Primo Levi’s Partisans
Proof, if it were needed, that Primo Levi was not just a valuable Holocaust memoirist but a great 20th-century writer came last year in the magisterial form of his Complete Works—three slipcased volumes of revised or freshly translated fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and essays. Finally readers have access to Levi’s wide-ranging literary output in its entirety and are able to savor his poised, lucid, personal prose, what Philip Roth called “sentences suffused with mind.” And now we can fully appreciate Levi’s unflinching and dispassionate presentation of facts, his trenchant analysis of moral history, and tireless pursuit of hard truth. As might be expected from a man who was by trade an industrial chemist, Levi’s writing is a master-class in distillation, in boiling away the extraneous to get to the essential. Even with the grimmest of subject matter, the words on the page are immensely pure.
Most of Levi’s writing was testimony. What he really distilled was his ordeal as an Auschwitz prisoner, victim, and witness, most famously in his masterpiece If This Is a Man. Thanks to his various accounts, we are wiser to the horrors of the Nazi genocide, the extent of his suffering and endurance, and his guilt over what he termed “the monstrous freedom” that fate bestowed on him and fellow survivors.
Levi was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 24 after being arrested in December 1943 by Fascist militia. Prior to his arrest, he had spent three months in the mountains of northwest Italy as a member of a partisan group. Had he admitted this to his captors, he felt he would have been tortured and killed. Instead, he admitted to being Jewish—a lesser crime—and was moved to an Italian internment camp. But when the Nazis took over the camp, that crime was magnified, and all Jewish inmates were sent off to the Polish death camps.
While Levi wrote at length about Auschwitz, he remained virtually silent about his time as a partisan. Ian Thomson devotes a chapter to this short period in his monumental Primo Levi: A Life. But a new book by the Italian scholar Sergio Luzzatto manages to go deeper, shining a light on Levi, the other members of his little band, and the enemies they were up against. Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy appears to be more a “micro-history” than a comprehensive study, but Luzzatto explains at the outset that he has focused on “One story from the Resistance to illuminate the Resistance as a whole.”
The original title of Luzzatto’s book—a bestseller in his native Italy—is Partigia. This is taken from the title of a poem Levi wrote and published in 1981 and signifies “partisans without many scruples, decisive, light-fingered, or quick to brawl.” The renamed English edition comes with a useful prefatory note by the translator, Frederika Randall, clearly intended to bring international readers unacquainted with the partigia and this chapter of Italian history up to speed.
When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, German troops seized control of Italy’s northern half, where they set up a puppet state headed by Mussolini. Italians in that part of the country were immediately faced with a choice: side with the so-called Republic of Salò composed of Nazi-Fascists or fight for a free Italy against what was effectively their own government. Civil war ensued, with the Italian Resistance growing steadily to become the largest such movement in Western Europe. Liberation came in April 1945, by which time 45,000 partisans had lost their lives and Primo Levi had experienced hell.
Luzzatto starts by informing us that Levi’s only reference to his “brief and unfortunate season” as a partisan is a fleeting four-page section in his collection of autobiographical stories The Periodic Table. He also tells us that in the section “Gold,” Levi allots just two pages to hiding out in the mountains, waiting for action, and his eventual capture, and devotes a further two to his journey down the valley, his interrogation and dispatch to a collection camp. Intrigued by Levi’s cursory treatment of this pivotal time of his life, Luzzatto mines these pages for clues and attempts to build a more revealing picture.
“We were cold and hungry,” Levi writes in those four pages, “we were the most disarmed partisans in the Piedmont, and probably also the most unprepared.” Levi carries a revolver, one he is unable to use, “tiny, all inlaid with mother of pearl, the kind used in movies by ladies desperately intent on committing suicide.” Luzzatto acknowledges that Levi was a raw recruit, but when he pans out to build up his cast, he shows that Levi was not the only one: in the early days of the Resistance many a partisan band was composed of young, fresh-faced men and women whose “path from civilian to partisan life had included no intermediate step of military preparation.”
Levi joins up because for Jews, “the effective options were two: hide, or become partisans.” Some partisans are opportunists seduced by the spirit of anarchy; most are ardent anti-Fascists who consider themselves outlaws fighting for freedom and justice.
In among the gun-shy or trigger-happy greenhorns are hardy partisans like Avrom, described in Levi’s Moments of Reprieve as “adept with pistol and machine gun, polyglot, and wily as a fox.” Luzzatto introduces us as well to valiant soldiers such as Aldo Piacenza, who had seen action on the Eastern Front in 1941, and Emilio Bachi, who had experienced the fall of France under Hitler’s blitzkrieg.
After the good comes the bad. Salò prefect Cesare Augusto Carnazzi is a zealous anti-Semite who steadfastly adheres to the new German two-pronged agenda of an all-out war against partisans and a merciless manhunt in search of Jews. But it is his underling, Edilio Cagni, who emerges as the real villain of the book. In The Periodic Table Cagni is “the spy who had gotten us captured … a spy to hurt, out of a kind of sporty sadism, as the hunter shoots free game.”
Cagni befriends and infiltrates Levi’s rebel band, pretending to support their cause—a relatively easy maneuver, according to Luzzatto, due to the loose, ragtag constitution of nascent Resistance groups and their political disorganization. “Among the streams of drifter soldiers and draft-evading students and conscripts, it was often difficult to distinguish a double-dealing adventurer from one who was genuinely anti-Fascist.” After Cagni reports to Carnazzi, the noose tightens on Levi’s group. In a dawn raid on December 13, 1943, the partisans are rounded up and arrested. So ends Levi’s war. Ten weeks later he would be deported to Auschwitz.
We are a third of the way into Luzzatto’s book and Levi disappears. Luzzatto is quick to justify his absence: “this is a book about the partigia in Valle d’Aosta, not about deportees to the death camp.” Levi returns in 1945 to testify against his betrayer. In the interim, Luzzatto tracks the expansion of the Resistance movement—Levi’s sister, Anna Maria, comes to play a key role as a partisan courier—and the guerrilla exploits of other, more fortunate and more sophisticated partisan groups. The Nazi-Fascists find themselves unable to prevent “bandits” venturing down from the mountains and carrying out acts of sabotage on train lines and phone lines, bridges and hydroelectric power stations, or ambushes against enemy convoys and attacks on isolated soldiers. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse develops. Partisans remain alert for traitors in their ranks but also risk being turned in to the Salò authorities by villagers sick of their presence in their valleys and their requisitioning of food and supplies. When partisans are caught they are tortured to death or put in front of a firing squad. When they elude capture there are brutal reprisals against the civilian population.
Bad luck arrives at the end of 1944. The British commander of Allied forces in the Mediterranean urges the partisans to cease fighting through the winter. Worse, Mussolini proclaims an amnesty on draft dodgers, which results in 80 percent of rebels in the north surrendering their weapons. In the desperate last months before Liberation, Nazi-Fascist retribution becomes more savage. Luzzatto tells how one partisan leader ordered to shout “Long live Il Duce,” instead shouts, “Down with Il Duce!” and so promptly has his eyes gouged out and his skull staved in. A whole band of partisans is first dragged barefoot through the snow then chained together with barbed wire and made to march through a town. “Their feet were a fleshy pulp,” recalled one onlooker, “bloody, violet, blackish and putrid yellow.”
Despite the setbacks, victory is achieved and “Dantesque retaliation” is visited on Fascists by their anti-Fascist opponents. Rather than fizzle out here, Luzzatto’s narrative re-energizes, crackling with postwar hunts for war criminals and hidden Salò gold, recognition and compensation for partisan combatants, and eulogies for fallen heroes. Best of all, though, are Luzzatto’s gripping accounts of Carnazzi’s and Cagni’s capture and respective court cases. Long, detailed, and thoroughly absorbing chapters chronicle their downfall, and the cathartic relief we feel as justice is set to be meted out is soon replaced with terror on realizing that a slippery Cagni may in fact get off the hook. His accusers lack vital incriminating evidence linking him to murders and pillage, enabling him to come across as a harmless, small-fry stooge. More witnesses come forward, however, including Levi, one of the saved of Auschwitz, who presents himself as a “witness by right and by duty.” Gradually, the prosecutor composes a portrait of Cagni as a major collaborator, “something more—and worse—than a mere factotum of Carnazzi. He was the prefect’s dark side, his agent of evil.”
Primo Levi’s Resistance wears its meticulous research well. Luzzatto impresses with skillful close readings of Levi’s books, drawing parallels wherever possible with real events: from the murky drama contained in those four fact-filled pages of The Periodic Table to the struggles of the Jewish partisan brigades fighting with the Red Army in Levi’s 1982 book, If Not Now, When? Some lines of inquiry grapple with minutiae—“Pronouns are crucial in Levi’s writing”—but what at first blush smacks of over-analysis of obscure detail ultimately proves to be insightful. Luzzatto unearths numerous documents pertaining to Cagni, “the classical villain of the story,” while other sleuth work leads him to surviving partisans who are keen to tell their tales.
What Luzzatto also uncovers is the truth about “an ugly secret” that weighed in the minds of Levi and his band. It is mentioned in The Periodic Table, briefly and cryptically—a secret that “exposed us to capture, and just a few days before had extinguished all our will to resist, even to live.” Luzzatto homes in on this “scrap of history” and after much probing and sifting discovers that two members of Levi’s partisan group were shot not by their enemy but by their own side. We read on, rapt, wondering what their crimes were and to what extent Levi was involved in the decision to execute them.
If there is fault to be found in this book it concerns not content but cover. That new English title, Primo Levi’s Resistance, is at the very least misleading. It is not only Levi’s Resistance that the book is about. In his prologue, Luzzatto disabuses us of any preconceptions, stating that “Primo Levi is at times merely a supporting actor in the story.” Once we accept this and give Levi and the Italian Resistance equal billing, we can enjoy the book for what it is: an edifying and engaging study of both. As Luzzatto writes, “The chemist from Turin is the ethical reagent that brings this Resistance tale to life.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and many other outlets.