Happy birthday Primo Levi!


Primo Levi (July 31, 1919 — April 11, 1987) was an Italian chemist and writer. He was a Holocaust survivor and his work touched on many of the experiences he had during that period. His best known works are If This Is A Man (1947) and The Periodic Table (1975).


Levi was born in Turin, Italy to Cesare and Esther Levi. His parents were liberal Jews, both educated and worldly. His father worked at the manufacturing firm Ganz, and traveled frequently to Hungary for his work. His mother spoke fluent French.

After spending part of his childhood as a member of the Avanguardisti movement, a group for young fascists, he was admitted to the Massimo d'Azeglio liceo classico, a school that taught the classics. The school was also known for employing many anti-fascist teachers. The same bullying that he had experienced all his life for being small, shy, and one of a few Jews continued at the Liceo. Levi became seriously interested in chemistry while at the Liceo. A week before his exams, Levi was accused of having ignored a call from the Italian Royal Navy. He was given a bad grade as a result of the accusation and had to retake the exams.

Not long after, he enrolled at the University of Turin. With the onset of fascism and Mussolini's rule, attitudes toward Jews in Italy went from tolerance to all out disdain over the course of the 1930s. As a result, Levi had trouble finding an advisor for his thesis while at university. Then, after graduating with full marks and high merit, he had trouble finding work because of his position in society.


He eventually found a job working covertly at an asbestos mine extracting nickel to be used for German armaments. Later, moving to Milan, he found work with a Swiss firm that did not discriminate based on race. Eventually, he returned to Turin to find his mother seeking refuge from the authorities. They ended up in the mountains in Amay in the Colle di Joux. (Image source)

In October, 1943, Levi joined his fellow Jews in the Giustizia e Libertà, an Italian resistance movement at the foothills of the Alps. He was soon taken captive, and upon being threatened with a bullet, he confessed he was Jewish. He was taken to an internment camp at Fossoli near Modena. While under Italian control in the camp, conditions were tolerable and there was no threat of execution, according to Levi's later writings. But soon the Germans took over the camp and deported the inmates to various major locations within the Auschwitz complex. Levi remained at Auschwitz for  eleven months before being liberated by the Red Army in January, 1945.

After recovering from his trauma at Auschwitz, he began to work in Milan. At a party in 1946, he met Lucia Morpurgo. Around the same time, he began to write about his experiences. By December 1946, Lucia had helped edit Levi's manuscript and he began to make the rounds to publishers. In 1947, a month after he married Lucia, Levi's book If This Is a Man was published. Despite positive reviews, only 1,500 copies were sold at first. Later, in 1958, it was revised, re-published, and promoted by major publisher Einaudi.


Throughout this period, Levi worked first with Du Pont Chemical Company and later started his own chemical consultancy.

In 1952, one of his good friends, a fellow sufferer of the Holocaust, died of alcoholism. Levi later named his son after him. He became involved in organizations that pledged to honor and remember those in that suffered the Holocaust.

His reputation grew, and soon his next book The Truce was published in 1963. Then, he was looking to write on subjects other than the Holocaust and published Storie Naturali (Natural Histories; 1966) and Vizio di Forma (Structural Defect; 1971), science fiction that touched on philosophical topics.

In 1975, he released The Periodic Table, which was later listed as the best science book ever written by London's Royal Institution.

Throughout his life, Levi wrote many short stories and poems gathered into various collections. He became a major literary figure in Italy.

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Thursday, 31 July 2014
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