Magazine article The American Conservative

Primo Levi's Partisans

Magazine article The American Conservative

Primo Levi's Partisans

Article excerpt

Primo Levi's Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy, Sergio Luzzatto, Metropolitan Books, 304 pages

Proof, if it were needed, that Primo Levi was not just a valuable Holocaust memoirist but a great 20th-century writer came last year in the magisterial form of his Complete Works--three slip-cased volumes of revised or freshly translated fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and essays. Finally readers have access to Levi's wide-ranging literary output in its entirety and are able to savor his poised, lucid, personal prose, what Philip Roth called "sentences suffused with mind." And now we can fully appreciate Levi's unflinching and dispassionate presentation of facts, his trenchant analysis of moral history, and tireless pursuit of hard truth. As might be expected from a man who was by trade an industrial chemist, Levi's writing is a master-class in distillation, in boiling away the extraneous to get to the essential. Even with the grimmest of subject matter, the words on the page are immensely pure.

Most of Levi's writing was testimony. What he really distilled was his ordeal as an Auschwitz prisoner, victim, and witness, most famously in his masterpiece If This Is a Man. Thanks to his various accounts, we are wiser to the horrors of the Nazi genocide, the extent of his suffering and endurance, and his guilt over what he termed "the monstrous freedom" that fate bestowed on him and fellow survivors.

Levi was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 24 after being arrested in December 1943 by Fascist militia. Prior to his arrest, he had spent three months in the mountains of northwest Italy as a member of a partisan group. Had he admitted this to his captors, he felt he would have been tortured and killed. Instead, he admitted to being Jewish--a lesser crime--and was moved to an Italian internment camp. But when the Nazis took over the camp, that crime was magnified, and all Jewish inmates were sent off to the Polish death camps.

While Levi wrote at length about Auschwitz, he remained virtually silent about his time as a partisan. Ian Thomson devotes a chapter to this short period in his monumental Primo Levi: A Life. But a new book by the Italian scholar Sergio Luzzatto manages to go deeper, shining a light on Levi, the other members of his little band, and the enemies they were up against. Primo Levi's Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy appears to be more a "micro-history" than a comprehensive study, but Luzzatto explains at the outset that he has focused on "One story from the Resistance to illuminate the Resistance as a whole."

The original title of Luzzatto's book--a bestseller in his native Italy--is Partigia. This is taken from the title of a poem Levi wrote and published in 1981 and signifies "partisans without many scruples, decisive, light-fingered, or quick to brawl." The renamed English edition comes with a useful prefatory note by the translator, Frederika Randall, clearly intended to bring international readers unacquainted with the partigia and this chapter of Italian history up to speed.

When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, German troops seized control of Italy's northern half, where they set up a puppet state headed by Mussolini. Italians in that part of the country were immediately faced with a choice: side with the so-called Republic of Salo composed of Nazi-Fascists or fight for a free Italy against what was effectively their own government. Civil war ensued, with the Italian Resistance growing steadily to become the largest such movement in Western Europe. Liberation came in April 1945, by which time 45,000 partisans had lost their lives and Primo Levi had experienced hell.

Luzzatto starts by informing us that Levi's only reference to his "brief and unfortunate season" as a partisan is a fleeting four-page section in his collection of autobiographical stories The Periodic Table. He also tells us that in the section "Gold," Levi allots just two pages to hiding out in the mountains, waiting for action, and his eventual capture, and devotes a further two to his journey down the valley, his interrogation and dispatch to a collection camp. …

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