Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist
By Myriam Anissimov
Aurum Press, 1998. 452 pp., $49.95 (hb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Eight thousand Italian Jews were deported to Auschwitz during World War II. Only 600 came back.
Primo Levi was one of these few. As Myriam Anissimov recounts in her biography of Levi, this "gentle, shy and unassuming" scientist then felt an impelling drive to testify and warn against fascism as he took up his pen to write his sombre books on the grotesque evil of Auschwitz.
Levi, born in Turin in 1919, developed a love of chemistry, literature and mountain-climbing. He found "a haven of reason against the madness of fascism" in chemistry, whilst mountain- climbing taught him "a few of the basic virtues: resistance, endurance, not losing faith, being prepared for danger and the unexpected" — which were to help him survive the fascist death camp.
Levi committed himself to active opposition to fascism after resistance fighters convinced him that his "mocking, ironic intolerance" of Mussolini was not enough. When, in 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies, and was then invaded by Nazi Germany, he, with 11 other unarmed and untrained partisans, formed a short-lived resistance group. He was arrested in the same year and deported to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Life expectancy in the camps was three or four months, or double that if a prisoner could avoid the harsh open air work during the Polish winter. As a chemist, Levi wound up in the industrial plant run by I.G. Farben, which, attracted by the stimulus to profits offered by slave labour, had chosen Auschwitz to produce synthetic rubber and petrol for Hitler's war machine. I.G. Farben had another remunerative sideline — the manufacture of Zyklon B gas, which was put to work exterminating Jews.
Levi survived the beatings, hunger, cold, incessant danger, constant exhaustion and rampant disease. He survived the degradation and dehumanisation which destroyed the will to live of many prisoners.
After the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, Levi returned to Turin and to his career as a chemist but also with his new calling as a writer. His first book, If This Is a Man, was published in the Italian Communist Party's weekly paper, but book publishers were at first deaf to its tragic grandeur.
Disappointed, Levi gave up writing for over a decade. He concentrated on his job as a senior management executive of a varnish plant, where he was liked and respected by the workers. His literary supporters, however, gradually opened the eyes of the publishing world to his writing's "great poetry, profound morality and poignant, irresistible beauty".
Levi sympathised with the left without being politically active. The left recognised him as a great humanitarian and a steadfast anti-fascist of progressive political instinct — he saw that "a continuous thread runs from the first arson attacks on trade union labour exchanges in Italy in 1921 to the burning of books in German squares in 1933 and on to the hideous flames of the crematoria in Birkenau".
The relationship between Levi and the left, however was not always easy. Levi, who found his work as a scientist professionally rewarding, did not sympathise with the Marxist critique of work under capitalism as alienating because of the worker's lack of control over process and product. He caricatured the left as believing in a "world peopled by slaves chained to their assembly lines by wicked bosses!".
Levi's novel, The Wrench, about a rigger who finds fulfilment in building metal structures, was criticised by some on the left for having no political thrust. Whilst Marxism acknowledges that human labour is creative and skills used to make products of social value may be a source of pride, The Wrench does not show how capitalism distorts and demeans work. The fierce class struggles of the late '60s, and the emergence of an ultra-left, tended to paint both him and his leftist critics into corners of sometimes exaggerated simplicity.
Levi's lack of experience of political activism, and his organisational distance from the Communist Party, also influenced his experience of Auschwitz. He was not part of the Resistance movement, mostly Communist led, that operated in the Nazi camps. His books leave the political response to fascism relatively unexplored in favour of the psychological mechanisms operating on individuals.
Levi also faced criticism for his position on Israel. His "emotional bond" with Israel as the haven for "people like me with a number tattooed on their arm" was the result of his increasingly despairing view of the tenacity of anti-Semitism. He gave blood for Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, and although he publicly criticised the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he did so not from opposition to the Zionist foundations of Israel but only from opposition to Israel's leadership by Menachem Begin.
Palestinians heckled Levi at the launch of his semi-fictional novel, If Not Now When. This book is an invigorating tale about a band of young Jewish anti-fascist partisans in Belarus. It showed that the Jews were not just passive victims who went meekly to the gas chambers. But it did not question the moral contradictions of the Jewish partisans who chose Israel as their destination. The moral right of Palestinian resistance to Zionist racism can not be swept aside by the appalling scale of the Holocaust.
Levi's final years were marked by a growing pessimism. The emergence of brazen neo-Nazi revisionists who denied that the Holocaust had happened filled Levi with despair.
He felt that his books were "useless" and had failed to stem the tide of unreason and bigotry. He began to doubt the possibility of social progress. Recovering painfully from a prostate operation, worn out by constant care for his paralysed mother and his blind mother-in-law, and suffering from bouts of depression, Levi died in 1987, after falling down a stairwell at home.
There has been speculation about whether his death was a suicide or an accident. With Levi's crisis of faith in humanity and his physical decline, suicide remains plausible, though we shall never know.
Anissimov's biography is comprehensive but repetitive and dogged by a laboured attempt to reclaim Levi for Judaism because of his artistic use of Jewish biblical legends and writings. Levi, however, had been cured of any lingering belief in God by the existence of Auschwitz.
Levi's books resonate with profound sorrow at the evil that can exist in the world. But they also pulse with the irrepressible resistance that people have displayed when confronted by fascism and other evils. His books are a compelling condemnation of bigotry and hatred, a powerful rebuttal of fascism and anti-Semitism and a moving reaffirmation of humanity.