Primo Levi (31 July 1919 – 11 April 1987) was an Italian chemist and author of memoirs, short stories, poems and novels. He joined an anti-Fascist group at the start of the Second World War but was captured and taken to the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. Levi survived the Holocaust and returned to Italy.
- Interviewer: Is it possible to abolish man's humanity?
Levi: Unfortunately, yes. Unfortunately, yes; and that is really the characteristic of the Nazi lager [concentration camp]. About the others, I don't know, because I don't know them; perhaps in Russia the same thing happens. It's to abolish man's personality, inside and outside: not only of the prisoner, but also of the jailer. He too lost his personality in the lager.
These are two different itineraries, but with the same result, and I would say that only a few had the good fortune of remaining aware during their imprisonment; some regained their awareness of the experience later, but during it, they had lost it; many forgot everything. They did not record their experiences in their mind. They didn't impress on their memory track. Thus it happened to all, a profound modification in their personality. Most of all, our sensibility lost sharpness, so that the memories of our home had fallen into second place; the memory of family had fallen into second place in face of urgent needs, of hunger, of the necessity to protect oneself against cold, beatings, fatigue... all of this brought about some reactions which we could call animal-like; we were like work animals.
It is curious how this animal-like condition would repeat itself in language: in German there are two words for eating. One is essen and it refers to people, and the other is fressen, referring to animals. We say a horse frisst, for example, or a cat. In the lager, without anyone having decided that it should be so, the verb for eating was fressen. As if the perception of the animalesque regression was clear to all.
- Interview with Daniel Toaff, Sorgenti di Vita (Springs of Life), a program on the Unione Comunita Israelitiche Italiane, Radiotelevisione Italiana [RAI] (25 March 1983); translated by Mirto Stone
- Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.
- Interview with Daniel Toaff, Sorgenti di Vita (25 March 1983); translated by Mirto Stone
- We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.
- As quoted in The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994) by Eric J. Hobsbawm
- I beg the reader not to go in search of messages. It is a term that I detest because it distresses me greatly, for it forces on me clothes that are not mine, which in fact belong to a human type that I distrust; the prophet, the soothsayer, the seer. I am none of these; I’m a normal man with a good memory who fell into a maelstrom and got out of it more by luck than by virtue, and who from that time on has preserved a certain curiosity about maelstroms large and small, metaphorical and actual.
- "The Premise," The Mirror Maker (1986)
- And we must remember that [Hitler and Mussolini's] faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.
- The New Republic, Primo Levi's Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About "Survival in Auschwitz", Translated from Italian into English by Ruth Feldman (February 17, 1986)
- Translation is difficult work because the barriers between languages are higher than is generally thought … knowing how to avoid the traps is not enough to make a good translator. The task is more arduous; it is a matter of transferring from one language to another the expressive force of the text, and this is a superhuman task, so much so that some celebrated translations (for example that of the Odyssey into Latin and the Bible into German) have marked transformations in the history of our civilisation.
Nonetheless, since writing results from a profound interaction between the creative talent of the writer and the language in which he expresses himself, to each translation is coupled an inevitable loss, comparable to the loss of changing money. This diminution varies in degree, great or small according to the ability of the translator and the nature of the original text. As a rule it is minimal for technical or scientific texts (but in this case the translator, in addition to knowing the two languages, needs to understand what he is translating; possess, that is to say, a third competence). It is maximal for poetry...
- I read somewhere — and the person who wrote this was not a mountaineer but a sailor — that the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.
If This Is a Man (1947)
- Also known as Survival at Auschwitz (US publication title)
- A country is considered the more civilised the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.
- I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself.
- In history and in life one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: "to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away."
- Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition, which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.
- If a shoe hurts, one has to go in the evening to the ceremony of the changing of the shoes: this tests the skill of the individual who, in the middle of the incredible crowd, has to be able to choose at an eye's glance one (not a pair, one) shoe, which fits. Because once the choice is made, there can be no second change. And do not imagine that shoes are not important in the life of the Lager. Death begins with the shoes; for most of us, they show themselves to be instruments of torture, which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores which become fatally infected. Whoever has them is forced to walk as if he were dragging a convict's chain (this explains the strange gait of the army which returns every evening on parade); he arrives last everywhere, and everywhere he receives blows. He cannot escape if they run after him; his feet swell and the more they swell, the more the friction with the wood and the cloth of the shoes becomes insupportable. Then only the hospital is left: but to enter the hospital with a diagnosis of "dicke Füsse" (swollen feet) is extremely dangerous, because it is well known to all, and especially to the SS, that here there is no cure for that complaint.
The Periodic Table (1975)
- For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world. I was fed up with books, which I still continued to gulp down with indiscreet voracity, and searched for a key to the highest truths; there must be a key, and I was certain that, owing to some monstrous conspiracy to my detriment and the world's, I would not get in school. In school they loaded with me with tons of notions that I diligently digested, but which did not warm the blood in my veins. I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: "I will understand this, too, I will understand everything, but not the way they want me to. I will find a shortcut, I will make a lock-pick, I will push open the doors."
It was enervating, nauseating, to listen to lectures on the problem of being and knowing, when everything around us was a mystery pressing to be revealed: the old wood of the benches, the sun's sphere beyond the windowpanes and the roofs, the vain flight of the pappus down in the June air. Would all the philosophers and all the armies of the world be able to construct this little fly? No, nor even understand it: this was a shame and an abomination, another road must be found.
- In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.
- Sandro was surprised when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conquerer of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev's Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed!
- I was a chemist in a chemical plant... and I stole in order to eat. If you do not begin as a child, learning how to steal is not easy; it had taken me several months before I could repress the moral commandments and acquired the necessary techniques... I stole everything except the bread of my companions. ...There was a mysterious jar ...It contained ...gray, hard, colorless, odorless, tasteless little rods and did not have a label ...[T]he Russians were a few kilometers away ..; everybody knew the war was about to end: but finally some constants must still subsist, and among them were our hunger ...Alberto took a penknife ...He tried to scrape it ...and saw a spray of yellow sparks ...it was iron-cerium ...from which common flints of cigarette lighters are made. ...Alberto ...explained ...they were mounted on the tips of oxyacetylene torches to ignite the flame. ...Alberto ...did not accept the concentration camp universe ...and miraculously he had remained free ...he had not bowed his head ...I has stolen the cerium: good ...he would turn it into ...an article of high commercial value. Prometheus had been foolish to bestow fire... instead of selling it... the price of a lighter flint was equivalent to a ration of bread... one day of life. ...[I]n two months cerium would have liberated us, an element about which I knew nothing, save ...that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth ...family, and that its name has nothing to do with the ...word for wax (cera) and ...it celebrates ...the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year ...an affectionate-ironic homage to alchemical couplings: just as the Sun was gold and Mars iron, so Ceres must be cerium.
- The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.
- It is a pretty structure isn’t it? It makes you think of something solid, stable, well-linked. In fact it happens also in chemistry as in architecture that “beautiful” edifices, that is, symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy: in short, the same thing happens with molecules as with the cupolas of cathedrals of the arches of bridges.
- On the structure of alloxan, in "Nitrogen".
The Wrench (1978)
- Also known as The Monkey's Wrench (US publication title)
- Nothing can be said: nothing sure, nothing probable, nothing honest. Better to err through omission than through commission: better to refrain from steering the fate of others, since it is already so difficult to navigate one's own.
- Beware of analogies: for millenia they corrupted medicine, and it may be their fault that today's pedagogical systems are so numerous, and after three thousand years of argument we still don't know which is best.
- I'm a libertine, but it's not my specialty.
Collected Poems (1984)
- What to do now? How to detach yourself?
With every work that’s born you die a little.
- "The Work" (1983)
- Is anything sadder than a train
That leaves when it’s supposed to,
That has only one voice,
Only one route?
There’s nothing sadder.
Except perhaps a cart horse,
Shut between two shafts
And unable even to look sideways.
- "January 17, 1946"
- If he believes time has run its course,
A man is a sad thing too.
- "January 17, 1946"
- Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven't dispossessed anyone,
Haven't usurped anyone's bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It's not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.
- "The Survivor" (1984)
- Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Other People's Trades (1985)
- The bond between a man and his profession is similar to that which ties him to his country; it is just as complex, often ambivalent, and in general it is understood completely only when it is broken: by exile or emigration in the case of one’s country, by retirement in the case of a trade or profession.
- The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return of barbarism.
- "News from the Sky"
- To be considered stupid and to be told so is more painful than being called gluttonous, mendacious, violent, lascivious, lazy, cowardly: every weakness, every vice, has found its defenders, its rhetoric, its ennoblement and exaltation, but stupidity hasn’t.
- "The Irritable Chess-Players"
- It is not at all an idle matter trying to define what a human being is.
The Drowned and the Saved (1986)
- It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.
- It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end.
- The aims of life are the best defense against death.
- It was not possible for us nor did we want to become islands; the just (i giusti) among us, neither more nor less numerous than in any other human group, felt remorse, shame and pain for the misdeeds that others and not they had committed, and in which they felt involved, because they sensed that what had happened around them and in their presence, and in them, was irrevocable. Never again could it be cleansed; it would prove that man, the human species — we, in short — had the potential to construct an enormity of pain, and that pain is the only force created from nothing, without cost and without effort. It is enough not to see, not to listen, not to act.
- In countries and epochs in which communication is impeded, soon all other liberties wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinion of others becomes rampant, imposed opinions triumph. The well-known example of this is the crazy genetics preached in the USSR by Lysenko, which in the absence of discussion (his opponents were exiled to Siberia) compromised the harvests for twenty years. Intolerance is inclined to censor, and censorship promotes ignorance of the arguments of others and thus intolerance itself: a rigid, vicious circle that is hard to break.
- Except for cases of pathological incapacity, one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful and easy way to the peace of others and oneself, because silence, the absence of signals, is itself a signal, but an ambiguous one, and ambiguity generates anxiety and suspicion. To say that it is impossible to communicate is false; one always can.
- The prisoners who saved themselves were not the best, the predestined to good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and experienced showed the exact opposite. Survived the worst of preference, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the 'gray area', the spies. It was not a certain rule (there were, nor are there in human affairs, certain rules), but was also a rule. I felt so innocent, but trooped among the saved, and therefore constantly looking for an excuse, before me and the others. Survived the worst, that is the most suitable; the best are all dead.
Quotes about Levi
- La nostra casa è un mucchio di rovine
dove abbiam fatto tante cose belle.
Sette eravamo. Vuol la nostra fine
l'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle
- Our home, where we've done so many beautiful things is a pile of ruins
Seven we were. The Love that moves the sun and other stars guides us to our end.
- Our home, where we've done so many beautiful things is a pile of ruins
- Exposed or isolated, deprived of our culture or locked into it, our powerlessness to define ourselves culminates in the camps: take Primo Levi, a chemist, deported from Italy to Auschwitz in 1943, one of millions: "Levi's number-174517-was tattooed on his left arm in a swift and slightly painful operation.... Only by showing the number could 174517 get bread and soup. Levi speaks: Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken/away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we/speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen,/they will not understand. They will even take away/our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to/find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage/somehow so that behind the name something of us/of us as we were, still remains.
- Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, "Some Notes on Jewish Lesbian Identity" (Summer 1980-Winter 1981), in Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology
- His death was a terrible blow for all of us. We never thought he would kill himself. He was a kind of reference point for us, a model of great serenity and balance. After he killed himself I realized that of course the memory of the camps can never be effaced in any survivor. So many of our great witnesses to that horror have committed suicide. But for every suicide there are always undoubtedly countless factors which must be appreciated. These are never simple matters. But I’m sure that the memory of the camps makes it impossible for one to completely accept life afterwards. And yet he was a person, as I remember him, who was extremely serene and ironic. In the end, though, the torment of his experience in the camps was intolerable. (PB: Would you say that in Italy he was chiefly appreciated for his writings on the holocaust?) NG: No, not only for those, but in general. He was recognized as an extremely important figure. He hated the word ‘holocaust’, though, and so do I. In Italian, at least, it has the distinct effect of ennobling something which cannot be ennobled. I feel “genocide” is a better, more accurately descriptive word. But, yes, he was recognized and respected in every imaginable sense.
- His books were important to me. I miss his presence in the world.
- Marge Piercy He, She and It (1991)
- no listing of Italian Sephardic authors would be complete without Primo Levi, who, along with Elie Wiesel, Imre Kertész, Paul Celan, and Aharon Appelfeld, is one of the most acclaimed chroniclers of the Holocaust. A chemist born into a secular, assimilated family in Turin, Levi is best known for If This Is a Man, a straightforward but at the same time heartrending chronicle of his years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, to which he was deported in 1943. When the autobiography was first published in Italian in 1947, it received almost no attention, perhaps because it was too soon after the Holocaust for readers to fully comprehend what had just occurred. But upon its reissue in 1958 under the title Survival in Auschwitz, the volume quickly became recognized as a classic of Holocaust literature.
- Ilan Stavans Introduction to The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (2005)
- The Italian Jew Primo Levi recognized his kinship with Dante, who likewise wrote of a descent into hell, but having come upon Yiddish speakers for the first time in Auschwitz, he later questioned his authority as a witness and tried to write a novel about the "real Jews" of the Holocaust, the Yiddish Jews of Eastern Europe.
- Ruth Wisse The Modern Jewish Canon (2000)
- International Primo Levi Studies Center
- Scriptorium - Primo Levi
- Brief biography at Kirjasto (Pegasos), at the Internet Archive
- Primo Levi Opera "to scratch an angel"
- "Primo Levi's Last Moments" by Diego Gambetta in Boston Review (Summer 1999)
- "Primo Levi's journeys of peace" by Clive Sinclair TimesOnline (11 July 2007)