Death by Denier

The man who bore witness

Primo Levi, an obsessive chronicler of his life as a Holocaust survivor, gets a biography from someone else.

PRIMO LEVI: Tragedy of an Optimist By Myriam Anissimov Overlook Press, 452 pages

_Globe_and_Mail_ ([email protected]) | Saturday, March 6, 1999 |


Two hundred years from now, readers who wish to know our century will turn to the prose of Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz.

Levi was born into a cultured middle-class Jewish family in Turin in 1919. Myriam Anissimov, in this first full-scale biography of the Italian author and chemist, records that Levi’s father, Cesare, was an electrical engineer and an avid reader of literature. From him Levi learned that the humanities and the sciences need not be separate worlds.


Levi was fortunate to have entered university before the Fascists instituted their racial laws banning Jews from higher education. Still, no professor of chemistry was willing to supervise his thesis. The young physics lecturer Nicola Dallaporta helped Levi get his degree. He told Levi after the war that Providence had chosen him to become the chronicler of the slave-labour camp, a concept Levi refused to accept since his Auschwitz experiences had convinced him that there was no Providence, and no God.


Upon his return to Turin, Levi felt the need to bear witness: “I had a torrent of urgent things to tell the civilized world. I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore.” But the civilized world was not very interested in what he had to say. No large publisher would accept his powerful account, Survival in Auschwitz. Anissimov reports that the book received a few positive reviews but was “distributed rather than sold.”


On the morning of April 11, 1987, Levi plunged down the stairwell of his house, an apparent suicide. His death shocked his readers. How could this sober and diligent man, who had cast a rationalist’s penetrating light on our century’s most enormous crime, fall into the abyss? Anissimov does not provide a definitive answer, but presents a constellation of facts. She reports that after his return from Auschwitz, Levi experienced severe bouts of depression that he found increasingly difficult to overcome. She describes the complications he was having recovering from a prostate operation, his anxiety over his senile, 91-year-old mother, as well as his despondency over the media coverage being given to professional Holocaust deniers.


Kenneth Sherman’s essay Primo Levi and the Unlistened-to Story can be found in his book Void and Voice.

We Get Letters

On Jul 17, 2004, at 9:53 AM, Ken Sherman wrote:

I note that you have used my book review of “The Tragedy of an Optimist” on your website. I cannot see why, since the review neither supports nor denies your claims. It is merely the review of a biography. I would ask that you please remove it from your site.


Kenneth Sherman

Mr. Sherman,

Thanks for contacting me about the contents of my website.

Actually, I have NOT used your book review: I have excerpted portions of it. By my count, I have used fewer than 400 words, and my understanding is that the doctrine of fair use allows me to quote up to 500 words, so I believe I am within my rights in presenting this information.

As to its relevance, I found it of interest, and I feel that others may, too.

HHP Webmaster

July 18, 2004 7:52:08 AM PDT

Mr. Sir,

Thanks for your reply. I sold the electronic rights for that review to the Globe and Mail and will pass this matter along to their legal department.

TO: Editor/Publisher, The Holocaust Historiography Project

It has been brought to our attention that you have electronically reprinted copyrighted material on your web site. We request that you cease and desist reprint of material by Mr. Kenneth Sherman immediately. Our Policy does not grant any electronic publication.

We thank you for your cooperation.


Francine Bellefeuille
Permissions Editor
The Globe and Mail
Phone: 416-585-5257.
Fax: 416-585-5670
Date: Wed, 21 Jul 2004 16:54:25 -0700

To: “Bellefeuille, Francine” [[email protected]]
July 21, 2004 4:54:25 PM PDT

Dear Ms. Bellefeuille,

Thank you for contacting me. Please let me know what your “Fair Use” policies are.

HHP Webmaster