100th Birthday: Primo Levi

100th Birthday: Primo Levi

Author: Catharina Goedecke

Primo Michele Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy, into a liberal Jewish family. He started to study chemistry at the University of Turin in 1937. One year later, the fascist regime of Italy passed a series of racial laws, which among other things excluded Jews from attending public schools and universities and from holding professional positions. Nevertheless, after some difficulty in finding a supervisor for his thesis, Levi managed to graduate in 1941.

Primo Levi joined the Italian resistance in 1943 and was arrested in December of the same year by the Italian fascist militia. He was first brought to an Italian internment camp and then transported to the concentration camp in Auschwitz (in today’s Poland) in February 1944. He spent eleven months there, performing forced labor in the production of synthetic rubber. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945, Levi fell ill and was sent to the camp hospital. This saved him from being sent on a death march which killed most prisoners when the SS overseers tried to evacuate the camp before the arrival of the Red Army.

Levi returned to Turin via a long railway journey, arriving in October of 1945. In 1946 he started work at DUCO, a paint factory near Turin. At the same time, he started to write about his experiences. His memoir “If This Is a Man” (“Se questo è un uomo”) about his time in Auschwitz was published in 1947 [1]. In 1948, Levi joined a paint business named SIVA. He was promoted to Technical Director in 1950.

Primo Levi started his second book, “The Truce” (“La tregua”) in 1961. It describes the time from the liberation of Auschwitz until his arrival home in Turin and was published in 1963 [2]. In 1977, he retired from SIVA to have more time to write. Besides his memoirs, Levi wrote science fiction short stories and poetry. In addition, he is well known for two collections of autobiographical short stories: “The Periodic Table” (“Il sistema periodico”), published in 1975 [3], contains episodes of his life starting with his time at university. Each story is named after a chemical element. “Moments of Reprieve” (“Lilit e altri racconti”) was published in 1981 [4]. It is a collection of character studies of people Levi met during his time in Auschwitz.

Primo Levi died on April 11, 1987, after a fall from a landing in the staircase of his home. His death was ruled a suicide, but the testimony of his friends and associates pointed to an accidental fall.



[1] Se questo è un uomo,
Primo Levi,
De Silva, 1947.

[2] La tregua,
Primo Levi,
Einaudi, 1963.

[3] Il sistema periodico,
Primo Levi,
Einaudi, 1975.

[4] Lilit e altri racconti,
Primo Levi,
Einaudi, 1981.




Also of Interest

Primo  Levi Prize for Roald Hoffmann

Inaugural Primo Levi Prize for Roald Hoffmann,
ChemistryViews 2017.
Award honoring chemists who promote human rights


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