Primo Levi (31 July 1919 – 11 April 1987) was the first writer coming out of the Holocaust that I read (decades ago) who managed to convey its reality without detailing its atrocities. He credited his survival of Auschwitz to his profession as a chemist. Born and raised in Turin, Italy, he returned to Turin after the war where he continued to write until his death in 1987from a fall from the landing inside his apartment building – the suspicion of suicide is hotly contested. I believe I have read more or less every book of his work that was translated into English.
Let me tell you about a few of them. His two books about the concentration camp If This Is a Man and his return to Turin at the end of the war The Truce are often bundled together for an amazing double-whammy. (Skip the movie supposedly based on The Truce.) It is near the top of the list of books I most recommend that people read on any subject.
He was unique among Holocaust writers in the depth of the humanity he found in all of the characters around him, some of whom are featured in Moments of Reprieve. He was devoted to his work as a chemist, which may explain the widespread popularity of The Periodic Table, a collection of short pieces built around the elements which was nominated by the Royal Institution as one of the all-time best science books. He also had a love of worker and workers – a bit like Studs Terkel. His books Other People's Trades and The Monkey Wrench are full of the generosity and respect he displays throughout his writing.
If you have not yet discovered Primo Levi, I hope my tribute to him today on his birthday will introduce you to one of the greatest of the 20th century writers in my opinion.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
― Primo Levi