Primo Levi’s Odyssey: The Drowned and the Saved

  • Isabella Bertoletti
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


In February 1944, Primo Levi, together with 650 other prisoners, was deported to Auschwitz on a freight train. He survived Hitler’s most lethal death camp, until the Germans hastily surrendered the camp in January 1945 to the advancing Red Army. After a long and adventurous detour through war-torn Europe, Levi finally returned to his family apartment on the third floor of the Art Nouveau building on the Corso Re Umberto in Turin, the place where, except for the previous twenty months, he would live his entire life (and fall to his death on April 11, 1987). He was dressed in rags and changed beyond recognition. Of the 650 prisoners who were deported with Levi, only three (including the author) returned home (La tregua, 252).1


Freight Train Civilized Life Literary Effort Family Apartment Homeric Epic 
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  1. 1.
    Between September 1943 and April 1945, 303 Italian Jews were killed in Italy and 6,746 were deported. Of the latter, 830 survived and 5,916 perished (either during the journey or in death camps). For data and names see: Liliana Picciotto Fargion, Il libro della memoria. Gli Ebrei deportati dall’Italia (1943–1945) (Milan: Mursia, 1991). Picciotto reminds us that the final body count does not include 900–1,100 deported prisoners whose identity has not been established.Google Scholar
  2. On the Italian Shoah, see Renzo De Felice, Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo, 4th ed. (Turin: Einaudi, 1988) The Jews in Fascist Italy, trans. Robert L. Miller, ed. Stanislao G. Pugliese (New York: Enigma Books, 2001) andGoogle Scholar
  3. Klaus Voigt, Il rifugio precario. Gli esuli in Italia dal 1943 al 1945, Vol. II (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1996). All references to Primo Levi’s texts are from the following editions: La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1971); Il sistema periodico (Turin: Einaudi, 1975); Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 1976); I sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Einaudi, 1993); La ricerca delle radici (Turin: Einaudi, 1981). All English translations are my own.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    During his captivity Levi was haunted by a nightmare in which his immediate family would appear to him but remain indifferent to his story: “they are totally indifferent: they speak confusedly about other matters among themselves, as if I were not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and leaves without uttering a word.” In an interview with Ferdinando Camon, Levi comments on this haunting nightmare. See F. Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, trans. John Shepley (Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  5. On Ginzburg, see Claudio Toscani, Come leggere Se questo è un uomo di Primo Levi (Milan: Mursia, 1990), 28.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Pietro Boitani, L’ombra di Ulisse (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1992), 183–189Google Scholar
  7. Giuseppe Grassano, Primo Levi (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1981), 12Google Scholar
  8. Zvi Jagendorf, “Primo Levi Goes for Soup and Remembers Dante,” Raritan, XII, 4 (Spring 1993): 31–51Google Scholar
  9. Lynn M. Gunzberg, “Down Among the Dead Men: Levi and Dante in Hell,” Modern Language Studies, 16 (Winter 1986): 10–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 8.
    See Gian Paolo Biasin, “The Haunted Journey of Primo Levi,” in Roberta S. Kremer, ed., Memory and Mastery. Primo Levi as Writer and Witness (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), 3–20.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature: Essays, trans. Patrick Creagh (San Diego: HBJ, 1986), 136–137.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Henri, whose real name was Paul Steinberg, survived and returned to Paris. His memoir was written nearly ten years after Levi’s death and fifty years after Auschwitz. See: Paul Steinberg, A Survivor’s Reckoning (New York: Metropolitan, 2000).Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    In his epistolary exchanges with his German translator and friend Heinz Riedt, Levi explains that he wanted to convey the discontinuities in his inner sense of self. In one instance, he regretted that the German version of Se questo è un uomo had flattened the original shifts in verbal tenses, unifying the whole book into the present tense. This, in Levi’s view, would result in the obliteration of the important distinction between the narration and his general remarks on the behavior of man in the Lager. See Giovanni Tesio, “Ritratti critici di contemporanei,” Belfagor, 6 (1979): 668.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Jagendorf has suggested that Levi inscribes his identity within a narrative that unites Troy, Rome, Dante’s Hell, and Turin. See Jagendorf, “Primo Levi Goes for Soup and Remembers Dante,” Raritan, XIIv, 4 (Spring 1993): 44.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    Dante Alighieri, Commedia: Inferno, eds. Emilio Pasqualini and Antonio Quaglio (Milan: Garzanti, 1982). Translations are from The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Inferno, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam, 1988).Google Scholar
  16. On the connection between Dante the infernal pilgrim and Ulysses in canto XXVI, see: John Freccero, The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 136–152 where he connects the two episodes in terms of the renunciation of a circular narrative for a linear narrative of salvation.Google Scholar

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© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

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  • Isabella Bertoletti

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