My Cousin Primo Levi: A Personal Portrait

By Viterbi, Andrew | Midstream, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

My Cousin Primo Levi: A Personal Portrait


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.