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Jew of the Week: Primo Levi

Chemist and World-Famous Author Primo Levi

Chemist and World-Famous Author Primo Levi

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was born in Turin, Italy. His brilliance was quickly noted even as a child, allowing him to start school a year early. After learning at both secular and religious schools in his youth, as an adult he decided to study chemistry. Despite the open anti-Semitism of the university system, Levi fought through it and graduated with honours. Being a Jew barred him from most jobs. However, a mining company that was aware of his intelligence and expertise offered him a position under a false name and false papers. He later found work for a Swiss company looking to extract anti-diabetic components from vegetables. As World War II worsened, Levi joined an Italian resistance movement. Untrained, he was quickly captured and arrested, sent to the Fossoli internment camp, and later to Auschwitz where he spent nearly a year until it was liberated by the Soviets. It didn’t get any easier at this point. To get back home to Turin he had to travel across Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Austria, and Germany (a story which has been adapted to film). After the war, Levi started a chemical company with a friend, synthesizing various industrial compounds like stannous chloride (for use in mirrors) and a variety of synthetic dyes. Meanwhile, he began writing about his roller coaster life experiences. He would go on to write two famous memoirs, one of which was voted the best science book ever written by London’s Royal Institution. Levi also penned many poems, essays and short stories – two of which have been adapted to film – and published two well-known novels. Often quoted, he once wrote: “The aims of life are the best defense against death.”

Words of the Week

If words are the pen of the heart, song is the pen of the soul.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi