book “If This is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz)”, which was written, “not indeed in practice, but as an idea, an intention, during the days in the Lager”. To go from the huge group of the castaways to the skeletal group of survivors, another two favorable circumstances were needed. The first was to be able to work as a chemist in the Buna factory, and more importantly perhaps, the second was to get scarlet fever when the SS left the camp because of the Russian advance. Only the sickest were left behind, and from the 58,000 they took with them, very few survived.

It was January 27, 1945. Exactly 8 months and 23 days later, after an amazing wandering through Eastern Europe, which he narrated in “The Truce”, Primo Levi arrived in Turin, where he found that his family had been spared

The will
to bear witness

And life, not without difficulties, resumes. Primo Levi finds a job as a chemist, and becomes director of a paint company. He gets married, has two children and many friends. He talks, speaking incessantly about what he has seen on behalf of those who cannot speak anymore and who went alone to the end of horror. Rapidly and without plan, he writes as he wanted to in the camps, urged by “the need to tell our story to the “rest”, to make “the rest” participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs”.

However, in the post-war political and literary climate, the major publishers shied away from his writings. It wasn’t until 1947 that a small publisher called De Silva printed 2000 copies of Se questo é un Uomo (“If This is a Man”). His book: “The Truce”, published in April 1963, will be immediately more successful

His professional work and his family life left little time for writing. Nevertheless, little by little, his work began to be recognized, translated, and eventually staged in the theater. Primo Levi carried on and expanded his work. Subsequent works include “The Periodic Table” (1975), which traces the portrait of his ancestors and the Jewish community in Piedmont; “The Wrench” (1978), the story of a metal construction assembler and a chemist; “Lilith” (1978), which pays tribute to his benefactor Lorenzo Perrone, and “If not now, when?”, the dreadful story of a group of Jewish partisans in occupied Poland.

In “The Castaways and the Survivors”, Primo Levi goes back to his fundamental analysis of the extermination camps. Other books followed, twelve in total, which were works of fiction and poems that have not all been translated into French yet

Having retired, Primo Levi partially satisfied his passion of study: “his craving for culture was insatiable and ever watchful. Ranging from literature – in four or five different languages – to science, through ancient and modern history, Jewish culture, and philology”
His fame imposed upon him a multitude of competing obligations, they sometimes prevented him from doing what he wanted most. Thus was confirmed his warning: “whether we want it or not, we are witnesses and we have to bear the burden” from a letter in French to Jean Samuel in April, 1946.

Primo Levi carried this burden until the end, constantly reminding everybody of “what happened”. He answered again and again the same questions about the causes and responsibilities with the thoroughness of a chemist. Until the end, he fought against the rise of fascism and the Holocaust denial. Until the day of this death, he honored his familial and editorial obligations and dealt with illness.

On the day before his death, which occurred on April 11th, 1987 in Turin, Primo Levi talked with Fernandino Camon of the possible publication of his book “The Castaways and the Survivors” by Gallimard. He wrote a last “Natural History” for the newspaper La Stampa and said to a friend: “You think that I am depressed? I don’t think so. I survived, I told the world, I testified.”