“Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy” by Sergio Luzzatto— Levi as a Fighter with the Italian Resistance and the Secret that Haunted his Life

primo levi's resistence

Luzzatto, Sergio. “Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy”, (translated by Frederick Randall), Metropolitan Books, 2016.

Levi as a Fighter with the Italian Resistance and the Secret that Haunted his Life

Amos Lassen

Primo Levi has been the most “literarily powerful and historically influential” survivor of Auschwitz. What many do not know is that the beginning of World War II in the fall of 1943 and at the start of the Italian Resistance, he was a fighter and took part in the first attempts to launch guerrilla warfare against occupying Nazi forces. Historians have overlooked this and Levi, himself, did not mention this. In Levi’s “The Periodic Table” hints that his deportation to Auschwitz was linked directly to an incident from that time. It was this secret that made him give up the struggle, and his will to resist and even stay alive. Writer Sergio Luzzatto’s goes back to that time and reconstructs the events of 1943 in vivid detail. Just days before Levi was captured, Luzzatto shows, his group killed two teenagers who had sought to join the partisans, deciding the boys were reckless and couldn’t be trusted. Even though it was not spoken of, the repercussions were part of the shape Levi’s life. In this new study we see where Levi’s moral complexity that is so evident in all of his writing, began.

Luzzatto tells that Levi played only a supporting role in 1940s Italian civil war and its aftermath. What this book actually does is become a “meditation on the tensions between justice and revenge, the inevitability of historical revisionism and the unreliability of memory”. These are familiar themes that we have seen over and over again each time a country either confronts or denies something from its past.

Luzzatto shares his methodology (archival research, interviews with aging partisans and their descendants, and the Internet) but his narrative seems to lack direction and this makes it difficult to continue with his narrative because the plot and themes are often obscured. He starts the book with a childhood memory when he was read a series of letters that had been written by Italian partisans who were condemned to death and then shares that his curiosity about the resistance became a passion. His adoration of Levi and literature are what brought him to write this book. He tells (or reminds us) that in the stories in “The Periodic Table,” Levi writes of “an ugly secret” from his partisan days, a death sentence imposed in December 1943 that left him and his colleagues feeling “devastated, empty, wanting everything to finish and to be finished ourselves….” A few days later, Levi was captured, and thus began the journey that led to Auschwitz.

The two men shot by Levi’s group were teenagers at the time. It remains unclear who pulled the trigger and to what extent Levi was involved. Most of Luzzatto’s information comes from a report on the interrogation of the captured partisan Aldo Piacenza. who said that the young men were killed for stealing from villagers and threatening to kill or denounce other partisans.

While this is something of a small story it had great importance in that it “promised to illustrate the choices facing the young men of a floundering nation after the armistice” with the Allies and to also raise the question of when violence is morally justified.

Luzzatto also looks at the evil Fascist collaborator, Edilio Cagni who Levi described as “a spy who hurts, out of a kind of sporty sadism, as a hunter shoots.” Cagni, with two other spies, infiltrated a partisan band and then briefly became its leader. Soon afterward, he was involved in the interrogation and likely torture of captured partisans, one of who was Levi. He would later testify against others, helping to send them to their death a firing squad.

After the war, Cagni was repeatedly tried and sentenced (first to death, then prison) by various tribunals. Levi, returned from Auschwitz, testified against him but Cagni never served much time. He allied himself with the Italian intelligence services that were in pursuit of a Gestapo leader code-named Annabella and spying on neo-Fascist rallies for the American OSS. Luzzatto convincingly describes Cagni as a brilliant and duplicitous monster.

While Interviewing Piacenza, Luzzatto discovered that his account of a weapons expedition contradicts previous versions of the story. On the other hand some of the interviews were clear such as partisan Yves Franciscwa’s “excellent,” but still did not provide clear answers to Luzzatto’s questions about the shootings.

Luzzatto managed to track the elusive Cagni through the decades and numerous incarnations. But, in the end, he had to stop trying as all of his leads led to dead ends. Therefore the reader is left to give closure to the events written of here.

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