Primo Levi's Last Moments
Jun 1, 1999
32 Min read time
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, "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 reclaimed him."10 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 no less. 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 death.)
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 an 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 extent and uniqueness 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. 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, believe he committed suicide. But neither has any compelling evidence. Indeed, the possibility of an accident was never seriously examined.
Primo Levi's lifelong 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 suspected.
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 explanation 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 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 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 for or understanding of 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 tragedy.
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. 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 very end.
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 that day.
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 have seemed.
An accidental death, then, is fully consistent with what we know about the end of Levi's life. Indeed, the known facts known arguably suggest an accident more strongly than they do 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 died in that hazardous and theatrical way 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 opinions founded on emotion. 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 evidence.
It is moreover untrue that survivors commit suicide more than other people do. Aaron Hass, who has carried out in-depth research on fifty-eight survivors now living in the United States, reveals:
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 Hass documented 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 forty-two 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.
Postscript (April 21, 2005)
Since this article first appeared in 1999 two new pieces of evidence have emerged lending 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, 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 suggests that a spell of dizziness experienced while looking down the stairwell for the concierge is more than mere speculation. The really mystifying puzzle now is not whether he killed himself but why, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Levi's biographers, Angier but also Ian Thomson (Primo Levi, 2002), persist in believing that he did.
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 certificate.
4. Reported by Mirna Cicioni, Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge. (Washington D.C.: Berg, 1995), p. 170.
5. Panorama, April 26, 1987.
6. Corriere della Sera, April 12, 1987
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. New Republic, March 21, 1988.
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, 1998).
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."
June 01, 1999
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