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Primo Levi’s Unlikely Suicide Haunts His Lasting Work

A monumental new edition of the Auschwitz survivor’s complete writings shows a humanist laboring in the dark

Adam Kirsch
September 21, 2015
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

When Primo Levi died in 1987 at age 67, after falling down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin, Italy, his fellow writer and survivor Elie Wiesel delivered an epigrammatic coroner’s report: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.” The long-delayed suicide of the Holocaust survivor is a story whose outlines we know too well. Jean Amery, who survived Gestapo torture and Auschwitz, took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1978; Paul Celan, who spent the war in a slave labor camp in Romania and saw his parents murdered, drowned himself in the Seine in 1970; Jerzy Kosiński, who survived in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Poland, asphyxiated himself in a bathtub in 1991. By jumping from a third-story landing, Levi seemed to be delivering the same message: he had borne the burden of an intolerable experience as long as he could, until his strength gave out and he had to let it drop.

But there was a crucial difference between Levi and these other writers of the Holocaust—a difference that shines out from every page of his Complete Works, now published for the first time in English in a beautiful three-volume edition edited by Ann Goldstein. Amery was the author of a book called On Suicide, and Celan was a poet of agonizing incommunicability, and Kosinski’s The Painted Bird was a surreal fantasia on themes of death and torture. But from his first book to his last, Primo Levi’s subject was not death but survival, not the triumph of evil but the defiance of evil. He was a man who lived through Auschwitz and emerged a humanist. This made him, for many readers—and especially many American Jews, who shared with this Italian Jew an assimilated and irreligious upbringing—one of the heroic spirits of the 20th century. Like George Orwell or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi’s name stood for the survival of humane values in the face of overwhelming violence. This made his eventual suicide a particularly dark and dispiriting act, as though he were saying that even he could not find a way to live in a world where Auschwitz was possible.

Indeed, in his work, Levi had taken pains to distance himself from the idea of suicide as a response to the Holocaust. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi drew a pointed contrast between his own worldview and that of Jean Amery. Amery was the anagrammatic pen name of Hans Mayer, a Vienna-born Jew who was arrested by the Gestapo in Belgium in 1943 and spent the remainder of the war in concentration camps. (Amery and Levi actually met in Monowitz, the industrial labor camp that was a component of Auschwitz; though Levi writes that he doesn’t remember Amery, Amery claimed to remember him.) In his postwar books, Amery insisted that it was impossible to overcome the experience of being tortured: “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured,” he wrote. “Trust in the world … will not be regained.” Levi writes that, for Amery, life after Auschwitz was “an endless death.”

But Levi dissociates himself from this way of thinking. In part, he writes, the difference between himself and Amery is that Amery defined himself as an intellectual, in a way that Levi did not. Of course, Levi was well-educated, steeped in Italian literature and culture. One of the unforgettable moments in If This Is a Man (the original title of his first book, restored in the Complete Works) is the chapter titled “The Canto of Ulysses,” in which Levi describes his attempts to recall some lines from Dante’s Inferno. The scene Levi is trying to remember is the one in which Ulysses sets out on his final journey through the straits of Gibraltar—a journey into an unknown sea, where no man has gone before, and where tradition says it is impossible to go. But Ulysses, in a moment that is one of the classic statements of Western humanism, tells his sailors to defy such taboos: “You were not made to live your lives as brutes, / but to be followers of worth and knowledge.” Levi recited these lines to a fellow-prisoner named Jean, as the two were lugging a heavy soup-pot, and heard them as a “blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.”

Surely this is the experience of an intellectual—indeed, one of the 20th century’s most inspiring examples of the once obvious, now dubious idea that the humanities humanize us. Yet Levi insists that he was not an intellectual in the narrow sense of the term that Amery uses. For Amery, an intellectual is someone who “lives within what is a spiritual frame of reference in the widest sense … [and] by inclination and ability tends toward abstract trains of thought.” And Amery believed that such an intellectual was at a deep disadvantage in Auschwitz, both physically—because he was unused to manual labor—and mentally—because he could not stop asking “why” in a place where, as Levi had written, “there is no why.”

Levi, on the other hand, says in The Drowned and the Saved that he benefited in Auschwitz from not thinking in abstract terms about the meaning of his experience. “Maybe because I was younger or more ignorant than him, less damaged or less conscious, I almost never had time to devote to death,” he writes. Instead, Levi was fixated on the tangible problems and immediate tasks of life in what he always refers to as, using the German word, the Lager: “to scrounge some bread, avoid the grueling work, patch my shoes, steal a broom. … The business of living is the best defense against death, and not only in the camps,” he writes.

This habit of paying attention to reality, and trying to master it, Levi attributes in large part to the fact that he had a scientific education rather than a literary one. Levi was sent to Auschwitz in February 1944, after he and some friends had been arrested for partisan activity in German-occupied Italy. By this time he was 24 years old and had already completed his advanced training as an industrial chemist—the profession he would continue to pursue when he returned home from the camp, and for most of the rest of his life. And being a chemist helped to save his life in Auschwitz. This was true in the practical sense: Levi was assigned to a chemistry lab at Monowitz, where he was spared the heavy physical labor and exposure to the elements that killed so many prisoners. (It also gave him the chance to pilfer items that could be exchanged on the black market for food—which was, Levi makes clear, absolutely indispensable to avoid starving to death on the meager official rations.)

‘The business of living is the best defense against death, and not only in the camps.’

But being a chemist helped Levi in less tangible ways as well, he observes. Chemistry gave him what he calls “a legacy of mental habits,” an interest in analysis and problem-solving that extended from the atomic to the human realm: “If I act in a certain manner, how will the substance I’m holding or my human interlocutor react? Why does it, or he, or she manifest or stop or alter a specific behavior? Can I anticipate what will happen around me in a minute, a day, or a month? If I can, which are the signs that matter and which should be ignored?” This kind of curiosity not only helped Levi master the many secret codes and challenges of life in Auschwitz; it also kept him mentally healthy, interested in life as a problem. “For me,” he writes, “the Lager was a university: It taught us to look around ourselves and take the measure of men.”

To preserve the idea of education in such a setting, where the likelihood of surviving from day to day was small and the idea of the future absent, was a blessing, a spiritual gift. It is all the more impressive because, as Levi testifies, he entered the Lager as an atheist and never changed his convictions. The only time he was tempted to pray to God for help, he recalls, was when he was about to go before the commission of SS doctors that would decide which prisoners to send to the gas chambers. But even at this moment, Levi declined to pray, because it would have violated his convictions: “The rules of the game don’t change when it’s about to end, or when you’re losing.” Not just an atheist in a foxhole, but an atheist at the door of the gas chamber: This is spiritual strength and self-reliance of a degree we ordinarily associate, ironically, with saints.


The restoration of the title If This Is a Man—in place of the title long familiar to English readers, Survival in Auschwitz—is a small but emblematic feature of the Complete Works. Goldstein’s approach as editor, she writes, is “to present Levi as he presented himself.” This means, most crucially, that every book has been newly retranslated, with the exception of If This Is a Man, which has been revised by the original translator, Stuart Woolf. A team of nine translators rendered these 2,500 pages into English, while preserving a remarkably unified tone—the lucid, penetrating, unpretentious style that is distinctively Levi’s. The Collected Works also remains true to Levi by presenting each of his original Italian volumes in their original form and order—a change that mainly affects his collections of stories and essays, which were often split up and spliced together in their English versions. There are also hundreds of pages of previously uncollected and untranslated prose, mainly short stories and essays that first appeared in Italian newspapers.

The result of these changes is not to dramatically change our sense of the shape of Levi’s achievement. Goldstein writes in her introduction that “he did not want to be characterized only as a Holocaust writer, and the label does him a regrettable injustice.” And it is certainly true that Levi wrote about more than his Auschwitz experiences, which after all made up just one year out of the 67 he lived. He also produced a follow-up memoir, The Truce, about his difficult and picaresque journey returning home from the war; a less powerful novel, If Not Now, When, about the experiences of a band of Jewish partisans in wartime Poland; an ingenious scientific memoir, The Periodic Table; an intriguing semi-fictional book about the glamour of engineering, The Wrench; and numerous short stories in a sci-fi or speculative-fiction vein, collected in books like Natural Histories and Flaw of Form.

Of these books, The Periodic Table is a third classic, to join If This Is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved, and The Truce is well worth reading. The other work has value mainly for completing our picture of Levi’s thought and character—especially The Wrench, which is his most compelling illustration of the virtues of work. But it is not finally an injustice to say that it is as a Holocaust writer that Levi matters most. He had no real gift for inventing plot and character—a lack that comes across most clearly in his one real novel, If Not Now, When. Where he excelled was recording and reflecting on his own experience; and inevitably the experience that engrossed his imagination was Auschwitz.

The title Survival in Auschwitz, which was given to Levi’s first book when it appeared in English translation in 1959, is certainly less evocative than the original If This Is a Man. The latter is a phrase taken from the poem of Levi’s that prefaces the book:

Consider if this is a man
Who toils in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for half a loaf
Who dies according to a yes or a no.

But Survival in Auschwitz may actually be truer to the spirit of Levi’s book than his own title. It is the most universally popular chronicle of the Holocaust—the one that young readers, especially, find compelling—because its focus is not on metaphysical questions like the nature of humanity, but on the practicalities of life in the Lager. Levi gives a clear and specific account of the prisoner’s life: how two people slept, or failed to sleep, in the same narrow bunk; how a soup-based diet made frequent urination necessary, and how this was especially torturous at night; how the black market operated, and what was the price for a loaf of bread or a flint for lighting cigarettes. In short, Levi is writing about activity in the Lager, rather than the deathly passivity of the Mussulmanner, the beaten-down prisoners who had given up on life. Though Levi spares the reader nothing of the horror of Auschwitz, this focus on activity—which means life and possibility—keeps his book from being painful to read.

In literary terms, it would not be outlandish to compare If This Is a Man to a Jack London novel, in the sense that Levi too is interested in how human beings survive under conditions of extreme difficulty. London-like, too, is Levi’s sense that such conditions expose the Darwinian struggle for survival that is normally concealed in civilized life. Auschwitz, Levi writes in If This Is a Man, was a “rigorous experiment to determine what is inherent and what acquired in the behavior of the human animal faced with the struggle for life.” One of the disturbing conclusions of this experiment is that moral goodness, as we define it in everyday life, was neither necessary nor possible for one who wanted to survive—to be among the “saved” rather than the “drowned.”

Ordinarily, we think of goodness as involving obedience to law. But this definition was useless in Auschwitz, where the rules were designed to kill those who followed them. As Levi writes, “the easiest thing is to succumb: One has only to carry out all the orders one receives, eat only the ration, stick to the discipline of the work and the camp.” It follows that survival meant casting off the moral habits the prisoner entered with. It was necessary to steal food, to shift the burden of labor onto others, to seize every slight advantage. This involved “a grueling struggle of one against all, and a not inconsiderable sum of aberrations and compromises.”

The distinction between the saved and the drowned, which Levi introduced in If This Is a Man in 1947, weighed so heavily on his conscience that he devoted a whole book to it almost 40 years later. In The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986, he returned to the moral complexity of survival in what he now named “the gray zone” of Auschwitz. It was impossible, he writes, to speak of “two blocs, victims and persecutors.” Rather, there was a hierarchy of persecution, in which privileged prisoners preyed on those below them, and ordinary prisoners found themselves rivals rather than comrades. Levi is particularly haunted by the Sonderkommando, the Auschwitz prisoners charged with unloading corpses from the gas chambers, who collaborated with the Nazis’ crimes in the most intimate way. Yet he insists that “no one has the authority to judge them, not those who experienced the Lager and, especially, not those who did not.” To look for moral lessons in Auschwitz, Levi insists, is to look in the wrong place.


And yet the experience of the Lager did turn Levi into a kind of moralist. The clearest expression of his ethic can be found, not in his two famous books about the Holocaust, but in the less well-known books also included in The Complete Works—above all, in The Wrench, his quasi-novel of 1978. This odd book consists entirely of stories told to the narrator, who is more or less Primo Levi, by a man named Faussone, who is a professional rigger. Faussone’s stories occasionally mention love affairs or family matters, but their real subject is work: the challenges, described in great detail, of building a bridge or assembling a crane. What Levi is trying to do in The Wrench is to test whether constructive work can be as dramatic and glamorous as destruction is in most novels. Does the reader thrill to usefulness as he so easily does to wickedness?

The answer, alas, is no: The Wrench is not a great novel, precisely because it is lacking in human drama. But it is the book in which Levi’s reverence for work comes across most clearly. “Listening to Faussone,” Levi-the-narrator reflects, “I felt cohering within me a tentative hypothesis that I had never before articulated and which I hereby submit to the reader: As everyone knows, the term ‘freedom’ has many meanings, but perhaps the most accessible form of freedom, the most subjectively enjoyed and the most beneficial to the social order, derives from being competent in one’s own work, and thus taking pleasure in doing it.” It takes a moment to realize that what Levi is really saying here is “work makes you free”—which is the literal meaning of the words that greeted prisoners at the gates of Auschwitz and other camps, Arbeit Macht Frei.

In those words, Levi insists, there lies a great truth, which is not the less true because it was horribly perverted and parodied by fascism. One of the elements of life in Auschwitz that Levi brings forward with great force is the way the Lager made work into an instrument of torture. Prisoners at Monowitz were supposed to be building a synthetic rubber factory, whose products would help the Germans win the war. But they were forced to work with neither tools nor training—not to mention food or sleep—which made their labors painful and finally useless: No rubber was ever produced at Monowitz. In one chapter of If This Is a Man, “The Work,” Levi describes being forced to carry railroad ties weighing 150 pounds: “After the first trip, I am deaf and almost blind from the effort, and I would stoop to any baseness to avoid the second,” he writes. The work Faussone does in The Wrench is the exact opposite of this torture-labor: purposeful, skilled, and freely undertaken. In a sense, Faussone is the anti-Jean Amery, a man who lives by doing instead of dying by thinking.

Levi was able to perform similarly rewarding work during his decades-long career as a chemist in a paint factory, which he discusses in some detail in The Periodic Table. This unusual memoir, published in 1975, is divided into chapters named after chemical elements, each of which turns out to play a more or less central role in the story. In “Hydrogen,” for instance, Levi remembers a clandestine experiment he and a friend undertook as teenagers, which ended in an explosion. He was attracted to chemistry so early, Levi writes, in part because it represented a way of coming to grips with and mastering the physical world. This was a skill that he felt had been lost by his community of Italian Jews, most of whom were professionals of one sort or another: “What did we know how to do with our hands? Nothing, or almost. … Our hands were clumsy and weak at the same time, regressed, insensitive: the least educated part of our bodies.” Chemistry was an education of the hands and the mind at the same time; and as Levi shows in several chapters of The Periodic Table, it involved problem-solving as intricate, if not quite as dangerous, as anything Faussone the rigger undertook. It was “a particular case, a more strenuous version, of the occupation of living.”

In this way, the professional techniques of the chemist and the survival techniques of the prisoner turn out to converge. Levi is describing the former, but he could just as well be talking about the latter when he writes: “You muddle along in the dark for a week or a month, you think it will be dark forever, and you feel like throwing it all away … then you glimpse a ray of light in the darkness, you grope in that direction, and the light gets brighter, and finally, order follows chaos.” Yet the truth of Auschwitz, Levi knows, was more like the bitter description of the chemist’s calling that his friend offers in response: “It was always dark, one never saw the ray of light, one beat one’s head more and more often against a ceiling that kept getting lower.”


Reading the whole of Levi’s work in this new edition, it becomes clear that he was helped to survive Auschwitz by his ethic of pragmatism, his fascination with problem-solving; and the experience of Auschwitz reinforced that ethic and that fascination, turning them into the pillars of his humanistic worldview. But Levi was far too honest and perspicuous to claim that skilled hands and a ready brain were, in themselves, able to overcome evil, or to get anyone through the Lager. Rather, Levi’s survival depended on a whole series of factors that were out of his or anyone’s control. He lived because he was 24 years old when he was deported, and so he was assigned to work instead of being sent directly to the gas chambers, like all the women and children and old men on his transport. He lived because he wasn’t deported until 1944, at a time when, as he notes in If This Is a Man, the Nazis had slowed their genocidal program in order to exploit Jewish labor. He lived because he happened to know chemistry and the Nazis needed prisoners to staff a chemistry lab. He lived because he contracted scarlet fever just at the time the camp was about to be evacuated and so was left behind in the infirmary instead of being forced on the death march that killed almost all the other prisoners. He lived because the scarlet fever didn’t happen to kill him, as it killed many of his fellow patients. In short, he lived for such a concatenation of unreasonable reasons as to amount to chance. And no human ethic is more powerful than chance.

There are, then, two ways of reading Levi’s life and work. It can be the hopeful story of a man who survives the worst imaginable torture and manages to find meaning, purpose, and happiness in life. Or else, it can be a story of a man who accidentally escapes death and is so haunted by the moral nullity of survival that, decades later, he takes his own life out of guilt or despair. So much is at stake in our analysis of Levi’s death that it comes as a strange kind of relief to hear that, in the view of some observers—like that of Diego Gambetta—his fatal fall was not suicide at all, but an accident. Gambetta makes strong arguments for this theory. Levi, the writer, didn’t leave a suicide note; he was too private and fastidious to commit suicide so publicly; he was too scientific to choose a method, jumping from a third-story railing, that had a high chance of failing and leaving him grievously injured or paralyzed; he was taking medication that could have lowered his blood pressure, leaving him dizzy and off-balance. The chronology that leads off the first volume of the Complete Works states for April 11, 1987, “Levi dies, a suicide.” But there should remain a question mark over this version of events—a doubt that leaves at least a small margin for hope.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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