Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table, wrote books that have been called the essential works of humankind. Yet he lived an unremarkable existence, remaining until his death in the house in which he'd been born; managing a paint and varnish factory for thirty years; and tending his invalid mother to the last. Now, in a matchless account, Ian Thomson unravels the strands of a life as improbable as it was influential, the story of the most modest of men who became a universal touchstone of conscience and humanism.
Drawing on exclusive access to family members and previously unseen correspondence, Thomson reconstructs the world of Levi's youth--the rhythms of Jewish life in Turin during the Mussolini years--as well as his experience in Auschwitz and difficult reintegration into postwar Italy. Thomson presents Levi in all his facets: his fondness for Louis Armstrong and fast cars, his insomnia and many near-catastrophic work accidents. Finally, he explores the controversy and isolation of Levi's later years, along with the increasing tensions in his life--between his private anguish and gift for friendship; his severe bouts of depression and passion for life and ideas; his pervasive dread and reasoned, pragmatic ethic.
Praised in Britain as "the best sort of history" and "a model of its kind," Primo Levi: A Life is certain to take its place as the standard biography and a necessary companion to the works themselves.
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About the Author
Ian Thomson, a journalist and translator of Italian fiction, was one of the last writers to interview Primo Levi. Thomson devoted ten years to this biography. He lives in London.
Ian Thomson is a journalist, translator of Italian fiction, and the author of Primo Levi: A Life. He lives in London.
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By Ian Thomson
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2002 Ian Thomson
All rights reserved.
11 April 1987
THE ITALIAN WRITER PRIMO LEVI DIED TODAY FROM A FALL DOWN THE STAIRWELL OF HIS TURIN RESIDENCE. POLICE SAID THEY WERE TREATING HIS DEATH AS SUICIDE. HE WAS SIXTY-EIGHT.
Turin, Italy, Reuters
Some time between 10:00 am and 10:15 am on the morning of 11 April 1987 the commissariat at 73 Via Massena in Turin received a telephone call. It had been relayed from the police emergency number 113: there had been an accident. An ambulance accompanied by the police flying-squad proceeded to 75 Corso Re Umberto. This was a block of flats in a residential area of the city; the main doors were already open to let the police inside. In their first report to the Public Prosecutor's Office, dated that same Saturday 11 April, the police noted: '... Corpse found in vicinity of lift ... Identified as Primo Levi.' The body had fallen fifteen metres head-first down the stairwell of the building and struck the marble floor at the foot of the lift shaft. Death was instantaneous.
Preliminary investigations ruled out the possibility of third-party involvement. However, there had been no witness to the last moments of Primo Levi's life. According to the police reconstruction, Levi opened the door to his third-floor flat, stepped out unseen on to the landing and pitched himself over the railings. He fell in silence. The time of death was approximately 10:05 am (and not, as the Italian newspapers reported, 10:20 am or 10:30 am). This would have been about ten minutes before the police arrived on the scene. One of the last to have seen Levi alive was Jolanda Gasperi, the concierge.
Nineteen days after the incident, on 30 April 1987, she was questioned at the Via Massena commissariat. A small grey-haired woman, her recorded testimony is unnaturally stilted, owing to police formality: 'I confirm that I perform the duties of concierge at 75 Corso Re Umberto.' So begins the transcript. 'At about 10:00 am, after sorting out the post, I went to the residence of LEVI the writer, which is situated on the third floor of the aforesaid address, and personally delivered his post. I then went to the main entrance hall of the building to do some work. I was about to start sweeping when I heard a thud from the small lobby by the stairs. I went in there at once and saw the body of LEVI on the ground, adjacent to the base of the lift.' Jolanda Gasperi tried to telephone the Red Cross for an ambulance, but her call went unanswered. At that point a man entered ('the owner of the cleaning company, I don't know his name') and dialled 113 for the Police Central Operator. After the police and ambulance arrived, the concierge called Primo Levi's son, Renzo, on the intercom and told him what had happened.
Renzo Levi, twenty-nine, a biophysicist, was living in the flat next to his parents. In spite of the proximity he had heard nothing of the commotion downstairs. Levi's daughter Lisa, thirty-eight, a biology teacher, lived nearby in the same neighbourhood: she arrived soon afterwards. The speed with which the flying-squad reached 75 Corso Re Umberto was due to the absence of traffic that morning; many had left Turin for the long Easter weekend. Everyone agreed that 11 April 1987 was an unusually bright day; after months of rain the horse-chestnuts along Corso Re Umberto were showing the first spring buds.
According to one journalist's report, Jolanda Gasperi had said to Primo Levi that morning: 'Have you seen what sunshine there is today, professor!' Many people addressed Levi as professore (he held no such title; it was a mark of deference). Gasperi was just ten days younger than Primo Levi; born on 10 August 1919 in the nothern Italian province of Trentino, she had worked at 75 Corso Re Umberto for the last twelve years.
That Saturday, as was her custom every morning at ten o'clock, Signora Gasperi had left the porter's lodge with a bundle of post for any occupants who were still in. Milan's Il Giorno says she took the wide granite stairs by the lift; making her way past the brass name plates and double wooden doors, she routinely delivered parcels and envelopes. Presently she reached the third floor and rang the bell to flat 3A. Primo Levi opened the door and extended a hand for the correspondence. 'No, there was nothing in particular,' Gasperi told the Rome daily La Repubblica. 'Some publicity leaflets, a book, a magazine. Nothing, I mean, that could have upset him.'
In her long years as concierge, Jolanda Gasperi had got to know Levi well. A week earlier he had signed her copy of his latest book: 'With friendship and esteem'. As far as she could remember, there was nothing untoward in Levi's behaviour that spring morning. 'He greeted me as he had always done. A smile, a thank you.' La Repubblica also quotes Gasperi as saying: 'I knew that he had been depressed for some time. But he never betrayed his condition — his sadness — to me.' From Il Giorno we know what Levi was wearing that morning: a white short-sleeved shirt, grey trousers, black shoes.
Jolanda Gasperi had returned downstairs when, scarcely five minutes later, she heard 'un tonfo', a thud. At that moment only Primo Levi's mother, Ester, and a nurse, Elena Giordanino, were in the flat. 'I wasn't aware that anything had happened,' the nurse told a regional newspaper. 'I was busy looking after the elderly lady.' In fact the two women were in the room furthest from the entrance; no sound would have reached them from the third floor landing of the stairwell. Giordanino was also questioned at the Via Massena commissariat. Born in Turin on 26 October 1930, she opens her testimony in the usual formal way: 'I confirm that I am a nurse and that, from the month of August 1986, I have carried out my duties at the residence of PRIMO Levi the writer, where I assist his mother, Ester, aged ninety-two.'
The transcript continues: 'The writer PRIMO Levi, after having been discharged from hospital where he had undergone a prostate operation, was extremely disturbed. In fact he sometimes asked if he would ever be entirely cured, as he found it difficult whenever he had to receive visitors. On 11/4/87, as I had always done at about 8:00 am, I gave him his usual injection, then I continued my work. At approximately 10:00 am Levi called me; he asked me if I would stand by the telephone as he had to go downstairs to the porter's lodge.' It would appear that Levi had wanted to ensure that the only mobile person in the flat at that time — nurse Giordanino — could not accidentally distract him from his awful task. 'From that moment I never saw Levi again,' the nurse went on. 'I only became aware of what had happened when LEVI Renzo, his son, arrived at the residence accompanied by police officers.' Prompted by another question, the nurse repeats herself: 'I confirm that the writer LEVI Primo was very disturbed. In fact sometimes I would see him sitting with his head in his hands, thinking.'
So it seems likely that the nurse, and not the concierge Jolanda Gasperi (as the Italian newspapers claimed), was the last person to see Primo Levi alive. Levi's wife of forty years, Lucia, had gone out shopping that morning at about 9:30 am. She had not yet returned when Gasperi's cry for help alerted Francesco Quaglia, seventy-two, a dentist who had known Levi since school and had an office in the same building. (Whether Quaglia is the owner of the 'cleaning company' mentioned earlier by Gasperi to the police is not clear; he was responsible for administering the condominium.) 'It was a terrible sight,' Quaglia told La Repubblica. 'One look was enough: there was no hope.' Levi's wife came back laden with groceries. Reportedly both Quaglia and the concierge tried to hold her back. 'We didn't have time to shield her from the spectacle,' explained Quaglia. Lucia embraced Quaglia. 'Primo was depressed,' she repeated to him. 'You knew it, too, didn't you?'
All the Italian newspapers allude to Primo Levi's depression, or to some sort of mood disorder, in his last months. One of them quotes his wife as saying: 'I feared it, everybody feared it. Primo was tired of life ... We did our best never to leave him alone, ever. Just one moment was enough.' I feared it, everybody feared it. Allegedly those were Lucia Levi's first words as (according to the august Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera) she 'flung herself down beside her husband and tried to lift his head'. Presently the police were joined by forensic detectives; someone had thrown sawdust on the marble floor by the lift, where a small pool of blood had gathered. Levi's mother apparently had intuited a calamity. The Turin daily La Stampa claims she cried out: 'What's all this coming and going ... this disturbance ... has something happened? ... Primo ... has something happened to him?' She was told that her son had been taken to hospital following a heart attack.
There is a brief, hand-written note from the doctor called in by the police to the scene of the accident: 'Confirmed hereby the decease of Primo Levi as the likely result of suicide. Faithfully, Dr Roberto Mandas. 11/4/87.' Signed onsite at 75 Corso Re Umberto, this is the first mention in any official report of a self-inflicted death.
* * *
Well-wishers, friends and relatives gathered outside the apartment building. Some placed orchids and forget-me-nots where Levi had fallen; there were so many floral tributes that Jolanda Gasperi had to remove them to the porter's lodge. The Italian Communist newspaper L'Unità tried to capture the sense of shock and bereavement. 'Just as the concierge is closing the main doors half-way as a sign of mourning, a girl arrives on a bicycle. The woman says a couple of words to her and the smile vanishes from the young face. "Primo Levi dead?"'
* * *
As ordered by Turin's Assistant Public Prosecutor, Dr Loreto, the body was taken to the University's Institute of Forensic Medicine; it was deposited there at 11:45 am, less than two hours after the incident. Two days later, on Monday 13 April, a post-mortem examination was performed on behalf of the police by Professor Mario Portigliatti. Although there was no doubt that Primo Levi's death had been self-inflicted, the autopsy was carried out in accordance with the Italian penal code Article 365, which obliges a pathologist to report his findings to the Public Prosecutor. It notes: 'Rigor present. On the extensor surface of left upper forearm is the tattooed number 374572 (the numerals are scarcely legible). Bilateral haemorrhage from ears and right nostril ...' The pathologist, a personal friend of the deceased, might not have known that the concentration-camp tattoo was clearly visible in life as 174517, not the numerals quoted in the autopsy.
The cause of death is summarised: 'Cerebral crushing with multiple fracture of cranium. Severe traumatic lacerations of heart, lungs, liver, spleen ... Multiple fracture of vertebral column, sternum, of all ribs, clavicles, pelvis, right femur, right wrist.' The physical act that led to death is recorded as 'precipitazione dall'alto', a 'fall from a great height'.
This sad chronicle was closed on 5 June 1987 when a Turin law court officially declared that Primo Levi had died by his own hand. There would be no penal proceedings, therefore, and 'all papers relative to the suicide' were consigned to the tribunal archive.CHAPTER 2
The Family Before Levi
Primo Levi liked to portray his ancestors as unworldly, scholarly characters lost in idle speculation. They appear in his work under heavy disguise, a mixture of fictional elaboration and gossip. He wrote almost nothing of his immediate family, however: nowhere does one learn of the circumstances of his marriage, his wife's name, even if he has children. He came from a family that guarded its secrets: a scandal in the previous generation had been suppressed. It had undermined the family's position in Italian society. The Levis were bankers, and much envied as successful, newly emancipated Jews.
Like most northern Italian Jews, the Levis claimed descent from the Sephardim (after Sefarad, Hebrew for 'Spain') who had fled anti-Semitic Castile in the fifteenth century. In about 1500 they settled in Piedmont, 'at the foot of the mountains', a region later ruled by the House of Savoy. The earliest records link the Levis to the Piedmont town of Mondovì. Giuseppe Levi, the writer's great-grandfather, was born in the town ghetto in about 1819. Later he showed a cautious dislike of the clergy and suffered a misfortune in business matters that echoed down the generations. The Levi bank was established in Mondovì a year after his birth; business, however, was restricted by the ghetto.
Ghettos as punitive institutions were first established on the Italian peninsula in 1555. Mondovì did not institute one until 1725, and even then it was not typical of others along the peninsula, which witnessed poverty, malnutrition and disease. According to the available accounts, there was no overcrowding there, and the gates remained unlocked at night. In 1796, seventy years after the ghetto was erected, Mondovì's Jews were liberated by Napoleon when the armies of the new French Republic invaded from across the Alps. A tree of liberty was planted in the main square, and some of the town's 200 Jews named their newborn sons 'Bonaparte' in honour of the emancipation. However, civil liberty for Piedmont's Jews lasted scarcely twenty years until the end of the revolutionary era when, in 1815, the House of Savoy reinstated the ghettos, and purged their kingdom of Jacobins.
The Levis had to wait a quarter of a century until they were liberated again. In 1848 the ruling Savoy King, Charles Albert, proclaimed the epochal Edict of Emancipation, which granted undreamed-of rights to the Jews in his dominions. The ghettos of northern Italy were dismantled once more and assimilation spread across Piedmont. Emancipation allowed Giuseppe Levi to leave Mondovì, and within twelve months of the proclamation he and his wife Enrichetta had moved eighty kilometres south to the smaller town of Bene Vagienna, where they established a branch of the family bank. Their son Michele, Primo Levi's grandfather, was born in Bene Vagienna on 13 May 1849.
The Levis, a household of six people, were then the only Jews among Bene Vagienna's 6,039 inhabitants. Though the town occupied the site of the Roman colony Augusta Bagiennorum, it was not in any way remarkable — the streets arcaded with low ochre-coloured vaults are to be found in all Piedmont villages. Adjacent to the Town Hall was the nondescript baroque church of San Francesco; in the distance the rolling plains were furrowed with mulberry trees and vineyards. The Levi bank was situated in a large house off the town's main square, Piazza Botero. A contemporary engraving shows stables for horse and carriage opposite the cash tills, and balconies trailing wisteria. Giuseppe Levi negotiated deals in property and gold, but the most profitable branch of his Bene Vagienna operations was banking. His family was considered ostentatious. At a time when there were no pavements in Bene Vagienna, they laid flagstones along the verge outside their home. The locals would tut-tut in Piedmontese: 'Trope pere 'n tsa ca!', 'Too many stones in that house!'
Michele Levi was ten years old when, in 1859, the Savoy King Victor Emanuel II led the patriotic unification movement in Italy known as the Risorgimento. Unification was proclaimed in 1861: Italy was officially a single kingdom under the House of Savoy and, except in papal Rome, discrimination against Jews was definitively abolished. Prior to their emancipation, the only careers open to Italian Jews would have been finance or the rabbinate. Now they could take their place as equal citizens with the Catholic majority, and follow a profession. Michele Levi was among the first generation of northern Italian Jews to relinquish the traditional ghetto trades of money-lending and goldsmithery. It seems he did not want to go into his father's business, and graduated instead from Turin in civil-engineering. No one in his family had lived in the Piedmont capital before. Michele was considered a cultivated man by provincial standards. His doctoral thesis on the French engineer Camille Polonceau, completed in 1873, was dedicated to 'My Dearest Parents'.
Little is known of Primo Levi's grandfather. By all accounts he was frail, prone to melancholy, and not very tall ('1 metre 67 centimetres'). He failed his army medical owing to a 'hernia on the right side of the groin'. While he was studying in Turin, he met his future wife Adele Sinigaglia, a Turin-born sophisticate five years younger than he. On her father's side, Adele came from a family of wealthy Piedmont silk traders. Records show that she was benestante, 'well-to-do'; everyone assumed that Michele had made an advantageous match. The families of Michele and Adele approved of the marriage, and cooperated over the dowry and wedding expenses. Michele brought his new wife back to Bene Vagienna, where he became an associate of the family firm. At first the marriage went well; Michele was twenty-eight when their first son, Cesare (Primo Levi's father), was born in 1878. Another two sons were to follow.
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Table of Contents
ONE. 11 April 1987,
TWO. The Family Before Levi (1819-1919),
THREE. A Blackshirt Childhood (1919-27),
FOUR. An Anxious Boyhood (1927-34),
FIVE. Chemistry and Adolescence (1934-7),
SIX. University and Persecution (1937-8),
SEVEN. University and War (1939-41),
EIGHT. Life During Wartime (1941-3),
NINE. Resistance and Betrayal (1943),
TEN. Into Captivity (1943-4),
ELEVEN. Auschwitz: The Laboratory (1944-5),
TWELVE. Waiting for the Russians (1945),
THIRTEEN. Homecoming (1945-6),
FOURTEEN. Rebirth and Rejection (1946-8),
FIFTEEN. Factory Responsibilities (1948-53),
SIXTEEN. Journeys into Germany (1954-61),
SEVENTEEN. Literary Acclaim (1961-6),
EIGHTEEN. 'On the Other Side of the Barbed-Wire Fence' (1966-8),
NINETEEN. Israel, USSR and Depression (1968-72),
TWENTY. Dreams of Retirement (1973-6),
TWENTY-ONE. Mapping the World of Work (1977-9),
TWENTY-TWO. Reflections on the Resistance (1980-2),
TWENTY-THREE. Strife in the Middle East (1982-3),
TWENTY-FOUR. Recognition Abroad (1983-5),
TWENTY-FIVE. America Is Waiting (1985),
TWENTY-SIX. The Prison of 75 Corso Re Umberto (1985),
TWENTY-SEVEN. In London (1986),
TWENTY-EIGHT. The Downward Spiral (1986-7),
TWENTY-NINE. April 1987: The Last Six Days,
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