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Argon

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    Primo Levi and the Jewish World

     

    Born into a Jewish family, as a boy Primo Levi gladly learned Jewish traditions and language. As an adult, though, it was history that cast his origins up at him, first, when he was hit by the discriminating racial laws imposed by the Fascist regime in1938 and second, when he found himself a deportee at the Nazi concentration camp at in 1944 and 1945. When he returned to Italy after the war, he delved into the study of his Jewish-Piedmontese roots, to which he dedicated “Argon,” the first story in the collection The Periodic Table. His interests then widened into the study of Yiddish culture, which he learned about during his deportation, and of the conditions of Israel and contemporary Judaism. The Jewish culture of Levi was filtered through Italian tradition and his own concrete experience as a Piedmontese intellectual with secular perspectives and scientific training, yet it is the essential matrix of all his works.


    “In Italy and abroad, my readers and critics now think of me as a ‘Jewish writer.’ I have accepted this label cheerfully, but not without some initial resistance. Indeed, I fully accepted it only late on in my life and in my itinerary as a writer. I adapted to the position of Jew only as an effect of the racial laws passed in Italy in 1938, when I was nineteen years old, and following my deportation to Auschwitz, which happened in 1944. I adapted to the position of writer even later, when I was more than forty-five years old, when I had already published two books and when the work of writing (which I have nonetheless never considered to be work) began to take precedence over my ‘official’ job as a chemist. In both cases it was more of a question of an intervention of fate than of a deliberate and conscious choice. [Primo Levi, “Itinerary of a Jewish Writer” in The Black Hole of Auschwitz: 155]


    “I am a Jew according to my birth records. That is to say, I am written down as a member of the Jewish community in Turin, but I am not practicing and not even a believer. However, I am aware that I have been inserted into a tradition and a culture. I am often used to saying that I feel three-quarters Italian or, from time to time, four-fifths, but that fraction that is left over is rather important to me. I know very well that there are many other cultures that are worthy of being studied and followed. Jewish culture is one of these. It is not very flourishing in Italy because of its numbers, if not because of other reasons, but it was flourishing right in Eastern Europe when the Second World War broke out. And one of the sources of my book, If Not Now, When? is my own desire to learn about it myself and to put some of its lesser known aspects before Italian readers, for example, its self-irony, for example, its extraordinary joy even through misery, persecutions, and massacres.”
    (Il suono e la mente ["Sound and the Mind"], RAI radio broadcast Oct. 4 1982 [Belpoliti : 46])

    “I was turned into a Jew by others…. Before Hitler I was a middle-class Italian boy. The experience of the Race Laws helped me to recognize, amongst the many threads that made up the Jewish tradition, a number that I could accept.”
    (“Jewish, Up to a Point,” interview with Edith Bruck, Il Messaggero, January 9 1976 [Belpoliti & Gordon: 262])

    [To the question, “What is your religion?” Levi’s answer is] “I have none. Because my parents are Jewish, I constructed a Jewish culture for myself, but very late, after the war. After I got back, I found myself in possession of a supplementary culture and I tried to develop it. But not for religion. It's as if my religious sense had been amputated. I just haven't got one. I have what Freud called the oceanic sense. If you think about the universe at all, you become religious, but I don't have a problem with it […].That’s a role that has been imposed on me. I found it very surprising, to be introduced everywhere as an ‘Italian Jew'. They compared me to Bashevis Singer, misleadingly because my Jewish culture is all post hoc, all added on afterwards. I’ve studied Yiddish but it’s not my language at all, and in Italy nobody speaks it. In America they put a label on me. I gave twenty-five interviews, and each one was on the theme, ‘What it means to be a Jew in Italy.’ Not much, I’m afraid [...]. For practical reasons I set about studying Hebraic culture, whether Yiddish or biblical, as well as the way of life of Jews in various parts of the world, but with a detached interest, zoological again. However, the chapter on the culture of my Piedmontese Jewish forebears in The Periodic Table is written with love. I'm profoundly attached to Piedmont. I'm perfectly aware of the defects in the Piedmontese character, because they're my own defects.”
    (“Germaine Greer Talks to Primo Levi” [Belpoliti & Gordon: 72])

     

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