• Stanislao G. Pugliese
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


Primo Levi was born (July 31, 1919) into a highly assimilated and cultured bourgeois Jewish family in Turin, Italy. He spoke no Hebrew until late in life, did not observe the dietary laws, and only occasionally visited the Moorish-style synagogue in his native city on high holy days. Like most Italian Jews, he was shocked when the fascist regime published a “Manifesto of the Racial Scientists” in the summer of 1938. The following autumn, the regime promulgated a series of anti-Semitic laws patterned on the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany. Although many Christian Italians disregarded the laws, Italian Jews suffered the first in a series of traumas that would quickly unfold over the next seven years. Obliquely Levi recounted in his writings and interviews the numerous traumatic events that marked his life. In addition to the event that was to stamp him (literally: the number 174517 was tattooed onto his left arm) forever, the internment in Auschwitz, he suffered from several “minor” traumas: from failed physical and emotional relationships with women to the shock of the anti-Semitic laws, to the rejection of his first book by none other than Natalia Levi Ginzburg at the publishing house of Einaudi in Turin. In a self-fashioning that overcame numerous physical, psychological, and external obstacles, Levi managed to move from trauma to transgression and finally testimony in an attempt to defeat the demons (real and imagined) that plagued him for most of his life.


Action Party Racial Scientist Fascist Regime Jewish Intellectual Native City 
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  1. 2.
    See Joel Blatt, “The Battle of Turin, 1933–1936: Carlo Rosselli, Giustizia e Libertà, OVRA and the Origins of Mussolini’s Anti-Semitic Campaign,” in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 1, 1 (Fall 1995): 22–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    The dominant historiographical interpretation—that most Italians were free of anti-Semitism—has been challenged (correctly I believe) by Lynn M. Gunzberg, Strangers at Home: Jews in the Italian Literary Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) andGoogle Scholar
  3. Michele Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista (Turin: Einaudi, 2000).Google Scholar
  4. On the role of the Catholic Church much has been written: see John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York: Viking, 1999)Google Scholar
  5. Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)Google Scholar
  6. Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  7. More a work of polemics than history is Daniel J. Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Moral Repair (New York: Knopf, 2002)Google Scholar
  8. more scholarly—and therefore more damning—is David Kertzer, The Pope and the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Knopf, 2001).Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    Two of the most poignant that have been translated into English are Fabio Della Seta’s The Tiber Afire, trans. Frances Frenaye (Malboro, VT: The Malboro Press, 1991), which originally appeared as L’incendere del Tevere (Trapani: Editore Celebes, 1969), andGoogle Scholar
  10. Aldo Zargani’s For Solo Violin: A Jewish Childhood in Fascist Italy, trans. by Marina Harss (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002), originally Per violino solo (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1995).Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Carole Angier, Primo Levi: The Double Bond (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Asked to translate Kafka’s The Trial, Levi found it a deeply painful experience, which contributed to another bout of depression. See his essay “Translating Kafka,” in Primo Levi, The Mirror Maker, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1989) andGoogle Scholar
  13. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi (London: Hutchinson, 2002), 427, 434, 443.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    The best history of the Action Party is Giovanni De Luna’s Storia del Partito d’Azione, 1942–1947 (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1997).Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    On the charismatic Rosselli, see Stanislao G. Pugliese, Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    Roy Palmer Domenico, Italian Fascists on Trial, 1943–1948 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    Renzo De Felice, Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo, 4th ed. (Turin: Einaudi, 1993), 419–427.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    On Turin as an intellectual site of resistance to fascism, see Angelo D’Orsi, La cultura a Torino tra le due guerre (Turin: Einaudi, 2000) andGoogle Scholar
  19. Norberto Bobbio, Trent’anni di storia della cultura a Torino (1920–1950) (Turin: Cassa di Risparmio di Torino, 1977).Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    On the political and poetic significance of this moment in modern Italian history, see Carlo Levi’s The Watch (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  21. 17.
    David Ward, Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943–1946. Benedetto Croce and the Liberals, Carlo Levi and the “Actionists” (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), 275.Google Scholar
  22. 20.
    Primo Levi and Tullio Regge, Dialogo, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)Google Scholar
  23. Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, trans. John Shepley (Malboro, Vermont: The Malboro Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Norberto Bobbio, L’elogio della mitezza e altri scritti morali (Milan: Pratiche, 1998).Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Robert S. C. Gordon, Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Massimo Giuliani, A Centaur in Auschwitz: Reflections on Primo Levi’s Thinking (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003).Google Scholar
  27. For another study of Levi’s ethical position, see Frederic D. Homer, Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  28. 24.
    Nancy Harrowitz, “Primo Levi’s Science as ‘Evil Nurse’: The Lesson of Inversion,” in Roberta S. Kremer, ed., Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 61.Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, trans. John Shepley (Malboro, VT: The Malboro Press, 1989), 68.Google Scholar
  30. In the Italian original: “C’è Auschwitz, quindi non può esserci Dio. Non trovo una soluzione al dilemma. La cerco, ma non la trovo.” Ferdinando Camon, Autoritratto di Primo Levi (Padua: Edizioni Nord-Est, 1987), 59.Google Scholar

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© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

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  • Stanislao G. Pugliese

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