Primo Levi – Chemist and Writer

Primo Levi

Primo Michele Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor. He was the author of several books, novels, collections of short stories, essays, and poems. His best-known works include If This Is a Man his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland; and his unique work, The Periodic Table, the best science book ever written.
Levi died in 1987 from injuries sustained in a fall from a third-story apartment landing. While his death was officially ruled a suicide, some evidence supports the possibility that the fall was accidental.

Levi was born in 1919 in Turin, Italy, into a liberal Jewish family. A thin and delicate child, he was shy and thought he was ugly; he excelled academically. His school record includes long periods of absence during which time he was tutored at home, at first by Emilia Glauda and then by Marisa Zini, daughter of philosopher Zino Zini.

In September 1930 Levi entered the Massimo d’Azeglio Royal Gymnasium a year ahead of normal entrance requirements. In class he was the youngest, the shortest and the cleverest, as well as being the only Jew. For these reasons, he was bullied. In August 1932, following two years at the Talmud Torah school in Turin, he sang in the local synagogue for his Bar Mitzvah. In 1933, as was expected of all young Italian schoolboys, he joined the Avanguardisti movement for young Fascists. He avoided rifle drill by joining the ski division, and spent every Saturday during the season on the slopes above Turin. As a young boy Levi was plagued by illness, particularly chest infections, but he was keen to participate in physical activity. In his teens, Levi and a few friends would sneak into a disused sports stadium and conduct athletic competitions.

In July 1934 at the age of 14, he sat the exams for the Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico, a Lyceum specialising in the classics, and was admitted that autumn. The school was noted for its well-known anti-Fascist teachers, amongst them the philosopher Norberto Bobbio, and Cesare Pavese, who would later become one of Italy’s best-known novelists. Levi continued to be bullied during his time at the Lyceum, although six other Jews were in his class. Upon reading Concerning the Nature of Things by Sir William Bragg, Levi decided that he wanted to be a chemist.

In 1937, Levi was summoned before the War Ministry and accused of ignoring a draft notice from the Italian Royal Navy—one day before he was to write a final examination on Italy’s participation in the Spanish Civil War. His father was able to keep him out of the Navy, however, by enrolling him in the Fascist militia. At the end of the summer he retook and passed his final examinations, and in October enrolled at the University of Turin to study chemistry. As one of 80 candidates, he spent three months taking lectures, and in February, after passing his colloquio (oral examination), he was selected as one of 20 to move on to the full-time chemistry curriculum.

Because of the new Racial Laws and the increasing intensity of prevalent Fascism, Levi had difficulty finding a supervisor for his graduation thesis, which was on the subject of Walden inversion, a study of the asymmetry of the carbon atom. Eventually taken on by Dr. Nicolò Dallaporta, he graduated in the summer of 1941 with full marks and merit, having submitted additional theses on x-rays and electrostatic energy.

In December 1941 Levi was clandestinely offered a job at an asbestos mine at San Vittore. The project was to extract nickel from the mine spoil, a challenge he accepted with pleasure. Levi understood that, if successful, he would be aiding the German war effort, which was suffering nickel shortages in the production of armaments. The job required Levi to work under a false name with false papers. In March 1942 while he was working at the mine, his father died with bowel cancer.

On 21 February 1944, Levi and other inmates were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. He 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 months. Levi died on 11 April 1987 after a fall from the interior landing of his third-storey apartment in Turin to the ground floor below. The coroner ruled his death a suicide. In his later life, Levi indicated that he was suffering from depression.

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