Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Levi, Primo
From Chambers Biographical Dictionary


Italian writer and chemist

He was born of Jewish parents in Turin. He enrolled at Turin University to study chemistry for, as he wrote in Il sistemo periodico (1984, Eng trans The Periodic Table, 1984), he believed that "the nobility of Man … lay in making himself the conqueror of matter". During World War II he fled into the mountains and tried to help set up a small guerrilla force, but this "deluge of outcasts" was accidentally discovered and in December 1943 Levi was arrested, turned over to the SS, and despatched to Auschwitz. He was one of the few to survive, partly, after it was discovered he was Jewish, because he contracted scarlet fever when the Germans evacuated the camp as the Russians approached. Those ten months in Auschwitz haunted him for the rest of his life and may have prompted his suicide. His first book, Se questo è un uomo (Eng trans If This Is a Man, 1959), was completed soon after his return to Turin and was published in 1947. A graphic account of life in a concentration camp, it is written with a chemist's detached sensibility, making it all the more powerful. He continued to combine his career as a chemist with that of a writer. His best-known book is Il sistemo periodico, a volume of memoirs and autobiographical reflections. He was one of the 20th century's most incisive commentators, and his other titles include La chiave a stella (1978, Eng trans The Wrench, 1987), Se non ora, quando? (1982, Eng trans If Not Now, When?, 1985) and Altrui mestiere (1985, Eng trans Other People's Trades, 1985).

  • Cicioni, Mirna, Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge (1995).
© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

Related Articles

Full text Article Primo Levi (1919-1987)
Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work

Primo Levi's works of testimony, narrative, poetry, and essays about his time in Auschwitz are among the most widely read and lauded of all...

Full text Article Levi, Primo
Philip's Encyclopedia

1919-87 Italian writer. A Jew, Levi joined a guerrilla movement in World War 2. Captured and sent to Auschwitz, he survived but was haunted by...

Full text Article Levi, Primo (1919 - 1987)
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A Jew, he survived imprisonment at Auschwitz and related his experiences there in If This is a Man (1947). Other works...

See more from Credo