Primo Levi (31st July, 1919 – 11th April, 1987) was an Italian Jewish chemist born in 1919 who became one of the most well known Holocaust writers of all time. Born in Turin, Italy to a liberal Jewish family.
As a teenager in 1930 Levi entered the Massimo d’Azeglio Royal Gymnasium a year ahead of the normal requirements and as such was the youngest, the shortest, and cleverest boy in his class, as well as being the only Jew. Here he was bullied, the rise in anti-Semitism already showing way before Hitler’s rise to power.
Through the next few years and well into the 1930s, Levi excelled at school despite the continued bullying and in 1934 upon reading Concerning the Nature of Things by Sir William Bragg decided he wanted to be a chemist.
In 1937 he was summoned before the War Ministry and accused of ignoring a draft notice from the Italian Royal Navy, to keep him out of the Navy his father enrolled him in the Fascist Militia, a sign of a further darkening of the times. By 1938 new laws against Jews saw him expelled but by then he was ready to enrol in the University of Turin to study chemistry. New racial laws meant he had trouble finding work and finding a supervisor for his graduation thesis and although he passed his degree his certificate bore the remark “Of Jewish race” leaving him unable to find a permanent job.
In the hope of joining the Italian Resistance, Levi and some comrades took to the foothills of the Alps, but untrained for such a venture, he and his companions were arrested. Once he confessed to being Jewish he was sent to an internment camp at Fossoli near Modena, from here he was transported to Auschwitz, which served as inspiration for many of his books.
Levi (record number 174517) spent eleven months there before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of twenty who left the camps alive. The average life expectancy of a new entrant at the camp was three to four months.
Here, Levi started his writing career and if you’d like to know more about the life of Primo Levi and his time at Auschwitz our recommended reads are below. Primo Levi died in 1987 from a suspected suicide.