Primo Levi: Holocaust Writing

Subject: Literature
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Most scholars define the Holocaust as the genocide of about 6 million Jews in various parts of Europe during World War II as key plank of the Nazi (Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party) under Hitler. Actually, the Nazis also persecuted and killed Soviet citizens, ethnic Poles, people with disabilities, homosexuals and political and religious opponents. So if the definition of the Holocaust had not been confined to the genocide of European Jews, it is believed that the total number of victims would have reached 11 million. For this reason, the Holocaust is acknowledged to be the most shocking and stark example of man’s inhumanity to man, such that it has had a profound impact on the world’s art and literature for the past 60 years. In the case of the Holocaust literature, critics generally group two genres of writing that emerged from Hitler’s war against the Jews: testimony and fiction. Taking the form of testimony were the diaries, autobiographies and commentaries recounting the experience of survivors, whilst the other type uses the devices of fiction to present the horrors of the genocide through novels, short stories or poetry. This suggests that whilst the story telling was direct and frank in the literature classified as testimony, the telling in the fiction-type was embellished for greater effect. Of the over 120 first-person accounts of the Holocaust, the works of Primo Levi stand out because he is said to have written both Holocaust testimony and Holocaust fiction. Moreover, many of his works are considered by critics as science fiction because they deal with futuristic technology, which he used as prism by which to examine the ugly side of humanity. How Levi’s style and approach to Holocaust writing deviates from those of other survivors is discussed at length in this paper.

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Holocaust Literature

The torture and killings during the Holocaust years took place in nine extermination camps consisting of Auschwitz I and II, Belzec, Chelmino, Jasenovac, Majdanek, Maly Trostinets, Sobibor and Treblinka (Rosenfield, 1980). There were at least 128 first-generation authors who survived, perished or were closely connected to the Holocaust camps (Patterson, et al., 2002). However, there is only a handful that mattered, among them Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, Jean Amery, Imre Kertesz, Edgar Hilsenrath and Primo Levi among the men, whilst the women were led by Anne Frank and Zdena Berger. They went through the Holocaust in disparate parts of Europe.

The Austrian Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist by training who knew Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, both famous for founding different psychiatric disciplines. He published 32 books on the Holocaust, of which the most famous is Man’s Search for Meaning (Pytell, 2000). His fellow Austrian Jean Amery, who was born Hans Mayer, was studying philosophy and literature when the war broke out and was forced to join the anti-Nazi resistance (Benchouina, 2006). Amery’s most celebrated works were At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplation by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, On Aging, On Suicide and A Discourse on Voluntary Death.

As for Elie Wiesel, he was the most prolific of the Holocaust writers, having written a total of 57 books presented as memoirs of his imprisonment in several concentration camps. The most popular of this output was Night, which won the Nobel Prize (Berenbaum, 1979). An equally famous Holocaust author although not as prodigious as Wiesel was Edgar Hilsenrath, who wrote The Nazi and the Barber and Story of the Last Thought. The first novel tells the story of an SS mass murderer who assumed a Jewish identity and escaped to Israel at the end of the war. There, he narrated all the atrocities he had committed to a barber. Another Holocaust survivor was Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian Jew who was among those banished from their homeland by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz (Molnar, 2003). He authored 12 books about his ordeal, of which the best known was Fatelessness.

The sparse contribution of women to Holocaust literature consists mainly of Anne Frank’s diary and the solitary novel of Zdena Berger called Tell Me Another Morning (Heinemann, 1986). Anne Frank’s diary chronicled the Nazi atrocities from the secret room of an abandoned building in Netherlands where her family hid during the war when she was 12. At 15, the family was discovered and sent to various concentration camps, where Frank eventually died of hunger and disease (Lee, 2000). As for Zdena Berger, her semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a 15-year-old Czechoslovakian girl who survived concentration camps, forced marches and typhoid fever (Sinnott, 2007). Mary Berg and Chaim Kaplan also wrote diaries that became part of Holocaust literature and there were autobiographies of such women as Charlotte Delbo, Livia Bitton-Jackson and Olga Lengyel, but they did not achieve the prominence of the diaries of Frank and Berger.

The diaries, memoirs, oral reports, photographs, chronicles or historical accounts, novels and dramas based on the Holocaust all inhabit a haunted terrain of traumatised memory (Lang, 1988). According to literary historians (Benchouina, 2006; Hirowitz, 1997; Cohen, 1998), there is a distinction between a Holocaust novel and the Holocaust novelist, who is in turn different from the Holocaust survivor-writer. The Holocaust novelists concern themselves with the genre of the Holocaust novel as specifically distinct from Holocaust testimony or historical record. It therefore excludes the writers of Holocaust diaries, autobiographies and commentaries as well as the better known Holocaust writers (Rosenfield, 1980) who wrote in the same genre. Nonetheless, it includes those who have written both Holocaust testimony and Holocaust fiction such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Levi and Wiesel were Holocaust writers of consequence because they focused primarily and directly on this theme whilst the other writers use the Holocaust simply as a setting for the action.

Levi’s Approach

Primo Levi trained and worked as a chemist and this showed in his memoirs, fiction and stories that refer to his 10-month internment at the Auschwitz concentration camp (Losey, 1994). His works are noted for its blending of unusual narrative inventions, which provide an invaluable and literate reminder of the Holocaust. His Holocaust writings include If This is a Man (1958), Truce (1963), The Sixth Day (1966), The Periodic Table (1975), The Monkey’s Wrench (1978), Moments of Reprieve (1981), If Not Now, When? (1982), The Drowned and the Saved (1986), The Mirror Maker (1986), Other People’s Trade (1989), plus the poetry collections Shema (1976), At an Uncertain Hour (1984) and Collected Poems (1988).

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The body of works produced by Levi on the Holocaust is not as voluminous as the others but they provide a unique perspective in literature because they skillfully combine the major elements of the author’s life (Baxter, 2002). His discipline and training as a chemist is evident in his choice of subject matter, the reasoning of his protagonists, and his analytical descriptions. Also, Levi’s harrowing experiences in Auschwitz are the source of an insuppressible sense of wonder present in his work, a wonder over every detail of the animate and inanimate world, coupled with a profound appreciation of simply being alive to observe the details (Anissmov, 1999). This blending of science and mystery makes the stories hard to categorise. For example, Levi’s tale about the construction of a bridge progresses not by the traditional plot sequence of introduction, conflict, and resolution; but rather by the scientific description of the engineering process, tempered by an omnipresent delight in just being able to witness the construction of a bridge (Keffer & Ruchm 2007). These stories, the odd children of the unplanned pairing of science and atrocity, comprise Levi’s gift to modern literature, which is one of the factors that sets his work apart from other writings (Baxter, 2002).

The blending of science and mystery is most evident in The Sixth Day, a collection of 23 short stories often treated as science fiction because of the recurring reference to futuristic technology. The use of newfangled gadgets as a prism by which to examine humanity is in fact a literary device used by Levi throughout his writing career, from the historical fantasies in The Periodic Table and The Monkey’s Wrench. In The Sixth Day, one of the stories titled “Westward” tells the story of how lemmings rush into the sea to die, which served as canvass through which Levi explores the purpose of existence and the motivations of people to survive hardships. This has been found unique in both philosophical and fictional levels (Losey, 1994; Baxter, 2002).

Of the titles in Levi’s Holocaust writings, only The Monkey Wrench and If Not Now, When? have been labeled as novels. However, they assume the same structure as that of the other works, the only difference being that whilst these books were presented in chapters instead of distinct and separate stories (Keffer & Ruch, 2007). As in the other works, the novels do not have much in terms of plot, introduction, climax and conflict resolution. What grabs the attention of readers is the way the characters solve the problems that they encounter and how Levi builds up his characters (Anissimov, 1999)..

Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy in 1919, to a family of assimilated and fairly non-religious Jews with Spanish roots. He pursued an education in chemistry, and despite Mussolini’s racial laws of 1938, which prohibited Jews from higher education, Levi received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Turin in 1941. He eventually landed a position in a pharmaceutical laboratory where he worked until 1943, when the Germans invaded Northern Italy. Leaving his job, the young chemist traded his glassware for a pistol, joining a band of partisans devoted to fighting Germans and Italian fascists. After being betrayed, Levi was handed over to the Germans and deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he spent 10 months. He survived the ordeal by working in a synthetic rubber factory in the Monowitz labor section of the camp. Falling ill to scarlet fever, he was left behind when the Germans evacuated the camp in anticipation of advancing Russian forces. In January 1945, Levi was liberated by the Red Guard, forever changed by his experience and bearing the indelible tattoo 174517. Making his way back to Milan, he found a wife and resumed his career as an industrial chemist. In 1977, he retired from his position as manager of a chemical factory in Turin, devoting himself exclusively to writing until his controversial death on April 11, 1987, in the apartment building where he was born and eventually took up residence.

Falling to his death from the railing of his third-floor stairwell, the question of whether Levi committed suicide or was the victim of a tragic accident is still open to debate (Keffer & Ruch, 2007).

Levi was quoted as saying that in writing If This Is a Man, he was driven by a desire to bear witness to the horrors of the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. He read many accounts of witnesses and survivors and attended meetings of survivors, becoming in the end a symbolic figure for anti-fascism in Italy. Levi visited over 130 schools to talk about his experiences in Auschwitz. He was shocked by the then prevailing revisionist attitudes that tried to rewrite the history of the camps as less horrific, which was later referred to as the Holocaust denial. His view was that the Nazi death camps and the attempted annihilation of the Jews was a horror unique in history because the aim was the complete destruction of a race by one that saw itself as superior; it was highly organized and mechanized; and it entailed the degradation of Jews even to the point of using their ashes as materials for paths (Losey, 1994). Levi himself, along with most of Turin’s Jewish intellectuals, was not religiously observant but it was the Fascist race laws and the Nazi camps that made him feel Jewish. Levi writes in clear almost scientific style about his experiences in Auschwitz, showing no lasting hatred of the Germans. This has led some commentators to suggest that he had forgiven them, though Levi denied this (Baxter, 2002).

Unlike other Holocaust novelists, Levi made no judgments and condemned no one, presenting only the evidence and asking why. In one of his essays, for example, he observed how some Jews collaborated with the Nazis and tried to get into the good graces of the Germans by doing the dirty work for them. He asks: ”What makes a concernt violinist behave as a callous task master?” (Losey, 1994).

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There are several reasons why Levi’s semi-autobiographical work is admired so much. One is that it is so readable. Levi was primarily concerned with getting the true story across and if this required amalgamating two people into one character, then he would do so. This did not undermine the authority of his work which is still one of the most accurate and chilling testimonies of a Jewish slave labourer under the Nazis (Anissimov, 1999).

Other Styles

In some respects, the writing style of Levi is similar to that of Viktor Frankl and Jean Amery in that all three used knowledge in other professions to influence their works about the Holocaust (Kuhiwszak, 2007). Levi wrote about the Holocaust from the perspective of a man of science being a chemist by profession, Frankl from the perspective of a psychiatrist. As for Amery, he wrote from a philosophical and phenomenological view. In philosophy, phenomenalism denies the knowability if not existence of a reality beyond the world of phenomena, thus limiting the range of knowledge objects of sensation that are the objects of introspection. Frankl studied neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna, with depression and suicidal tendencies as his fields of concentration, which inescapably showed in his works. Like Levi, Frankl has said that he wrote about the Holocaust not to find resolution but to preserve the subject as lesson for future generation (Pytell, 2000). The similarities end there however, because Frankl and Amery never used the standard devices of fiction as much as Levi. In fact, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning may be considered an essay or a philosophical tract but not fiction. The same observation applies to Amery’s At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, On Aging, On Suicide and A Discourse on Voluntary Death.

Elie Wiesel may fall under the category of fictionist as Levi but most of his 57 novels were written in a direct and unembellished manner, whose only value lies in their graphic depiction of the Holocaust events. Wiesel has also been accused of profiting from his Holocaust experience by downplaying the significance of other genocides in history. In the case of Edgar Hilsenrath, he approached Holocaust writing the way Levi did but Hilsenrath was more of a satirist than a serious novelists. Thus, he satirises the genocide through the grotesque The Nazi and the Barber.


The body of works produced by Levi on the Holocaust has been shown to provide a unique perspective in literature because they skillfully combine the major elements of the author’s life and his Holocaust experience. He let his discipline and training as a chemist influence his subject matter, the way his characters behave and his analytical descriptions. Moreover, Levi made his harrowing experiences in Auschwitz become the basis of the sense of wonder that he expressed in his works. The blending of science and mystery in many of his stories does not only make his works hard to categorise but also distinguish them from other Holocaust writings.

This difference finds expression in futuristic devices he used as backdrop for his stories, which include a so-called mimer that duplicates three dimensional objects, a male and female kilometer that measures beauty and another device that allows one to communicate and make business deals with dragonflies, bees, and ants. Another gadget allows the user to put on goggles and relive the experiences of others, which later turned out as the computerized virtual reality technology that was developed in the 1990s. Whilst other writers are single-mindedly focused on the cruelties of the Holocaust, Levi digresses by introducing these devices into his stories to explore human reaction to the instruments and how the products might be used or misused. No other Holocaust writing touched on such subjects.


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