Also by Diego
Gambetta (from the April/May
2004 Boston Review):
Reason and Terror: Has 9/11
made it hard to think straight?
Primo Levi's Last Moments
A new look at the Italian author's
tragic death twelve years ago
Sometime after 10:00 a.m., Saturday, April 11, 1987, on the third floor of a late-nineteenth-century
building in Turin, the concierge rang the doorbell of Primo Levi's
apartment.1 Levi—research chemist,
retired factory manager, author of our most humanly compelling
accounts of the Holocaust—had been born in that apartment
67 years earlier. He opened the door and collected his mail from
the concierge like every other day. He was wearing a short-sleeve
shirt. He smiled, thanked her as usual, and closed the door. The
concierge descended on foot the ample spiral staircase occupied
in the middle by a caged elevator. She had barely reached her
cubicle on the ground floor, she later told the police, when she
heard Levi's body hit the bottom of the stairs by the elevator.
It was 10:20. A dentist who lived in the building heard her screams.
He immediately saw, he subsequently reported, that Levi was dead.2
The autopsy established that he died instantaneously of a "crushed
skull."3 No signs of violence
unrelated to the fall were found on his body.4
At 12:00, barely an hour and a half after the event, I heard the
news on the radio in Rome. There was already mention of suicide.
The police inquiry simply confirmed that conclusion.
Levi's death, especially the manner of it,
came as a terrible shock to his many admirers in Italy and abroad.
His friends were devastated by what some considered a totally
unexpected event. "Until the day of his death I was convinced
he was the most serene person in the world," Norberto Bobbio
said.5 Still, no one showed much difficulty
in coming to terms with it. After the fact, Levi's death seemed
so predictable-the "inescapable" end of the life of
an Auschwitz survivor. Natalia Ginzburg, a Jewish writer, wrote
that "of those years [in Auschwitz] he must have had terrible
memories: a wound he always carried with great fortitude, but
which must have been nonetheless atrocious. I think it was the
memory of those years which lead him towards his death."6
Ferdinando Camon, a friend and Catholic writer, said in an interview:
"This suicide must be backdated to 1945. It did not happen
then because Primo wanted (and had to) write. Now, having completed
his work (The Drowned and the Saved was the end of the
cycle) he could kill himself. And he did."7
The most poignant comment in this regard
came from his son Renzo: "Now everyone wants to understand,
to grasp, to probe. I think my father had already written the
last act of his existence. Read the conclusion of The Truce
and you will understand."8 In
November 1962, Levi had written:
[And] a dream full of horror has still
not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer,
intervals. It is a dream within a dream, varied in detail, one
in substance. I am sitting at a table with my family, or with
friends, or at work, or in the green countryside; in short,
in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension
or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite
sensation of an impending threat. And in fact, as the dream
proceeds, slowly and brutally, each time in a different way,
everything collapses, and disintegrates around me, the scenery,
the walls, the people, while the anguish becomes more intense
and more precise. Now everything has changed into chaos; I am
alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I
know what this thing means, and I also know that I have
always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is
true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception
of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home.
Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the
outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds:
a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the
dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected:
get up, "Wstawàch."
That idea that Auschwitz was ultimately
responsible for Levi's suicide was not limited to Italy or to
the immediate aftermath of the event. In the United States, echoing
Camon, Elie Wiesel said: "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty
years later."9 Four
years after the writer's death, Maurice Goldstein, the president
of the Auschwitz international committee, wrote: "Auschwitz
In a review of The Drowned and the Saved published in 1988
in the New Republic, Cynthia Ozick wrote that Levi, like
several other writers of distinction before him, "[suggests],
by a self-willed death, that hell in fact did not end when the
chimneys closed down, but was simply freshening for a second run."11
This popular explanation of the ultimate cause of Levi's suicide
inspires disturbingly ambiguous conclusions: while it provides
an additional source of revulsion against the horrors of Auschwitz,
it also led some people to interpret Levi's tragic end as a delayed
victory of Nazism. That that end should befall Levi makes
the thought doubly disturbing. His writings on the Holocaust were
fundamental in shaping many people's understanding of what it
means to be a decent human being—their sense of the prospects
for human survival, even under the worst possible conditions.
That a figure of Levi's stature emerged from the fumes of arguably
the most savage act of hatred and inhumanity to scar the twentieth
century has been a powerful source of hope and strength. Philip
Roth describes Levi's "masterpiece on Auschwitz," If
This is a Man, as "his profoundly civilized and spirited
response to those who did all they could to sever his every sustained
connection and tear him and his kind out of history." How
could he lose that strength and jump to his death?
This unsettling question was not
voiced publicly in Italy. Italians must have felt too close to
Levi to muster the courage required to raise it. In the United
States, by contrast, it came right into the open. Just after the
event, an anonymous journalist wrote in The New Yorker
that the "efficacy of all his words had somehow been canceled
by his death-that his hope, or faith, was no longer usable by
the rest of us." Leon Wieseltier, in The New Republic,
wrote: "He spoke for the bet that there is no blow from
which the soul may not recover. When he smashed his body, he smashed
his bet." Ozick went even further. In The Drowned and
the Saved, she says, Levi gave up being the "well-mannered
cicerone of hell, mortal horror in a decorous voice"; he
finally lashed out his full, hitherto suppressed, hatred for the
Nazi criminals and their accomplices "in a book of blows
returned by a pen of fire." And since "the rage of resentment
is somehow linked to self-destruction"—as Levi himself
had pointed out analyzing the suicide of Jean Améry, another
writer who survived Auschwitz—his final book on the camp
should be seen "as the bitterest of suicide notes."
She found it "disconcerting that of all the various 'lessons'
that might have been drawn from Levi's penetrations, the one most
prevalent is also the coarsest and the most misleading: uplift."
For Ozick, "It is in the nature of hell to go on and on:
inescapability is its rule." In her gloomy vision Levi's
bet never stood a chance to succeed.
One could perhaps reject those
remarks as unfounded, even unfair. Levi's books—one is tempted
to reply—will touch future generations as much as had he
died of natural causes. Still, though brutal, the conclusions
of Wieseltier and others cannot be so easily dismissed. Levi's
generation, and that of his children (my generation), perceive
his writings, rightly or wrongly, as continuous with his life.
Their immense value sprang from that fusion: his life seemed to
exemplify the possibilities of human decency explored in his books,
and to stand as evidence that those possibilities were not mere
wishful thinking. As a result, discussion of his death continues
to generate highly emotional responses, not least from those who
vehemently deny that the circumstances of his death bear any relevance
to his message. (I experienced precisely this reaction of insistent
denial when I presented an earlier version of this essay at an
April 1997 conference organized by Columbia University's Italian
Academy of Advanced Studies to mark the tenth anniversary of Levi's
Do we have any evidence that Levi's death
was a delayed response to Auschwitz? We do know that in the period
leading up to his death, Levi was going through a severe episode
of depression. His wife, Lucia, said he was tired and demoralized,
and confirmed he was suffering from depression. For some months,
he had been taking anti-depressants prescribed by his cousin Giorgio
Luzzati.12 David Mendel, a retired
British cardiologist who befriended Levi near the end of his life,
received a letter from the writer dated February 7, 1987: "I
have fallen into a rather serious depression; I have lost all
interest in writing and even in reading. I am extremely low and
I do not want to see anyone. I ask you as a 'Proper Doctor' what
should I do? I feel the need for help but I do not know what sort."13
But Levi's depression may well have had
sources other than memories of Auschwitz. In a April 12, 1987
interview in La Repubblica Giovanni Tesio referred to Levi's
fear of being unable to write anymore, his sense of having depleted
his "writer capital." Others said he could no longer
bear the sight of his old, ailing, senile mother and mother-in-law,
both in their 90s, who lived in the family's large apartment under
the constant care of a nurse. A third group, especially in Turin's
Jewish community, said he was greatly upset by the controversy,
sparked by revisionist historians in Germany and France, over
the uniqueness and real extent of the Holocaust. Finally, there
was a physical cause: Levi had a prostate operation only twenty
days before his fatal fall. There is no indication that the operation,
described as "routine" by his doctors, was going to
impair any of his functions. But he was weak and still recovering,
and surgery does tend to worsen depression.
Apparently Levi was prone to recurrent depression
regardless of depressing events. At least two previous episodes
were unaccompanied by any obvious trigger. Referring to one of
these episodes he wrote in a letter that, after lasting two months,
his depression suddenly disappeared in a matter of hours, suggesting
that these episodes followed their own course.
Shortly before his death, Levi denied any
link between his mental state and the camp. He told Bianca Guidetti
Serra, a close friend, that his depression was unrelated to Auschwitz.
And he told Mendel that "he was no longer haunted by the
camp and no longer dreamed about it." Thus, if we assume
that his suicide was caused by the unbearable memories of the
camp, we must question the accuracy of his self-report. Perhaps
such questioning is warranted. Once we try to imagine the mental
processes of those who commit suicide, the possibilities multiply.
As Levi says in the chapter devoted to Jean Améry in The
Drowned and the Saved, many suicides admit "to a nebula
of explanations." We do not know whether the memories of
the camp simply re-exploded in his mind that Saturday morning
and reached an unbearable pitch.
The most pressing question, however,
is not why Levi committed suicide but whether he committed it
at all—or if, instead, his death was accidental. The evidence,
as we shall see, is not watertight. As far as we know there is
no direct proof that Levi committed suicide—no witnesses,
no note, no direct physical evidence. And this would not be the
first time that a police inquiry reached a conclusion without
an in-depth investigation. Levi's biographers, Myriam Anyssimov
and Ian Thomson, both believe he committed suicide. But neither
has any compelling evidence. Indeed the hypothesis of an accident
was never seriously examined.
Primo Levi's life-long friend, Nobel laureate
Rita Levi Montalcini cast the first doubts on the suicide a few
days after the event. If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical
engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping
into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed.
"Did anyone see him jump over that banister?" she asked
rhetorically. "Did anyone find a piece of paper announcing
his intention to end his life? Suicide is a far too quick conclusion."14
She expressed what probably many others, myself included, silently
Indeed, the stairwell in the Turin
building is a so narrow that Levi would have had to aim his fall
just right to be successful. Horizontally, it is shaped like a
cut-off pyramid. The elevator shaft is a square cage that runs
vertically through the middle. The side of the elevator shaft
extending into the stairwell is 3 feet, 7 inches. The maximum
distance between the stairs and the elevator shaft is 5 feet,
7 inches; the minimum distance is just over 3 feet, 4 inches.
This does not leave much room for the clean fall of a human body.
Rather than killing himself, Levi could easily have hurt himself
bouncing between the elevator cage and the railings of the lower
floors. Moreover, had he wished to jump, he could have chosen
the street or the courtyard, which were free of such constraints
and easily accessible. Furthermore, Levi picked not just a hazardous
but a messy and theatrical option that exposed his relatives to
a gruesome sight—a gesture in sharp contrast, as Levi Montalcini
also pointed out, with the writer's sober and restrained style.
A few years later, in an article in the
Sunday Telegraph, David Mendel, the cardiologist friend,
was the first to make a strong case against suicide by offering
a hypothetical reconstruction of the event and some new arguments.
[Levi's] death was not premeditated, he
left no note. Older people almost never choose a violent death;
they use gas or an overdose, and Primo could, had he wished, have
taken an overdose of his medicine. It seems most likely to me
that he died from the side effects of his anti-depressant drugs.
These often lower the blood pressure, and the effort of walking
back upstairs to his flat would lower it further. As a result,
his brain would have received an inadequate blood supply and he
would have felt faint. If he reacted taking some deep breaths,
that would worsen matters by causing a further reduction in blood
supply. I have a photograph of Primo holding those banisters,
which are well below waist-height; I think that on the point of
fainting, he reached for them to steady himself and fell.
Ferdinando Camon, who endorsed
the suicide version at first but later changed his mind, received
a letter from Levi three days after his death. Shaken, Camon thought:
"Now he explains to me why he is about to commit suicide."
What he read instead was "a letter full of vitality, of expectations
and projects. He feared Gallimard had lost the copy of The
Drowned and the Saved and wanted to send another. He asked
me to send him the article in Libération"—which
Camon had written to encourage the publication of Levi's work
in French—"as soon as it was out." Levi wrote
this letter three days before his death. Recently Camon said that
Levi posted it that very Saturday morning during a walk he took
before his fatal fall. Understandably, Camon cannot square this
act with a suicide.
Several additional signs indicate
that his depression, though no doubt very real, did not drive
him into an idle stupor or turn him into a recluse. A few days
before his death, he canvassed the wonders of using a personal
computer for word-processing with his publisher, Giulio Einaudi;
Levi promised to tutor him if he decided to buy one. In the week
in which he died he was debating with friends and acquaintances
about the prospect of becoming the president of his publisher,
Einaudi, as part of a financial rescue operation. Maybe Levi was
worrying about his ability to continue writing. But shortly before
he died, Levi wrote a short Storia Naturale published posthumously
by La Stampa on April 26, 1987, and delivered chunks of
his new novel to Ernesto Ferrero, his editor at Einaudi. The title
was Doppio Legame, the correspondence between a man and
a young woman, in which he reveals the chemical reactions that
allow one to make omelets, béchamel, mayonnaise, and vinaigrette.
The day before he died, he promised to resume his regular conversations
with Giovanni Tesio, who was writing a biographical piece on him.
He even arranged an interview with a journalist from La Stampa
for the following Monday.
This chain of events suggests that
if he did commit suicide he certainly did not plan it. Levi left
no will. This is uncharacteristic of his style, as by all accounts
he was a considerate man. And he did not give any hint of his
intention to family or friends. Had they had any immediate fear—his
son lived in another apartment on the same landing—they
would not have left him home alone that day. Even if he contemplated
suicide it seems virtually certain that he did not plan it in
that way and at that particular time. The succession of the events
is puzzling. Just a few minutes after receiving his mail from
the concierge in his usual amiable style, he goes back into his
apartment, then suddenly opens the door again, walks to the banister,
steps over it and jumps.
These considerations challenge
the plausibility of suicide, however, only if we have in mind
the premeditated kind. Jean Améry committed precisely that
kind of suicide in 1978. In The Drowned and the Saved,
Levi calls him "a theoretician of suicide." By contrast,
in the little he wrote about it, Levi never argued in favor of
suicide. When discussing the other writer-survivors who committed
suicide—not only Améry but also Paul Celan—he
shows no special empathy or understanding for what they did. He
says only that suicide is a philosophical act, and reveals that
he thought about it both before and after but not while in the
camp. One is too busy trying to survive there—he said—to
have any energy left to think about anything else, even suicide.
We cannot, however, rule out the
possibility that he committed unpremeditated suicide, lucidly
or otherwise. He may have decided on impulse, through an internal
chemistry we shall never discover. Or a sudden resolve may have
been sparked by something that happened at that particular time—something
that suddenly threw him back into a dark depression. Could he,
for instance, have read something unbearably upsetting in his
mail? This seems unlikely, since the concierge said that the items
she delivered that day consisted of "a few newspapers and
advertising leaflets." In the newspapers of the day I found
absolutely nothing that could have upset him. Moreover, had he
been the object of threats or abuse, his family would have no
reason to keep that secret. Judging by Renzo Levi's words, the
family does not blame an external event as the trigger of the
But an unpremeditated act does not have
to be the result of a clear-headed decision: perhaps Levi was
simply overtaken by depression. In 1987, Cesare Musatti, the most
famous Italian psychoanalyst, said: "Levi did not decide
to take his life lucidly. It was a raptus [a mental seizure]
due to a melancholic depression of a psychotic type. It was a
sudden folly that brought him to self-destruction. Auschwitz has
nothing to do with it. The truth is that Levi was ill, because
depression is a serious illness." William Styron, who also
suffered from severe depression, put forward a similar explanation
in a searing little book called Darkness Visible. He was
"appalled" by the "many worldly writers and scholars"
who vented the view that Levi's suicide had "demonstrated
a frailty, a crumbling of character they were loath to accept."
Depression, Styron argued, is a very serious and largely unacknowledged
illness that affects millions and "kills in many instances
because its anguish can no longer be borne." Rather than
a product of the faculty of thought, Levi's death would be the
result of its collapse.
Recent research suggests that in
a lifetime, 15 percent of patients with major depression will
eventually die of suicide—a staggering fifteen to twenty
times the corresponding population rates. There is also evidence
that suicide is more likely to occur after "having been treated
for a medical or psychiatric condition" and that "the
typical suicide completers [as opposed to suicide attempters]
are older men," and that "sometimes [they do it] seemingly
out of the blue." Finally, "like depression suicide
is familial, with relatives of suicides having roughly
ten times higher risk of suicide than that of the population."
Levi's grandfather committed suicide. Levi does indeed appear
to have been a subject at risk.15
Still, population statistics are
no evidence on which to settle individual cases. If fifteen depressed
people out of one hundred take their own lives, 85 do not, and
countless offspring of suicides die of natural causes. Speculating
about a person's mental chemistry to establish whether the person
committed suicide leads us to a dead end. The motives of his suicide—as
both Norberto Bobbio and Claudio Magris said—are ultimately
inscrutable. All we can do is to check whether the facts convincingly
exclude the possibility of an accident. Could Levi have unintentionally
fallen over that banister?
As David Mendel later acknowledged,
his first reconstruction was partially inaccurate. Primo Levi
did not fall immediately after climbing the staircase to return
to his apartment. He was in the apartment and had been there a
while. If he died accidentally, something must have prompted him—just
a few minutes after the concierge's visit—to open the door
again, walk to the banister, and lean forward.
Why would he do that at
that particular moment in time? The simplest supposition
is that he was looking for someone. Perhaps his wife. She was
out shopping and actually returned just a few minutes after Levi's
fall. He might well have wanted to check to see whether she was
on her way back. Or perhaps he was looking for the concierge herself.
He might, say, have found an envelope addressed to someone else
accidentally stuck in one of the newspapers and wanted to give
it back to her. Remember that the concierge said that after descending
from Levi's third floor apartment she had just entered her cubicle
when she heard Levi's body hit the ground. She does not mention
having stopped at any other apartment, so the time lapse may have
been under five minutes. Levi may well have approached the banister
in the hope of finding her in the staircase. The alternative hypothesis—that
soon after the concierge's visit he suddenly reopened the door
and went to the banister for the purpose of hurling himself down
the stairwell—seems to me less convincing.
Levi was not very tall (5 feet,
5 inches), and the banister—which is 3 feet, 2 inches—must
have reached only as far as his navel, or even slightly below.
Furthermore, if Levi had been looking for someone, he would naturally
have approached the banister at the ninety-degree corner where
the horizontal part, which limits the landing, meets the descending
part. From this perspective one has a better view of the lower
floors and of the elevator entrance on the ground floor. This
possibility is compatible with the point from which Levi must
have fallen, which we can infer from the known point where his
body hit the ground. This is to the left of the elevator, in the
section of the landing where the descending ramp begins. The banister's
height on the sloping segment at the corner drops by about six
inches every step and offers decreasing protection. So perhaps
he positioned himself to look down from the corner by holding,
arms wide, the horizontal banister with one hand and the sloping
one with the other. In such a position one's balance is precarious
as it depends on one's hands' grip.
We know that Levi was recovering from the
prostate operation, was on anti-depressants, and must have been
feeble. If he became dizzy and lost consciousness while looking
down the stairwell, the weight of the upper half of his body might
have been sufficient to tilt the rest of his body over and drag
him into the void. The proportional contribution of the head to
one's total weight is greater the thinner one is, and Levi was
thin, about 120 pounds. He also fell without a sound, a circumstance,
which while not proving anything, is consistent with how an unconscious
person would fall.
I asked my father, who is slightly
built and about Levi's height, whether, when he visited Levi's
apartment building, he thought he could fall accidentally in that
way. "It's possible," he said. "That staircase"—he
added after pondering a while—"has an odd triangular
shape. It gives one a greater sense of void than a square one."
On the strength of this reconstruction,
the possibility of an accident cannot be safely ruled out.
The mystery surrounding Levi's death does
not end here. Two years ago, on the tenth anniversary of his death,
Elio Toaff, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, made a startling disclosure.
At a commemorative gathering at a high school in Rome, he revealed
that Levi called him on the telephone "ten minutes before"
he died. Levi sounded distressed. He did not tell the Rabbi he
was about to kill himself, and the Rabbi, much to his chagrin,
did not guess what was about to happen. The Rabbi recollects that
Levi said: "I can't go on with this life. My mother is ill
with cancer and every time I look at her face I remember the faces
of those men stretched on the benches at Auschwitz." When
I interviewed Toaff in Rome in June 1998, he confirmed the version
of the event as reported by the Italian press, including the timing
of the call. He also told me that out of discretion he had never
spoken about that episode to anyone before, not even privately.
He said he decided on impulse to reveal it during the anniversary
gathering out of love of truth: "too many preposterous things
were being said." His response was prompted by someone in
the audience who mentioned the doubts voiced by Levi Montalcini
and Mendel about why Levi should have chosen such a messy way
to commit suicide given that he had better alternatives. "The
mind of a suicide can be in a state which is not analyzable by
ordinary criteria," Toaff told me.
This is the first strong circumstantial
evidence that Levi's death might, after all, have been correctly
ruled suicide. What the Rabbi says Levi told him, moreover, shows
that the memories of Auschwitz were indeed haunting him at the
But how reliable is this evidence? Now in
his eighties, Toaff appears to be lucid and energetic. Still,
the circumstances surrounding that telephone call are not very
clear. Levi was not religious. It seems odd that he should approach
the Rabbi. Rita Levi Montalcini, who persists in her doubts about
the suicide, retorted that she spoke with Levi on the telephone
the night before and that he sounded in good spirits. Giovanni
Tesio, who also spoke with Levi the day before, confirmed to me
that he had the same impression. Furthermore, Toaff told me that
he did not know Levi and had never met or spoken with him before
So we need to perform a difficult leap of
imagination. We have to imagine that Levi, sometime after his
walk when he posted the letter to Camon and around the time he
got his mail from the concierge, managed to find not just the
motive and the energy to call the Rabbi, but also his phone number.
The Rabbi's home phone number is not listed in the Rome directory.
Still, it is not implausible to think he had Toaff's number already
for some reason, or that he managed to find him at the synagogue.
Even so, we must still stretch our imagination. We have to imagine
that Levi brought himself to confide his deepest sorrows to the
Rabbi by phone, in a relatively short time, though he had never
met or spoken to him before.
The really perplexing fact, however, is
the day of the telephone call. Levi died on a Saturday,
the Jewish Sabbath, on which observant Jews are not supposed to
use any technical equipment: they cannot cook or even turn on
the light, let alone make or receive phone calls.
This apparent inconsistency had not occurred
to me before I met Toaff (David Mendel noted it when we reviewed
the facts together). I therefore wrote to the Rabbi asking for
clarification. The Rabbi did not reply. I then contacted three
Italian sources knowledgeable in these matters to try and establish
whether it was conceivable for the Rabbi to answer the phone on
a Saturday. All three sources, two of them close to the Rabbi's
family, categorically excluded this possibility.
Maybe the Rabbi remembers the timing incorrectly.
Maybe Levi called on the Friday before sunset or even the week
before. It is unusual, however, for one's memory to make that
kind of mistake. One can easily fail to recollect accurately the
irrelevant aspects of a single memorable event. I clearly remember
that I fell down for a quarter of a mile on an icy slope while
ski mountaineering and nearly killed myself, but I do not now
remember the day it was or even the year. But suppose this accident
happened to me the day before my wedding. I would then indeed
clearly remember both that the two events were temporally associated
and how closely. The Rabbi's recollection belongs to the latter
category: it is very precise and establishes an association between
two memorable events, the unexpected call of a famous man and
the death of the same man a few minutes later. So the Rabbi's
revelation remains a puzzle. Whatever its solution, the evidence
provided by Rabbi Toaff is hardly as decisive as it may initially
An accidental death, then, is fully
consistent with what we know about the end of Primo Levi's life.
Indeed, the facts known to us arguably suggest an accident more
strongly than they indicate suicide. The accident hypothesis is
disarmingly natural. It makes parsimonious sense of the peculiar
coincidence between the concierge's call and Levi's fall, and
solves the puzzle of why he picked that hazardous and theatrical
way to die, and why he left no note or will. Suicide is, at the
very least, no more likely than an accident. And even if it was
suicide it is most unlikely to have been lucidly planned. Levi
knew and taught the value of doubt about unverified propositions
and emotionally-founded opinions. David Mendel asked Levi whether
he regarded himself as a guru. He characteristically replied:
"Unfortunately I am not a guru. I would be happy to be one,
but I lack the essential sicurezza [confidence]—as
I have more doubts than convictions." In this sense too we
owe him extra care in drawing conclusions. There has been far
too much sicurezza in the interpretations of his death.
Better to live in doubt than on an ill-founded certainty.
Why then were people so prone to believe
unquestioningly that it was suicide? Even those who thought we
would never know exactly why he did it, and those who thought
he was struck by a sudden urge, never for a moment seem to have
suspected an accident.
The answer probably lies in a cognitive
trap. Devastating past events cast a shadow on future ones, and
constrain our freedom to interpret them: if one survives Auschwitz,
everything that happens subsequently tends to be interpreted in
the light of that experience. There is no denying the awesome
oppressive force of the nightmare Levi describes at the end of
The Truce. It is not a matter of interpretation. Yet, while
emotionally compelling, that by itself does not constitute evidence
of anything. The Auschwitz hell may kill survivors decades later
but it may also impair our ability to evaluate serenely the bare
facts before us. It becomes a magnet-explanation. The confidence
with which Levi's death was attributed to suicide seems to spring
more from this understandable bias than from the weight of the
It is moreover untrue that survivors commit
suicide more than other people do. Aaron Hass, who has carried
out in-depth research on 58 survivors now living in the United
When I asked "Have you ever had thoughts
of suicide in your post-war life?" none of those I interviewed
answered in the affirmative. On the contrary, the response of
a survivor of Auschwitz, Jack Saltzman, echoed the sentiments
of many: "I wouldn't give the bastards the satisfaction."
A further sign of the vitality of survivors
documented by Hass is the unusual energy with which survivors
went about marrying and having children soon after they left the
camps. The very act of surviving is felt (at least by those who
survived long enough to be interviewed by Hass in the late 1980s)
as a way of bearing witness against genocide. Like any other human
being, they may feel attracted by suicide for whatever reason
but they refrain from even contemplating it lest their death be
interpreted as a delayed victory of Nazism. The only way to make
absolutely sure one's suicide is not so perceived is not to commit
it. Insofar as a survivor takes his life people are driven to
interpret it as related to Auschwitz. This is precisely why it
is so important to avoid hasty conclusions about Levi's death.
Even if we think that the value of his work will survive unaffected
by his death, we know that others feel differently.
The impression that survivors are prone
to suicide is fueled also by the fact that among writers, a rare
but highly visible category of survivors, there have been several
suicides: not only Améry and Celan, but also Bruno Bettelheim,
Tadeus Borowski and Peter Szondi. Jorge Semprun, a writer who
was interned as a communist in Buchenwald and was freed on April
11, 1945, exactly 42 years before Levi's death, recently offered
an account that might explain this fact. In his autobiography,
published in 1994 and significantly titled L'écriture
ou la vie, Semprun argues that writing about the experience
of the camp, rather than being a cathartic process, makes life
much harder to live. The detailed revisiting of appalling atrocities
and infinite human misery wears the writer out and, in Semprun's
own experience, makes him increasingly suicidal. In Semprun's
view, Levi's demise could be interpreted not as a consequence
of having been in the camp as such, but of having written about
it. Levi wrote several books that are either weakly related to
the camp or not related at all (The Periodic Table, The
Monkey's Wrench, If Not Now When). Yet, his last published
book, The Drowned and the Saved, is his most suffered meditation
on the Holocaust. Then even if Levi's death were a suicide, his
gesture would leave the value of his work intact. He would have
succumbed not to Nazism, but to an altogether different thing:
the high personal cost of bearing witness to the Holocaust by
writing about it.
The facts—or rather the lack
of conclusive facts—help us out of this anguishing quandary:
we shall simply never know whether he committed suicide or not.
One thing is certain though. Levi's last moments cannot be construed
as an act of delayed resignation before the inhumanity of Nazism.
He never yielded. At most he snapped. On that tragic Saturday
only his body was smashed. <
Since this article first appeared
in 1999 two new pieces of evidence have emerged which lend further
support to the hypothesis of an accident. In her biography of
Primo Levi, Carol Angier (The Double Bond: Primo Levi: A Biography,
2002) reveals that just before going out of his apartment he instructed
the nurse, who was looking after his elderly mother, to mind the
telephone and said that he was going out to look for the concierge,
as I hypothesised. Thus if he snapped from normal to suicidal
mode and hurled himself down the stairwell that must have occurred
in a matter of seconds, for what he said to the nurse does not
square with someone planning to kill himself. I also spoke to
Doctor Giorgio Luzzati, who was a friend of Levi and looked after
his health. He told me that on the Thursday before his death (which
happened on the following Saturday) Levi called and told him that
he felt tired and was having dizzy spells, which again makes the
idea that he may have had a spell of dizziness while looking down
the stairwell to look for the concierge much more than mere speculation.
The really mystifying puzzle is not now so much whether he killed
himself or not, but why despite the overwhelming evidence to the
contrary, Primo Levi's biographers, Angier but also Ian Thomson
(Primo Levi, 2002) still persist in believing that he
Diego Gambetta is a sociologist and fellow at All Souls
College, Oxford University.
1. This corresponds to the fourth
floor in the United States convention.
2. I reconstructed the events from
La Stampa and La Repubblica of April 12-14, 1987.
3. This can be read in Levi's death
4. Reported by Mirna Cicioni, Primo
Levi: Bridges of Knowledge. (Washington D.C.: Berg, 1995), p.
5. Panorama, April 26, 1987.
6. Corriere della Sera, April 12,
7. Panorama, April 26, 1987.
8. Panorama, April 26, 1987.
9. La Stampa, April 14, 1987.
10. Quoted in Cicioni, Primo Levi:
Bridges of Knowledge, p. 171.
11. The New Republic, March 21,
12. Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi:
La Tragédie d'un optimiste (Paris: Lattès, 1996),
p. 591. Originally published in French, the biography is now available
in English as Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist (Aurum Press
for the United Kingdom; Overlook Press for the United States,
13. David Mendel, "Getting
to know Primo Levi," unpublished lecture given at the Italian
Cultural Institute in London on April 4, 1995.
14. Paese Sera, April 25, 1987.
15. This information is all from
David B. Cohen, Out of the Blue: Depression and Human Nature (New
York: W. W. Norton, 1995), pp. 115, 122-3, 131. Cohen explains
why older men are more at risk by referring to the fact that hopelessness
rather than depression as such triggers suicide. The probability
of suicide changes holding depression level constant and letting
the level of hopelessness vary, while it does not change holding
hopelessness constant and letting depression levels vary. It follows
that "we can tolerate all sorts of pain and suffering if
we can remain even vaguely optimistic that things will get better."
Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Boston Review