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Holocaust Chronicler Primo Levi Dies in Fall on Stairs

Times Staff Writer

Writer Primo Levi, a survivor of a Nazi death camp and a chronicler of the horrors of the Holocaust, died Saturday after hurtling down several flights of stairs in his Turin, Italy, apartment building. He was 67.

Police are treating Levi’s death as a suicide, according to wire service reports. An autopsy will determine the official cause of death.

Levi’s wife, Lucia, told the apartment concierge, who discovered the body, that her husband had been “very tired and demoralized.”

The internationally reknowned Jewish author had recently undergone prostate surgery and was worried about his 92-year-old mother, who was paralyzed by a stroke suffered last year. He also had been distressed by what he perceived to be an escalating resurgence in anti-Semitism in Germany and other European countries, family friends said.

Jolanda Gasperi, the concierge, said she noticed nothing peculiar Saturday when she brought Levi a bundle of mail shortly before he died.

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Levi died in the stairwell of the building in which he was born on July 31, 1919. Except during World War II when he was imprisoned, Levi had lived in his birthplace. It was there that he wrote numerous books, essays, poems and short stories.

Many of Levi’s books were autobiographical and drew upon the atrocities he witnessed in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was kept alive because the Nazis needed his chemistry skills. His first book, “If This Is a Man,” was published in 1947, but popular recognition in the United States did not come until the 1980s, when many of his works were translated.

The soft-spoken man with a snow-white beard was warmly greeted by American literary critics when he made a triumphant swing across the country in 1985 to talk about his books and the Holocaust.

His books included “The Truce,” “The Periodic Table” and “The Monkey’s Wrench.” Levi’s writing style was simple and direct, but was enlivened with unexpected and felicitous turns of phrase.

On Saturday, some who knew him expressed doubt that Levi, whose books were infused with messages of hope amid human depravity, would kill himself. For them, he not only had survived the ghastly experience in Poland, he had conquered it.

“He survived with his soul and psyche intact, where so many who survived were crippled physically and spiritually for the rest of their lives,” said H. Stuart Hughes, a history professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. Hughes wrote about Levi and five other contemporary Italian Jewish authors in his 1983 book, “Prisoners of Hope.”

After his concentration camp internment, Hughes said, Levi was “able to look back on the experience as something that he treasured, which may sound rather paradoxical. When I met him I understood it entirely. He had such a positive and hopeful view on life even with dreadful persecution and suffering.”

In the introduction to one of Levi’s book, the critic Irving Howe described Levi’s ability to describe horrifying events with grace and even quiet humor as “moral poise.”

It was his year in Auschwitz that propelled Levi, a chemist, to write. Penned as a cathartic exercise in 1947, “If This Is a Man,” became perhaps his best-known work. The book, which is assigned reading in many literature classes, has sold more than 500,000 copies and has been translated into at least nine languages.

Stayed Alive on a Fluke

As World War II drew to a close, Levi, who had fought with the Italian partisans, remained alive at Auschwitz on a fluke. With Soviet troops advancing, the Germans fled the camp with about 20,000 prisoners who could walk. Levi was left behind. He had caught scarlet fever by eating a dead man’s soup.

After being liberated by the Soviets, it took him 10 months to return home. That odyssey formed the basis for his second book, “The Truce.”

Levi’s memories of that time never paled. Years later, he observed, “It’s as if memories of before and after are in black and white, while those of Auschwitz are in Technicolor.”

Throughout his literary career, Levi remained loyal to his original occupation. As a chemist, he ran a Turin paint and varnish factory until he retired.

In an interview with Levi in the New York Times last year, novelist Philip Roth said he believed that only one other writer, Sherwood Anderson, drew a paycheck from a paint company. But unlike Levi, Anderson used writing as a way to escape the fumes.

‘I Have No Regrets’

In response, Levi said: “I’d have feared the jump into the dark, and I would have lost any right to a retirement allowance. . . . I have no regrets. I don’t believe I wasted my time in the factory. My factory militanza-- my compulsory and honorable service--there kept me in touch with the world of real things.”

Those who mourned the author’s death Saturday included Tullia Zevi, a close friend and president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

“He always said it was his duty for humanity to recall the horrors and errors of the past so they might not be repeated,” she said. “He was not inspired by hatred or vengeance. He believed that whoever forgets the past is condemned to live it again.”

The speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Nilde Iotti, sent a telegram to Levi’s widow that read:

“We must consider the tragic death of Primo Levi a sign of the endlesssness of that episode against man and civilization that was the Nazi genocide. We understand today how much his books and his words, full of faith in man and in reason, were for Primo Levi a difficult and painful commitment, a very human resistance that has not been interrupted today, but rather is transformed in our sorrowful respect for this last message.”

Levi also leaves a son and a daughter, both of Turin.


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