(The National Post, 27 October 2015)
For centuries Jews took for granted their right to live in Italy. After all, their ancestors had been there since Roman times. But in 1938 Benito Mussolini imitated the anti-Semitic brutalities of his ally, Adolf Hitler. A new law was passed, making Jews an undesirable caste.
Among those affected was a 19-year-old chemistry student in Turin, Primo Levi. When he studied for his doctorate only one professor, a man of low rank, agreed to be his supervisor. In 1941, when he received his doctorate, there were no good jobs for Jews. He worked briefly in a varnish factory. To protest Mussolini's dictatorship, he joined some anti-Fascist partisans in the Piedmont hills. They were uncovered by the police. When Levi was arrested and interrogated, he admitted he was a Jew -- "partly out of fatigue, but partly out of a sudden surge of haughty pride." He was handed over to the Germans for transport to Auschwitz.
He found himself in the closest place to hell that human evil has ever constructed. What he learned there became his first book, If This Is a Man, published in 1947. It was praised as a brilliantly thoughtful account of the way the Nazis tried to strip the humanity from their Jewish victims and leave them spiritless, hopeless shells, making them appear contemptible to their captors before murdering them. As his ability as a writer developed, Levi reached further into his ideas about human personality.
He died in 1987, at age 67, honoured in a dozen countries as a compelling writer who helped the world to understand genocide. This season an American publisher has paid him the finest of posthumous tributes by bringing together his most notable books in The Complete Works of Primo Levi (Liveright, $100), a three-volume set that displays the range of his work.
The train that took Levi to Auschwitz carried 650 Jews, of whom 525 were killed on arrival. Most of the others died of cold, over-work, malnutrition or all three. Only about 20 survived. Levi was saved by three pieces of luck. He never got sick, he was brought some bread by a friendly Italian brick-layer (he named both his children after that man), and he qualified to work in an IG Farben laboratory. Being too useful to kill, he lasted until the arrival of the Red Army freed him.
Hateful as it was, that camp functioned -- Levi said -- like a university for those who survived. "It taught us to look around ourselves and take the measure of men." It also drew Levi towards the faith of his ancestors. He had learned little about Jewish thought while growing up but in the camp met many Jews who taught him Jewish history. Levi felt confirmed as a Jew, and found himself reliving Biblical stories of exile and migration. Two decades later he wrote a novel about partisans fighting Nazis and called If Not Now, When? -- a famous quotation from a Jewish seer, Rabbi Hillel.
One of his best books, The Periodic Table, braids science and psychology so ingeniously that chemistry and human life merge. It uses the checkerboard chart of the elements, familiar in classrooms around the world, as a set of metaphors. The first element, Argon, a gas so satisfied with its condition that it combines with no other elements, introduces Levi's Jewish ancestors.
Levi reclaims them for history by describing their speech, a Judeo-Italian combining Hebrew roots with inflections and endings common in northwest Italy. He calls it Mediterranean Yiddish, "a skeptical, good-natured speech, rich with an affectionate and dignified intimacy with God." Zinc, on the other hand, is "a boring metal." Iron and copper are "easy and direct, incapable of concealment." Cadmium is "deceptive and elusive."
Levi identifies the humanlike nature of each element, drawing parallels between chemical reality and moral truth. By the time he wrote The Periodic Table Levi had matured as a writer without abandoning his profession in science. As he grew older he saw how the two sides of his mind could feed each other.
He was confident with his material, so that he could write with a lighthearted and even at times cosy fluency. He was highly intelligent and sharply observant when he made his way home to Italy at the war's end but The Periodic Table shows he had turned into a witty philosopher.
The most memorable of the stories in the book is titled Vanadium. I recall it often, and remember exactly how I felt when reading it for the first time in the 1980s. It concerns letters between Levi and a German chemist who had found fault with a product Levi's firm produced.
The drama arises when both of them learn that this particular German chemist was the man who ran the lab where Levi worked as a slave labourer in 1944. In those days the German was doing a routine job while Levi was trying desperately to stay alive. How will they treat one another? They manage to be civilized and Levi tells the story with humane composure. Still, the German seems to ask for forgiveness that Levi isn't anxious to grant.
Levi died in a fall from a third-floor balcony in his Turin apartment building. It was widely considered a suicide but many of his admirers resisted that verdict. He never claimed to have recovered from the trauma of Auschwitz, but his measured, cogent and serene prose had suggested to some of us that he was as healthy, mentally, as anyone. Elie Wiesel, a survivor who wrote memorably of the Holocaust, suggested where the blame should be placed: "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later." But Levi, if he could reply, might say Wiesel had it backwards. When he got on that train he didn't know who he should be, but the Nazis by accident turned him into a philosopher and a much-loved author. He frustrated their intent. Far from killing him, they brought him into a new life.