Italian, of Spanish-Jewish ancestry, b: 31 July 1919, Turin, d: 11 April 1987, Turin. Cat: Chemist; writer on the Holocaust; poet; children’s educator; existentialist. Educ: Chemistry, Turin University, 1939, just before introduction of Mussolini’s race laws; 1941, gradruated. Infls: Jewish tradition, Piedmontese upbringing, scientific studies and experiences in Auschwitz. Appts: 1941, industrial chemist with firm prepared to ignore Italian race laws; 1941–3, nomadic work; 1943–4, member of Piedmontese resistance; 1944–5, prison and deportation to Auschwitz, where he survived as an expert in chemistry, and transferred to factory; 1945, traveller in Europe; 1945–77, industrial chemist and writer, 1977–87, writer.
Levi’s experiences of Auschwitz are contained in the novels If This is a Man (1947) and The Truce (1963). He survived because his knowledge of chemistry and German made him useful to the Nazis. The Periodic Table (1975) examines the human condition in allegorical form, comparing life to a biological and social experiment. Utilizing his expertise in chemistry, and subtly alluding to Jewish self-definitions, as well as to attitudes grounded in anti-semitism, he manages, more perhaps than any other writer on the Holocaust, to transcend the personal, and creates a unique existential and curiously optimistic account of this worst example of human cruelty. His optimism faded in the face of revisionist denials of the Holocaust, and he committed suicide in 1987. Many regard Levi as the greatest of all writers on the Holocaust, not only because of his exquisite style, but because of the existentialist philosophy, based in Jewish teachings, which he created. If Not Now, When? (1982) is not an original title as many may have thought. It is a question taken from The Ethics of the Fathers, the most popular section of the Mishnah (compilation of Jewish Oral Law, written down in about 200 CE, but based on much earlier oral teachings). In this work Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, is reported to have said: ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me? If for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’ The ethical content of this aphorism is rendered more meaningful when it is realized that the Hebrew letters for T and ‘not’ (ani and am) are identical. The idea of abnegation of ego is part of Levi’s philosophy. He chose this quotation with care, and not simply as a socio-political example of Jewish self-sufficiency. His is the quintessential expression of Jewish suffering and revival as found in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic tradition. Levi has been accorded the highest acclaim, particularly in literary circles. He has been translated into many languages, including, in 1987, Polish.
Sources: EncJud; Schoeps; obituary, The Times, 13 Apr 1987, p 16; NUC; WW(It) 1986, p. 633.