Primo Levi Was No Saint — But We Already Knew That

'Revisionist' Biographies Only Reinforce Survivor's Humanity

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By Robert Zaretsky

Published July 31, 2013.
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Prisoner 174517 had a recurrent nightmare at Auschwitz. He dreamed that he had survived, returned home and told his family about his experience —yet nobody listened.

That same prisoner, Primo Levi, who died a little more than 25 years ago, probably by his own hand, has now been subjected to a different nightmare: someone who does listen to his story, but hears what he wants to hear.

Since early summer, a heat wave of controversy concerning Levi has settled over the Italian media, provoked by the publication of a new book. Written by the historian Sergio Luzzatto, “Partigia,” or “Partisans,” is really two books in one. It is a general history of the Italian partisan movements, the latest ripple in the recent surge of historical research on this subject.

Thanks to the work of such historians, young Italians are discovering that the partigia were no more saintly and no less flawed than, say, those in France. This, of course, is a step forward.

If only the same could be said for the other “book” in this book: an account of the execution of two men who belonged to Levi’s partisan group. In fact, this story seems to be the raison d’être for “Partisans.”

Along with his self-confessed “obsession” with Levi and the resistance, Luzzatto, a well-respected historian, might also have been somewhat obsessed with the commercial success of other books, particularly those written by the fast and furious journalist Giampaolo Pansa, debunking the carefully cultivated myth of the Italian resistance.

Fair enough: Historians also need to make a living — but not at the price of substituting insinuation for analysis and speculation for facts.

The outline of this particular episode has been known ever since 1975 and the publication of Levi’s magisterial “The Periodic Table.” In the chapter titled “Gold,” Levi recounts his brief, tragi-comic life as a partisan, when he and a small group of Jewish friends joined the resistance.


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