Holocaust Memorial Day – Primo Levi the unbeliever

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was one of the most famous Survivors of the Holocaust. Levi, born in Turin, Italy and trained as a chemist, was arrested during the as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. His experience in the death camp and his subsequent travels through Eastern Europe were the subject of powerful memoirs, fiction and poetry.

Although he came from families who had been observant Jews up to a generation or so before, they were no longer so and Levi was a life-long atheist. His only recollection of ever having any religious feelings was a brief period when he studied for his bar mitzvah, and tried to seek contact with God, “but when he sought that contact, he’d found nothing.

His teacher (who was probably not a very good one) presented him with a tyrannical punishing God, dio padrone, who did not appeal to him.  She described an unknown, an unknowable, to whom nonetheless he was asked to pay homage, and in whom he must believe.  ‘Mi sembrava una violenze’ he says: it seems to him an act of violence.”

(Margolin E Book Review: The Double Bond Primo Levi: A Biography)

Levi’s reflections on Auschwitz offer a powerful illustration of the argument against God from evil and also put pay to the commonly-held belief that in difficult times all people turn to religion (sometimes describes as ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’). He describes this in an interview with Ferdinando Camon:

LEVI: I had an argument with a believer, a friend of mine from Padua, your city, by the way.

CAMON: You’re not a believer?

LEVI: No, I never have been. I’d like to be, but I don’t succeed.

CAMON: Then in what sense are you Jewish?

LEVI: A simple matter of culture. If it hadn’t been for the racial laws and the concentration camp, I’d probably no longer be a Jew, except for my last name. instead, this dual experience, the racial laws and the concentration camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I’m a few, they’ve sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.

CAMON: With whom did you have that argument?

LEVI: If you remember The Periodic Table, he’s the one mentioned as “the assistant” in the “Potassium” story. He’s a believer but not a Catholic; he came to see me after my release to tell me I was clearly one of the elect, since I’d been chosen to survive in order for me to write Survival in Auschwitz. And this, I must confess, seemed to me a blasphemy, that God should grant privileges, saving one person and condemning someone else. I must say that for me the experience of Auschwitz has been such as to sweep away any remnant of religious education I may have had.

CAMON: Meaning that Auschwitz is proof of the nonexistence of God?

LEVI: There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God. [On the typescript, he added in pencil:] I don’t find a solution to this dilemma. I keep looking, but I don’t find it.

Giulani, M  Centaur in Auschwitz: Reflections on Primo Levi’s Thinking


One response to “Holocaust Memorial Day – Primo Levi the unbeliever

  1. It’s hard to trump Levi for the unvarnished, unblunted simplicity of his narratives. His words are a valuable resource for humanists of all stripes.

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