Most people with only a glancing knowledge of the Holocaust have heard of Primo Levi, probably the most famous survivor of Auschwitz. It is widely known that Levi was a victim of the Nazis, but few, even those well versed in Holocaust history, know that he was also part of the Italian Resistance. His involvement with this guerilla warfare group took place in the fall of 1943, when the Resistance was still young and inexperienced. But though the group’s efforts were still small at this point, their effect on Primo Levi’s life was both lasting and intense.
In his many autobiographical writings, Levi mentions briefly and mysteriously that he was deported to Auschwitz because of an “ugly secret.” He never elaborates, and neither, until very recently, has any historian. Now acclaimed historian Sergio Luzzatto has taken Primo Levi’s veiled comment and investigated it fully, establishing a theory that it has to do with those lost months of Levi’s life — months during which he was part of a small partisan band.
Luzzatto begins his scrupulously research exposition with a shocking episode in which the band of partisans turned on itself and murdered two of his own members, both young men still in their teenage years. Then he examines the rich moral complexity of the Resistance fighters, creating detailed and moving portraits of both the rebels themselves and the Nazi collaborators with whom their fates become intertwined in the postwar years. He is able to make us deeply aware of their humanity and yet simultaneously horrified; we are drawn ever more irresistibly into their story.
Written with wit and flair, Primo Levi’s Resistance enters the deep recesses of the partisans’ minds, examining their innermost thoughts and motives and praising their profoundly dedicated spirits while at the same time exposing their moral flaws. Luzzatto’s ability to both empathize with the partisans and still remain dispassionate demonstrates his powerful grasp of journalistic techniques and his highly developed storytelling skills.
Throughout our tension-filled progress through the book, we find that Luzzatto has kept the story exquisitely balanced between loyalty and betrayal, aggression and acquiescence, forgiveness and revenge. We remain in thrall to the raw courage we can’t help but admire, despite the actions to which it sometimes leads. He forces us to judge for ourselves what is justice and what is not, and to look squarely in the face of moral responsibility.
Luzzatto, a professor of history at the University of Turin and a regular contributor to well-respected political journals in Italy, is an award-winning historical writer, one whose highly praised lucidity is applied masterfully in this new work. The book, originally written in Italian and translated smoothly into English, was deservedly a bestseller when it first came out in Italy.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.