Pri­mo Levi’s Resis­tance: Rebels and Col­lab­o­ra­tors in Occu­pied Italy

Ser­gio Luz­zat­to; Fred­eri­ka Ran­dall, trans.

  • Review
By – December 18, 2015

Most peo­ple with only a glanc­ing knowl­edge of the Holo­caust have heard of Pri­mo Levi, prob­a­bly the most famous sur­vivor of Auschwitz. It is wide­ly known that Levi was a vic­tim of the Nazis, but few, even those well versed in Holo­caust his­to­ry, know that he was also part of the Ital­ian Resis­tance. His involve­ment with this gueril­la war­fare group took place in the fall of 1943, when the Resis­tance was still young and inex­pe­ri­enced. But though the group’s efforts were still small at this point, their effect on Pri­mo Levi’s life was both last­ing and intense.

In his many auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ings, Levi men­tions briefly and mys­te­ri­ous­ly that he was deport­ed to Auschwitz because of an ugly secret.” He nev­er elab­o­rates, and nei­ther, until very recent­ly, has any his­to­ri­an. Now acclaimed his­to­ri­an Ser­gio Luz­zat­to has tak­en Pri­mo Levi’s veiled com­ment and inves­ti­gat­ed it ful­ly, estab­lish­ing a the­o­ry that it has to do with those lost months of Levi’s life — months dur­ing which he was part of a small par­ti­san band.

Luz­zat­to begins his scrupu­lous­ly research expo­si­tion with a shock­ing episode in which the band of par­ti­sans turned on itself and mur­dered two of his own mem­bers, both young men still in their teenage years. Then he exam­ines the rich moral com­plex­i­ty of the Resis­tance fight­ers, cre­at­ing detailed and mov­ing por­traits of both the rebels them­selves and the Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors with whom their fates become inter­twined in the post­war years. He is able to make us deeply aware of their human­i­ty and yet simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hor­ri­fied; we are drawn ever more irre­sistibly into their story.

Writ­ten with wit and flair, Pri­mo Levi’s Resis­tance enters the deep recess­es of the par­ti­sans’ minds, exam­in­ing their inner­most thoughts and motives and prais­ing their pro­found­ly ded­i­cat­ed spir­its while at the same time expos­ing their moral flaws. Luzzatto’s abil­i­ty to both empathize with the par­ti­sans and still remain dis­pas­sion­ate demon­strates his pow­er­ful grasp of jour­nal­is­tic tech­niques and his high­ly devel­oped sto­ry­telling skills.

Through­out our ten­sion-filled progress through the book, we find that Luz­zat­to has kept the sto­ry exquis­ite­ly bal­anced between loy­al­ty and betray­al, aggres­sion and acqui­es­cence, for­give­ness and revenge. We remain in thrall to the raw courage we can’t help but admire, despite the actions to which it some­times leads. He forces us to judge for our­selves what is jus­tice and what is not, and to look square­ly in the face of moral responsibility.

Luz­zat­to, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Turin and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to well-respect­ed polit­i­cal jour­nals in Italy, is an award-win­ning his­tor­i­cal writer, one whose high­ly praised lucid­i­ty is applied mas­ter­ful­ly in this new work. The book, orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Ital­ian and trans­lat­ed smooth­ly into Eng­lish, was deserved­ly a best­seller when it first came out in Italy.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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