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Primo Levi: The Language of Witness. Unlocking the identity, politics and power behind the words of a survivor. Primo Levi – the man. Born an Italian Jew in a time of political unrest in Turin. Turinese Jews were small in number (under 4,000) and remained a fairly closed community.

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Primo levi the language of witness

Primo Levi:The Language of Witness

Unlocking the identity, politics and power behind the words of a survivor


Primo levi the man
Primo Levi – the man

  • Born an Italian Jew in a time of political unrest in Turin.

  • Turinese Jews were small in number (under 4,000) and remained a fairly closed community.

  • Skinny and frail as a kid, teased a lot.

  • Parents had less effect on him than his friends did.

  • When he was 20, Mussolini aligned with Hitler and enacted racial laws limiting civil rights of Italian Jews.

  • Forced to acknowledge Jewishness, even though he was not devout.


Primo levi the man1
Primo Levi – the man

  • Highly intelligent chemist before Auschwitz experience.

  • Survived due to a “fortunate chain of circumstances but also because of a deep reservoir of cultural humanism, which sustained him when loss of life and reason seemed certain” (Motola 1).

  • After Auschwitz, returned to Turin, married, had two children and began a career as a chemist and writer.

  • Remained fairly silent about his political feelings un later years allowing his writing to speak for him.


“. . . Nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out the past, and the scars of the outrage would remain with us forever.”-- Primo Levi, from The Reawakening.Levi lived and died in the shadow of this belief by having his prisoner number 174517 put on his gravestone as a testament to its indelible quality of the past.Levi committed suicide by throwing himself down a stairwell in 1987


The power of language
The Power of Language rub out the past, and the scars of the outrage would remain with us forever.”

  • For Levi, the dreams of being misunderstood always haunted him when he wrote about his experiences. There were no words for the horrors he went through and he was searching for a “new, harsh language” that did not yet exist.

  • Even questioned whether he had a right to tell the story since he was a survivor.


“I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. . . we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are . . . the complete witnesses. . . We are the exception.”-- Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, page 83-84.


Language and identity
Language and Identity witnesses. . . we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are . . . the complete witnesses. . . We are the exception.”

  • German language reduces prisoners to something less than human. They are “haftling” (prisoner) as opposed to “mann” (men).

  • Yiddish spoken in camp, so Italian Jews were ostracized by lack of knowledge of “Jewish language.”

  • New language developed to demean the people


Language and politics
Language and Politics witnesses. . . we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are . . . the complete witnesses. . . We are the exception.”

  • Scientific language tended to be pure until it was influenced by politics – respected for his knowledge with grades in college, but only one professor would work on his senior thesis with him for fear of violating racial laws.

  • Nazi scientist tried to change medical terminology to reflect their “superior” way of thinking. Bronchitis would become “air-pipes inflammation,” doudenum became “twelve-finger intestine.”


Language and witness
Language and Witness witnesses. . . we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are . . . the complete witnesses. . . We are the exception.”

  • Mute testimony. The story of “Hurbinek,” a child born in Auschwitz who was denied the voice of his heritage.

  • Levi himself even remains silent about his response to the Alex’s actions after the examination on pages 107-8 in Survival in Auschwitz.

  • In translating is work into German, this is Levi’s only possible response. With the book in German hands, “Now the gun was loaded” (Drowned and Saved 168)


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