At a modest exhibition on “Jewish Life and Culture” in the Piedmont region, which the Turin Jewish community hosted during the Olympics in the hall of the State Archives, the first thing a visitor notices is a glass-covered display case with 14 books in a half-dozen European languages.
All are the works of Primo Levi, the city’s native son.
Levi, a resistance fighter during World War II and a survivor of Auschwitz, was a prolific author and journalist who worked as manager of a chemical factory here most of his life. He died at 68 in 1987 of an apparent suicide.
His autobiographies about life in a death camp and his return to Turin, among the first major books about the Holocaust experience, were followed by scores of other writings about living as a Jew in postwar Europe, as well as an array of other social and political topics.
In Turin, where Levi is an icon with a square outside the synagogue named for him in Italy, where his books are required reading in public schools and in the rest of Europe — in other words, in most of the world outside of the United States and Israel that cares about the Shoah — Levi is the voice of history.
In the U.S., however, he has remained largely a marginal figure, one of many survivors whose stories of the Holocaust are in the literary shadow of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning author who dominates public knowledge of the wartime period.
“In Europe, Primo Levi plays the same role as Elie Wiesel in the United States,” said Ariel Dello Strologo, an attorney in Genoa and president of the Primo Levi Cultural Center there. “He’s really an institution in Italy.”
“Primo Levi knew how to express himself in a way that could be understood outside the Jewish world,” said Alberto Somekh, Turin’s chief rabbi.Like many Italians interviewed for this article, the rabbi and Dello Strologo in respect to Levi referred to him as “Primo Levi,” never by a first name or last name alone.
Many American visitors walked through the Turin exhibition during the past two weeks, said Sarah Gogliocco, a young tour guide who talked with them about the displays.
How much did they know about Levi?
“Not so much,” she said.
Slowly that might be changing.
As the 20th anniversary of Levi’s death approaches, several cultural events about him have been staged in recent years.
Among them were Antony Sher’s one-man play, “Primo,” in New York City and London, and an opera by Boston composer-writer Ari Frankel. This in addition to academic conferences and college courses based on Levi’s career, a BBC documentary, anti-torture centers in Levi’s name based in France and Denmark, and a stage adaptation in Geneva of his Auschwitz autobiography, “If this is a man.”
Contrasts With WieselLevi, who lived in the same Turin house nearly all his life, and Wiesel, who lived in France and Israel before moving to the U.S. 40 years ago, present a marked contrast in personalities and styles, according to observers of their lives.
Wiesel was a child when the Nazis came, while Levi already was an adult.
Wiesel, educated in a cheder, questioned his faith after the Holocaust but remained an Orthodox Jew. Levi, typical of his Turin upbringing, was secular, the product of an assimilated family, a college graduate and an infrequent worshiper at the Piedmont synagogues featured in the archives exhibition.
“I became a Jew in Auschwitz,” Levi would say. “There is Auschwitz, hence there can be no God.”
Wiesel has tended to stay in a Jewish milieu and write about Jewish topics. Levi’s writings, including essays in Turin’s prestigious La Stampa newspaper, covered a wider range of topics. Wiesel, the particularist; Levi, the universalist.
Wiesel, a frequent visitor to Israel, usually defends the actions of the country, while Levi, who did not go there until late in life, drew criticism, especially from Italian Jews, for opposing Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Wiesel, born in Romania, came from the area that most American Jews regard as part of the heart of prewar Jewish life in Europe. Levi’s roots are in an area that few American Jews identify with Jewish life.
“Primo Levi belonged to a world that is not known to the Jews of Eastern Europe, who are the Jews of the [present-day] United States,” Della Strologo said.
And, the observers said, Levi wrote more analytically — befitting a man trained as a chemist — and less emotionally than Wiesel. He employed a terse, controlled style, almost as an observer of hell rather than a resident.
The prime example of this was “The Periodic Table,” his 1975 book that compared the personalities of 21 individuals he encountered during the Holocaust to the properties of various chemical elements.
The lack of passion in Levi’s writings helps explain his relative lack of fame in the U.S.
“Americans always found him somewhat lacking,” said Stanislao Pugliese, professor of history and Italian studies at Hofstra University and author of “The Legacy of Primo Levi” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). “When Levi toured the U.S. in the 1980s, he was tormented. Some thought he was ‘too Jewish,’ while American Jews thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.”
Most American readers “found him too analytical,” Pugliese said — Levi dispassionately described the horrors of Auschwitz instead of accusing the torturers. He used “the language of witness” instead of prosecutor, preferring a “gray zone” instead of a blatant good vs. evil black and white.
“His books were not written in a tone of outrage,” Pugliese said.Ian Thomson, writing in his biography of Levi, said Levi did not want to rail against his tormentors.
“Hatred was a bestial emotion to be kept at bay,” Thomson wrote.
Levi would refer to Auschwitz as his “university.”
“I was fortunate enough to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944 when the German government, because of an increasing shortage of workers, had already decided to lengthen the life span of detainees destined to be eliminated,” Levi wrote as the first words of “If this is a man.”
“Levi was not overly accusatory,” said Frankel, whose opera, “To Scratch an Angel,” was inspired by Levi’s life and “follows a mythic path of a soul’s search for kindness and beauty.”
Pugliese said that because Levi was already in his mid-20s when he was in Auschwitz, he “saw deeper than Elie Wiesel into the nature of the Holocaust.”
“A generation from now, people will be turning more to Primo Levi than to Elie Wiesel,” he said.
To describe the nihilistic condition of daily existence in Auschwitz, Levi told the story of being locked in a hut and, wracked with thirst, leaning out of a window to break off an icicle. A guard snatched the icicle away.
“Warum?” Levi asked in his basic German — “Why?”
“Hier ist kein Warum,” the guard answered, pushing Levi back inside — “Here there is no why?”
Levi, who retired from the chemical factory to devote himself to full-time writing over the last decade of his life, was accepted belatedly in the first rank of Italian writers, Pugliese said.
“In one way it really bothered him,” he said, then adding it was also “a blessing in disguise, allowing Levi to develop his own literary style instead of trying to please the literary establishment. It freed him from writing in a certain way.”
Twenty years after Levi’s death, he is “known as a writer, not just a survivor,” said Emanuele Luzzati, a set designer in Genoa and distant relative of Levi whose artworks were exhibited in 2003 at the New York branch of the Primo Levi Cultural Center in Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History.
“It took some time for him to be recognized as a writer and [not only] as a witness,” Dello Strologo said.
The cultural center Dello Strologo heads, founded in 1990, sponsors an ongoing series of lectures, meetings and conferences. It also awards an annual prize in Levi’s name — the first recipient was Elie Wiesel.
Turin’s Jewish community is considering the erection of a memorial to Levi, Rabbi Somekh said.
Levi’s value as a witness to the Holocaust grows each year, the rabbi said, as “all the witnesses are perishing.”
Italian publishers, Dello Strologo said, are gearing up to print special editions of Levi’s books to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his death next year.
“It will be a big event,” he said.
The interest in Levi’s life is part commercial, part fascination, Dello Strologo said.
“If someone commits suicide, there is a mystique around him,” he said.
Evidence about the circumstances of Levi’s death is not conclusive, but most authorities believe that Levi, who struggled with depression much of his life, threw himself over the railing of his family’s house.
Levi’s writings and his personal experience of surviving the Holocaust without bitterness are examples for other people and peoples who face personal or national conflicts, Dello Strologo said, citing the universal nature of Levi’s.
Levi suffered as a Jew but wrote of humanity, he said, and “is a symbol for everyone.”