Primo Levi is known to us all as the author of If This is a Man, and other seminal works on the Shoah. No one had a voice quite like his. He wrote with what Joan Scott has termed ‘the authority of direct experience', as an inmate in the Monowitz-Buna factory in the Auschwitz complex. He was a witness in a number of ways. First, he both saw and suffered. He was not an outside observer, but an insider. Secondly, he had the intellectual preparation enabling him to tell the story. He was a chemist trapped in the Lager, which he termed ‘a gigantic biological and social experiment’. Thirdly, he provided depositions twice: for the Eichmann trial in 1960, and in 1971, for the trial of Friedrich Bosshammer, who directed the Gestapo’s anti-Jewish office in Italy.
There are two other meanings of the term ‘witness’ which I would like to address. The first defines a witness as someone prepared to die for his or her faith. The second is someone who reaffirms the possibility of moral thinking of any kind in the aftermath of catastrophe. My claim is that Primo Levi was a moral witness in the latter, and not in the former sense, though his Jewishness in the special context of Turin was at the core of his writing and I believe, his identity. He was a Jewish witness, steeped in Jewish culture, but one devoid of a belief in God.