My Cousin Primo Levi: A Personal Portrait

By Viterbi, Andrew | Midstream, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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My Cousin Primo Levi: A Personal Portrait


Viterbi, Andrew, Midstream


I feel both honored and inadequate for the role of opening this symposium since I am neither a literary critic nor a historian. Still I have read practically all of Primo Levi's writings and have spent more time with my first cousin's husband than probably anyone here. So I accepted the invitation to speak as one who had had the good fortune of enjoying his company at various times over a period of nearly four decades.

I first met my cousin Lucia's new husband at my Bar Mitzvah in Turin in 1948. I had already known of him for at least a year. And when my mother received from her sister a copy of the first printing of "Se Questo e' un Uomo" in 1947, I assisted my father with an awkward English translation of its first chapter. Its intended recipient was Boston's renowned literary rabbi, Joshua Loth Liebman, author of the highly successful tide "Peace of Mind" which had enjoyed a long run on The New York Times book fist. I don't recall how the good rabbi was enticed into meeting with two members of Boston's tiny Italian Jewish community, my father and Anna Foa Jona, Primo's first cousin. In any case, this first attempt at introducing Levi to an American public came to naught with Rabbi Liebman's assurance that the public (presumably including Jewish readers) had heard enough of the Holocaust and such a book would never find an audience. Whether or not he was correct, my young mind was affected strongly as the entire text was read to me by my father.

A step back for clarification. My parents, Achille and Maria Viterbi, and I, their only child, left Italy in mid August of 1939 as a consequence of the Racial Laws. After two years in New York City, we settled in Boston where my father, formerly the chief ophthalmologist at the major hospital of Bergamo, Italy, restarted his truncated career, opening a practice at nearly sixty years of age. But my parents' heart and spirit never left Italy. For at least the next twenty-five years, the primary lifeline to their former homeland was the weekly correspondence between my mother and her five Luria siblings, all born in the mid-sized town of Casale Monferrato, located about midway between Turin and Milan, but very Piedmontese in dialect and character. Her closest sibling, in age, temperament, and warmth was Beatrice (known to me as Zia Bice). Her husband, Giuseppe Morpurgo was a highly respected professor at a Liceo in Turin and a much published author of school books and of Jewish-themed novels, most notably Yom Ha-Kippurim, the chronicle of a mixed marriage. During the era of the Racial Laws, Zio Giuseppe was the Principal of the Jewish School of Turin, which provided an education for the Jewish children barred from attending (and polluting!) the schools for Aryan children. Zia Bice and Zio Giuseppe and their unmarried twin daughters spent the years of Nazi occupation in hiding among the good and reliable peasants of the high Piedmontese Alpine country. Returning to their home at war's end, they began the cycle of correspondence with the news of how all family members had survived the Holocaust. Not long afterward came the news that both the twins, Gabriella and Lucia, had become engaged, the latter to the chemist and Concentration Camp survivor, Primo Levi.

Three years later, as I turned thirteen with only the slightest exposure to Hebrew prayer practice and no relatives nearby, we came for the summer to Italy to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah among a host of aunts, uncles and cousins. Only Zio Giuseppe with his Jewish community credentials could secure the tutor for a crash course in Hebrew and ritual and obtain rabbinical approval in spite of my limited religious preparation. So that was the occasion where I first met Primo. I must admit that though he was already a celebrity within the family, I was so nervous and focused on my challenging task that I was hardly aware of him. On the other hand, my father, a renaissance man with wide cultural interests, was much impressed by this brilliant young man and engaged him in extensive conversation.

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