Surviving the Holocaust: the anger and guilt of Primo Levi

Maitles, Henry (2002) Surviving the Holocaust: the anger and guilt of Primo Levi. Journal of Genocide Research, 4 (2). pp. 237-251. ISSN 1462-3528 (

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Sixty years after the Nazi genocide the Holocaust is still very much to the fore in human memory and is still very much an issue, one of the major definitive experiences of world history. There have been literally thousands of books written on the experiences of the Holocaust, many of them from eyewitnesses and victims. Of all the works on the Holocaust, those by Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived the Holocaust, are amongst the most powerful. Levi was born in Turin on 13 July 1919; he died, either accidentally or more likely by committing suicide, also in Turin, on 11 April 1987. His writing is particularly noted for its understated passion and genuine anger and he remains a major cultural figure both in Italy and throughout the world. He challenges the idea of the 'Final Solution' being either exclusively German or exclusively in the past; he claims 'It happened therefore it can happen again ... it can happen, and it can happen everywhere'. Levi's work is clear about the nature of the Holocaust and its importance as a warning against genocide and ethnic cleansing. Levi holds a special fascination for many people. It is not just the power of his writing, his lack of hysterical judging, the strength of his intellect or the forcefulness of his ideas. He is indeed a major tragic figure and his writing makes one feel that his death is a personal loss. The world is a significantly poorer place without him. Yet Levi's writing is not about the past. It is history and culture and education in the grandest sense of the words, full of relevance about today and with vital lessons for tomorrow. With the fairly minor (compared to the 1930s) whiff of crisis throughout Europe, fascism again raises its head. Levi's works are cries of 'Never Again' against it. But he also is aware that reasoned argument is sometimes not enough to combat the violence of the fascists and racists; we must in the last resort 'find the strength to resist ... the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago, can serve as support and warning'.