The Jewishness of Primo Levi

  • Joseph Sungolowsky
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


Primo Levi repeatedly stated that he never intended to be a writer. He had studied to be a chemist and indeed became one by profession. It was as a result of his concentration camp experience that he began to write. But even then he did not do so in a literary sense. He stated that when he wrote his first book If This is a Man, he did not look to create “a beautiful book” or achieve “literary success” (VM, 224).1 He simply felt compelled to be at peace with himself, to fulfill an obligation toward his dead companions, and to testify for posterity. Ironically as it may sound, Levi said that Auschwitz was for him a “university” (VM, 234). He came in contact with people coming from a world different than his and had a variety of experiences that caused him to reflect upon his Jewishness, upon the world of Eastern European Jewry, which had been unknown to him heretofore, upon Jewish tradition and culture, and, after his liberation, upon the mentality of the post-Holocaust Jew. These themes became an integral part of his writing when he eventually evolved into a full-fledged writer. Even though Levi did not consider himself to be necessarily a “Jewish writer,” he accepted that label.2


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  1. 2.
    Primo Levi, “Beyond Survival,” Prooftexts, 4, 1 (1984): 9.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi ou la tragédie d’un optimiste (Paris: Editions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1996) 128.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, trans. Steve Cox (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2000), 412.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For a full analysis of Primo Levi’s attempt to recapture the Hebraicized version of the Piedmontese dialect spoken by his ancestors, see Wiley Feinstein, “Primo Levi and Jewish Identity: The Question of Jewish Languages,” ed. A. N. Mancini et al., Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference of the American Association of Teachers of Italian (1988): 189–202.Google Scholar

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© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

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  • Joseph Sungolowsky

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