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An “Italian Citizen of Jewish Race”: Primo Levi on Belief, Blasphemy and Becoming a Jew

Morgan Rempel

Vol. 4, No. 1

Summer 2022

Pages: 98‒112

DOI: 10.33929/sherm.2022.vol4.no1.07

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Abstract

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Jewish Studies

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Shoah, Holocaust, Judaism, Jewish Studies, Holocaust Studies, Primo Levi, Auschwitz

While religious belief is not a dominant theme in Levi’s Holocaust writing, over the course of a forty-year writing career this longstanding nonbeliever offers a number of thoughtful reflections on God, faith, and the Holocaust. The first half of my paper examines the Jewish identity of the young Levi, as well as the isolated thoughts on God, faith, and religion found in Survival in Auschwitz (1947). While that early work deliberately focuses on day-to-day exigencies amidst the unrelenting struggle for existence at Auschwitz-Monovitz, it still raises provocative questions about prayer and belief in the context of the Holocaust. In his later writing and interviews, Levi digs deeper and with greater frequency into matters concerning God and the Holocaust. From the recurring charge of “blasphemy” to his career-long characterization of his unlikely survival as a matter of simple luck rather than Divine Providence, my paper goes on to examine the later Levi’s increasingly subtle reflections on matters related to God and the Holocaust. Finally, I look at the later Levi’s repeated insistence that the years of persecution brought with them a newfound understanding of himself as a Jew. By examining his thoughts on how his Auschwitz imprisonment simultaneously confirmed his nonbelief and inaugurated his self-conception as a Jew, my paper demonstrates that Levi’s scattered reflections on God, faith, and the Holocaust are both challenging and well worth our careful, continued study.

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