Born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italian-Jewish scientist Primo Levi graduated with honors in chemistry amid the rise of Fascism in his home country. He later survived a year at Auschwitz during World War II against all odds. Upon his liberation in 1945, Levi began writing about his experiences and has authored the acclaimed works If This Is a Man, The Truce and The Periodic Table. The cause of his death in 1987, which was officially ruled a suicide, is the subject of some debate.
Discrimination and Perseverance
Primo Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy. He was the first of two children born to middle-class Italian-Jewish parents whose ancestors had immigrated to Italy centuries earlier to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. Raised in a small Jewish community, Levi was a small, shy boy and was a frequent target of bullying. However, he was also an avid reader and excellent student, and by his early teens had developed a keen interest in chemistry.
In 1937, Levi completed his primary schooling and entered the University of Turin. Although Fascism had already swept through the country in the years leading up to World War II, the dictatorial movement had yet to acquire its full racial dimensions when Levi began his studies. That all changed the following year, when laws were put in place that prohibited the education of Jews in state-sponsored schools. However, as Levi had enrolled prior to their enactment, he was exempt from the new laws, though not from their discriminatory implications.
With the help of a sympathetic professor, Levi was able to complete his studies, and in 1941 he graduated with honors in chemistry. But prejudice followed Levi into his professional life, and the qualification “Of Jewish Race” that was printed on his diploma initially prevented him from finding work. Using a false identity and forged papers, he was eventually employed as a chemist with a mining company and then worked for a Swiss pharmaceutical company in Milan. But when he returned home to Turin after his father died in 1942, Levi discovered that conditions had worsened and that his mother and sister were hiding at a home in the nearby hills to avoid persecution.
174517: Surviving Auschwitz
In 1943, Levi and his family fled to northern Italy, where he joined an Italian resistance group. However, when he and his comrades were arrested by Fascist forces later that year, Levi admitted he was a Jew to avoid being shot as a partisan and was sent to an Italian prison camp in January 1944. Though he was treated relatively well there, the camp soon came under German control and Levi was deported to Auschwitz.
In February 1944, Levi arrived at the concentration camp and the number 174517 was tattooed on his forearm. Bent on survival, Levi did whatever he could to endure the horrors of Auschwitz. Trading his food for German lessons and using his training as a chemist, Levi was able to earn himself a job in a rubber factory, which allowed him to avoid some of the harshest realities of the camp. During this time he also began to document the realities of Auschwitz, hoping that he would live and one day bear witness to them.
In January 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz and Levi made his journey home. Of the more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the war, Levi was among the fewer than 700 who survived.