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We usually think of Primo Levi as a witness. Eventually, we think of him as the witness of the Final Solution. And this, of course, corresponds to reality. One might argue that no other Auschwitz survivor, worldwide, has been as literary powerful, ethically insightful, and historically influential as Levi (1919-1987), the Italian chemist from Turin. No survivor was as powerful in conveying the extreme conditions under which the “Auschwitz experiment” was conducted; as insightful in framing the “Jewishness” of the Auschwitz victim within the human condition; as influential in interpreting the successive moments of the “Era of the Witness”, from an early stage as mere survivor (If This is a Man, 1947) to a late stage as bearer of history (The Drowned and the Saved, 1986).
Yet Primo Levi was not just a witness. Nor does his historical character easily fit into scholar Raul Hilberg’s tryptic of the Jewish catastrophe, perpetrators-victims-bystanders. During a short span of time –from September to December 1943, the very first months of the Italian Resistance– Levi was a fighter. He was a partisan, or he tried to be so. After the occupation of Italy by the Germans, Levi joined a partisan unit in nearby Valle d’Aosta. Together with other young Italian Jews, he participated in the first attempts to launch guerrilla warfare against both Nazi occupation forces and Italian collaborators.
The three months in Levi’s life that led to his capture by Italian militias on December 13th, 1943, followed by his deportation from Aosta to Auschwitz, have been surprisingly overlooked by Levi’s biographers, and generally by Levi’s critics and readers. Those three months have been strikingly overlooked by Primo Levi himself. During the rest of his life, he kept silent about the events of that snowy Autumn up in the Alps. And when he did break his silence, he did so to discount both the military relevance and the political meaning of his attempts to fight Nazi Germans and Italian collaborators. Far from contributing to the legend of the first Italian maquisards, Levi dismissed the efforts of his partisan unit as a flagrant example of how the Italian Resistance could be –at its beginnings– unaware, ineffective, almost pathetic.
Once in his life, however, Primo Levi went further. In a short passage of his memoir, The Periodic Table (1975), Levi suggested that a specific episode of his guerrilla trimester directly led –through his arrest– to his deportation to Auschwitz. This is what Levi qualified as “an ugly secret”: “Among us, in each of our minds, weighed an ugly secret: the same secret that had exposed us to capture, extinguishing in us, a few days before, all will to resist, indeed to live. 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”.
What did Primo Levi mean with such extraordinary lines? Based on extensive archival research, the Cundill Lecture will move from this passage in The Periodic Table to delve into the historical events of Autumn 1943. What did actually happen with the Jewish-partisan unit in the Aosta Valley, a few days prior to Levi’s arrest? Why does The Periodic Table speak of that carried-out sentence in the most dramatic terms? And how can an investigation of the “ugly secret” of December 1943 help us not only to reconstruct an obscure episode of Primo Levi’s youth, but also to appraise the relevance of Levi’s partisan experience in his life and oeuvre?