Primo Levi Was No Saint — But We Already Knew That

'Revisionist' Biographies Only Reinforce Survivor's Humanity

getty images

By Robert Zaretsky

Published July 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

They did so, let’s recall, in conditions of pure chaos: Following the Allied invasion of Italy, the collapse of the fascist regime and the arrival of the Germans, Levi was thrown into a kind of time warp. In a few short weeks, he wrote, “each of us matured, more so than during the previous twenty years.”

But the rapid spurt of maturity did not bring much in the way of practicality. This band of absolute beginners knew Dante far better than detonator caps. With two exceptions, none of them had ever before handled a gun; without exception, all of them were madly scrambling in maddening conditions both to survive and to serve the good cause. All too predictably, a fascist militia quickly captured Levi and two companions.

Their arrest was terrifying, as was an earlier event that Levi then reveals. He and his fellow partisans were forbidden to speak to one another — a painful situation, Levi writes,because of “an ugly secret.”

It was, he confesses, “the same secret that had exposed us to capture, extinguishing in us, a few days before, all will to resist…. We had been forced by our consciences to carry out a sentence and had carried it out, but we had come out of it destroyed, destitute, waiting for everything to finish and to be finished ourselves.”

This “ugly secret” was the group’s execution of two teenage members: Fulvio Oppezzo and Luciano Zalbaldano. While Luzzatto does reveal their names, the secret was never really much of a secret.

Historians have long known that Levi’s group executed two companions thought to be informers. In her sober biography of Levi, published in 1999, Myriam Anissimov discusses this “liquidation.” While she doesn’t name names, she did interview a resistance leader, Guido Bachi,, who said the two teens were stealing from the local peasants and had refused to follow his orders.

Add the suspicion that they were also working in concert with the fascists — all too easy to believe in retrospect, since a different comrade did betray Levi’s group — along with the ambient confusion and fear, and the “sentence” assumes its full historical weight.

In fact, as Levi’s passage attests, he himself never kept the secret. Burdened not just by the action, but also by his uncompromising moral lucidity and unrelenting intellectual honesty, Levi recounts the incident quite simply. He did so, it must be added, to the degree that one could 40 years ago, when the resistance remained a sacred monument to an idealized past.

Of course, Luzzatto’s account reflects the temper of our times, when sensationalism shoulders aside healthy revisionism, and saints are reduced to shysters. More disturbingly, it represents a desperately misconceived effort to impose Levi’s concept of the “gray zone” at Auschwitz on his life as a partisan.

In the end, though, Luzzatto’s work should remind us that Primo Levi never sought the title of saint. Instead, more than ever, he reminds us what it is to be a man.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.