My history hero: Primo Levi (1919–87)

"His book about his time in Auschwitz doesn't just remind readers of the Holocaust's full horror, it helps keep us on our toes and alerts us to the warning signs," Nick Hewer tells York Membery...

Italian writer Primo Levi sitting at a desk in his study. Turin, 1981. (Photo by Sergio del GrandeMondadori PortfolioMondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Advertisement

Primo Levi was an Italian-Jewish chemist, author and Holocaust survivor. His best-known works are If This Is a Man (1947), his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Second World War, and The Periodic Table (1975), a collection of short stories named after chemical elements. He died after falling from the third floor of the block of flats where he lived in Turin. The coroner ruled that it was suicide.

When did you first hear about Primo Levi?

I had a Jewish uncle – a wonderful man from Frankfurt, free of hatred – who my Irish aunt married after he was sent to his family’s London office before the war. The poor man lost his family during the conflict – they were murdered by the Germans in Auschwitz, and I think it was that which initially fuelled my interest in the Holocaust and inspired me to read Primo Levi’s shocking memoir of his time there, when I was in my twenties.

What kind of person was he?

Levi was an educated person – an industrial chemist actually – who came from a fairly well-to-do family in Turin. He’d had a classical education. Then he suddenly found himself in this appalling camp where everyone was stripped down to nothing – in fact the prisoners were known as ‘things’. When faced with terrible choices and physical disability, one’s social norms and instincts are reduced to silence. So all that culture and learning he had acquired over the years counted for nothing. Life in the camp was all about the demolition of humanity. Yet his wisdom, understanding and humour helped him through the ordeal.

What made him a hero?

The way he survived the 11 months he spent in Monowitz, part of the vast Auschwitz concentration camp complex, and then went on to write such a remarkably frank but not self-pitying memoir of the experience. He details the cruelty of the Kapos [the trustee inmates who supervised the prisoners] and the Sonderkommandos [death-camp prisoners who oversaw the burning of the bodies of their fellow Jews]. But remarkably, Levi didn’t really blame them for collaborating with the Germans: for he understood that they were simply doing all they could to survive the hell that was Auschwitz.

What was his finest hour?

It’s got to be If This Is a Man, his almost clinical account of being taken prisoner by the Nazis in Italy and ending up in Auschwitz. It is a great tool to ensure that we never forget the Holocaust and to guard against genocide of any type anywhere in the world. Anti-Semitism is a very light sleeper, in Britain as well as in other countries. It’s always there just below the surface. And his book doesn’t just remind readers of the Holocaust’s full horror, it helps keep us all on our toes, and alerts us to the warning signs and to ensure that it never happens again.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Not really. He was an extraordinary individual with precious qualities. The poor man eventually committed suicide… it was probably to do with the guilt of the survivor.

Have you visited Auschwitz?

I visited it in the winter about 15 years ago. It’s a terrible place but going there jolts you into realising why it’s so important that we remain on the lookout for anti-Semitism today, when there is still a great deal of racism about.

If you could meet Primo Levi, what would you ask him?

I’d have been very humbled to have met him and in all probability lost for words.

Advertisement

Nick Hewer presents the Channel 4 quiz show Countdown. Prior to that, he was an adviser to Lord Sugar on the BBC One series The Apprentice.