Primo Levi and the Jews

  • David Mendel
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


In 1938, Primo Levi was nineteen years old when, in imitation of his German counterpart, Mussolini enacted his Race Laws. After the Second World War, Levi wrote that he was unaware that he was a Jew until then; he repeated this statement many times, and added that until the Race Laws he thought that Jews were Italians without Christmas trees. I couldn’t believe that Primo thought he was an ordinary Italian before the Race Laws; I certainly have never felt that I was an ordinary Englishman. He and I were of an age and had similar backgrounds; both our families paid lip service to the religion. He knew a lot about Judaism, but he learned it backwards, in and after the camps. He wrote, “I became a Jew at Auschwitz. Awareness of my difference was forced upon me. Someone, for no earthly reason had established that I was different and inferior … In making me feel a Jew, it helped me to recover a cultural inheritance which I previously did not possess.” Although he became an expert on the subject, he remained—as I do—agnostic.


Jewish Community Israel Defense Force Cultural Inheritance Christmas Tree German Counterpart 
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  1. 1.
    Rita Levi-Montalcini, In Praise of Imperfection (New York: Basic Books, 1988).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On the Mortara affair, see David I. Kertzer, The Kidnaping of Edgardo Mortara (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1997).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    William Wetmore Story, Roba di Roma (London: Chapman & Hall, 1864).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Dan Vittorio Segre, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1987).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Mendel

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