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Understanding Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor

The Italian writer bore witness to the Holocaust and strived to be understood the rest of his life

January 27, 2015 1:45PM ET

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp. One of those freed was Primo Levi. As an Italian, I grew up reading his books, and as one of his translators, I’ve spent a lot of time with his work over the course of the last decade.

Levi survived Auschwitz, he later explained, for a couple of reasons, one of which was that in the Babel that was the camp, he was one of few inmates who knew some German and learned enough to make himself understood by his captors. This allowed him to explain that he was a chemist and was transferred from hard labor in subzero temperatures to work in a laboratory.

After his long journey back to Italy, chronicled in his second book, “The Truce,” he returned to his work as a chemist but, as he wrote in the introduction to the school edition of that book in 1965, he “needed to tell these stories: It seemed important that they not remain lying inside me, like a nightmare.” Bearing witness was incredibly difficult task because, he wrote, the biggest fear, the biggest nightmare of the survivor is that he not be believed, that he not be understood. But, as he wrote in 1961 in the preface to the German edition of his first book, “If This Is a Man,” “if I think of my own life and the purposes I have set for myself, there is only one among them that I can identify consciously and precisely: to bear witness, to make my voice heard by the German people.”

Levi returned to Auschwitz for the first time in April 1965 and then again in the summer of 1982. His 10th book, “If Not Now, When?” was published to great acclaim that spring. Based on a true story, the novel tells the adventures of a band of swashbuckling Jewish partisans who, at the end of the war, take revenge against the Nazis as they journey from Russia to Italy, ending up in Palestine — because they have no other home to return to.

On June 6, 1982, as he was preparing for that second trip to Auschwitz, the Israel Defense Forces invaded southern Lebanon, ostensibly to avenge an assassination attempt on Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, for which Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin blamed the Palestine Liberation Organization. Levi was deeply troubled by Begin’s campaign, in part because his novel was suddenly misconstrued by some as a work of militant Zionism but mostly because Begin used the Holocaust to justify his actions against the Palestinians.

Levi drafted a letter of protest with his fellow writer and good friend Edith Bruck, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon and an end to the building of settlements in the occupied territories. Titled “Israel Must Withdraw,” the letter was signed by several other Jewish intellectuals, including author Natalia Ginzburg and scientist Rita Levi Montalcini, and published in the daily La Repubblica. The letter, published while Levi was in Poland, garnered 1,500 subsequent signatories, outraged his conservative friends and attracted a flurry of media requests. But Levi couldn’t and wouldn’t back down from his position; there was too much at stake, and he wanted to be understood.

‘I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional bond to Israel, but not to this Israel.’

Primo Levi

“Who has courage in Jerusalem?”

On June 24, Levi authored a front-page article in the newspaper La Stampa titled “Who has courage in Jerusalem?” in which he revealed his distress that his visit to Auschwitz coincided with Israel’s attack on Lebanon. “Israel, less and less the Holy Land, more and more the military state, is starting to act like the other countries in the Middle East, with their radicalism, their distrust of negotiation,” he wrote. He continued,

I distrust success achieved with an unprincipled use of arms. I feel indignant toward those who compare the Israeli generals to Nazi generals, and yet I have to admit that Begin draws such judgments on himself. With dismay I see the solidarity of European countries weakening. I fear that this undertaking, with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on Judaism a degradation difficult to cure, and will damage its image. I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional bond to Israel, but not to this Israel.

If Israel was supposed to be the redeeming land — what Levi called in the article his "second homeland” — it had to be different from all the other countries.

Meanwhile, “If Not Now, When?” continued to garner praise and awards – the Viareggio, the Campiello – often, it seemed, to Levi’s chagrin, in an effort to show solidarity with Israel. One particularly enthusiastic Turin bookstore even stacked display copies of the novel draped in blue and white cloth resembling the Israeli flag and topped with a menorah. At a talk organized by his publisher, Einaudi, on the day Italy won the World Cup, he had to be ushered out of the building when he was attacked by Palestinian hecklers.

That fall saw the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, when hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian and Lebanese Shia civilians were massacred by a right-wing Lebanese militia aligned with the Israelis — a tragedy for which Israel’s Kahan Commission deemed Israel’s military, which was in control of the city at the time, indirectly responsible. As a result, then–Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign.

Levi was despondent over the news. Again he called publicly for Begin’s resignation in the pages of La Repubblica, stating that the image of the Jews was being polluted by this aggressive behavior. A new wave of anti-Semitism swept across Europe at the time, both in the streets and in the mainstream press. Still, as much as he wrote and gave interviews, Levi continued to be misunderstood, attacked from both the left and right, in Italy and in Israel, by Zionists and pro-Palestinians alike.

In an interview during that trip to Auschwitz in 1982, Levi was asked about the inmates’ relationship to the local Polish population after they were released. He replied:

We were foreigners. We didn’t understand each other. We were wearing our inmate uniforms, which were terrifying to them. They didn’t want to talk to us, only some, a few, took pity on us: The ones with whom we managed to communicate. Understanding one another is very important. There is a colossal difference between the man who makes himself understood and the one who doesn’t: The first saves himself. This too was an experience of the lager [camp prisoner] — the vital importance of being understood.

By the end of the year, “If Not Now, When?” had sold 110,000 copies, yet Levi told a friend “I’m going through my worst period since Auschwitz.” Almost 40 years after he emerged from the camps, the chemist turned writer by necessity still struggled to bear witness and be understood.

Alessandra Bastagli is the editorial director at Nation Books. Formerly a digital features editor at Al Jazeera America, she worked as a book editor for 15 years at Arcade Publishing, W.W. Norton & Co., Palgrave Macmillan and Free Press/Simon & Schuster. She is also a published translator, from the German, of Jurek Becker, and, from the Italian, of Primo Levi.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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