Primo Levi and the Poison of Auschwitz

Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / People / 27 August 2019

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A century ago, on  July 31, 1919, Primo Levi, writer, witness and “martyr” of the Holocaust, was born in Turin.[1] After graduating in chemistry, he worked in that profession before and after his dramatic experience of the concentration camp. He was also a partisan, and was captured as one, sent to the camp of Fòssoli, near Modena, because he was a Jew, and then was sent to Auschwitz in March 1944. He was 24 years old and remained there for 11 months until it was liberated in January 1945. He was one of the very few who survived the tragedy of the 650 people who went to Auschwitz with him. After liberation, he managed to reach Turin, following a tortuous journey of several months.

His meeting with Lucia Morpurgo, who became his wife, helped him to return to normal life with serenity and to face the past in a new way. He felt healed from the evils of Auschwitz, and in his work, The Periodic Table, composed in 1975, he described himself as a writer and chemist as follows: “[After meeting her] my writing itself became a different adventure, no longer the painful itinerary of a convalescent, no longer begging for compassion and friendly faces, but a lucid construction, no longer solitary: it was a work of chemistry that weighs and divides, measures and judges on certain evidence, and works to respond to the reasons.”[2]

The veteran of tragic experience rediscovered the meaning of living, the joy of writing, the enthusiasm lost after so much suffering, and made a discovery: “Paradoxically, my baggage of atrocious memories became a source of wealth, a seed: and by writing I seemed to be growing like a plant. I was ready to challenge everything and everyone, in the same way as I had challenged and defeated Auschwitz and loneliness.”[3]

Auschwitz defeated?

Levi wrote these pages in 1975 and, 12 years later, on April 11, 1987, he tragically ended his life by suicide, throwing himself down the stairs of his house.

In 1985, in an interview with RAI, he was asked the crucial question: “[Do you still experience] the poison of Auschwitz? Are there still a few more drops?”[4] The answer was clear and severe: “No! Time has run its course. The poison has been exorcised…”[5]

The clarity of the answer does not correspond to the truth that emerges from his works, extraordinarily lucid writing in which he makes it clear that the tragedy of the Shoah has left deep wounds in his conscience and in his body. His literary works are born not from literature, but from suffering experienced, meditated on, and yet never fully accepted or neutralized.

Of course, the drama of the deported, reclusive Jew, condemned to die of contempt, fatigue, hunger, hardship, disease and beatings is now behind him. But the liberation and the return to Italy, which lasted an eventful nine months, which for him were marked by pain, allowed him to look clearly at what that “death” was made of: the destruction of a man, of a person, of conscience. “There is a murder worse than killing, that of extinguishing the vitality of a person […], a world in which all humanity is extinguished, a radical desert of the spirit, an absolute paradigm of hell on Earth.”[6]

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