Beautiful Sick Body

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: When Primo Levi’s Ghosts Haunt His Poetry

by Ilona Klein, Brigham Young University

While readers in the North American continent have come to know and appreciate Primo Levi through his major works in prose, most readers, however, will probably stumble upon Primo Levi’s poetry by accident, likely because every now and then one of his poems in translation appears in print somewhere. Levi’s poems will inevitably evoke in the reader an initial sense of unease, for their tone, their style and their content appear to be so unlike the familiar image we have derived from his works in prose. Moreover, Levi modestly declared that he never placed much value to his poems, and that he did not in fact consider himself a poet.1

According to Lang, in his prose works Primo Levi writes objectively and with the ‘voice of reason’.2 As his prose is not overcome with emotional revenge or hatred, Levi thus remains a credible witness to the facts observed and narrated. In fact, his prosaic literary descriptions are generally emotionally detached. Levi shows a strong and impartial voice, and ‘he demonstrates the Lager’s failure to destroy the integrity that identifies him as a moral human being’ (Ibid.). We appreciate in Levi ‘the simplicity of his language and his straightforward descriptions’ (Ibid., p. 256) which, when analyzing Shoah literature, contribute to a clearer and more accurate historical perspective.

Readers familiar with Se questo è un uomo and with La tregua are also familiar with their respective epigraphs: the poems ‘Shemà’ and ‘Wstawać’.3  They are clearly associated with the content matter of each book and convey, appropriately, a tone of resentment, an implicit condemnation, and unfathomable sadness.  They foreshadow the subject matter for the readers.  In ‘Shemà’, Levi writes of the unspeakable: ‘Meditate che questo è stato:/ Vi comando queste parole./ Scolpitele nel vostro cuore …’ The word ‘meditate’ has a strong meaning in Levi’s writings, both in poetry and prose.  More than just appraisal or assessment, the author invites his readers to ponder deeply, to weigh insightfully, and to be well aware of the events which cause tragedies such as the Shoah, for the dead of the concentration camps will remain among us as part of our human collective consciousness forever.

The rest of this essay proposes that Primo Levi’s poetry, unlike his prose, might reveal symptoms characteristic of a person suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Among ‘anxiety disorders’, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), lists the diagnostic features of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.4

DSM-5 adds that ‘the disorder may be especially severe when the stressor is interpersonal and intentional’; ‘intense psychological distress [...] often occurs when the individual is exposed to triggering events that resemble [...] an aspect of the traumatic event’; among its diagnostic criteria is ‘exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury [...]’; there may or may not be concomitant physical components to the trauma (malnutrition, for instance). The person affected by PTSD might experience any or all of the following: psychic numbing, dissociative states, emotional anesthesia, recurring nightmares, and significant degrees of distress. A brief study by Kuch and Cox suggests ‘chronic’ PTSD in Shoah survivors, and finds ‘persistent distress and sleep disturbances’ almost forty years after liberation.5 Kuch’s findings emphasize that ‘tattooed Auschwitz survivors experienced more recurrent and intrusive recollections [than non-tattooed prisoners], … [and] were also three times more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD’ (Ibid., p. 339). After studying long-term consequences of ‘massive traumatization’, Nadler and Ben-Shushan write, significantly, that ‘victims of social trauma such as the Holocaust may suffer a dual blow. Their youth is shattered by the trauma, and their old age is overshadowed by its aftereffects.’6  Their study concludes by suggesting that ‘effects of major traumas resurface in old age’ (Ibid., p. 293).

My hypothesis of a large part of Levi’s poetry being probably haunted by PTSD ghosts derives from my observation of a marked difference in the linguistic register of Levi’s works when comparing his prose against his poetry. The written linguistic register of his poems resembles the tone expected of oral recollections and narrations, rather than one of more formal autobiographical writings. To be more specific, Levi’s poetry shows a range of some typical characteristics of oral linguistic registers such as, for instance, impulsiveness, expression of deep emotions, associations, projections, non-sequiturs, intuitive reactions, and idiomatic verbal spontaneity. Far from stating that Levi’s psychological ‘secrets’ can be easily revealed by paying careful attention to his poems, I do suggest, however, that his poetry uncovers how the rational, successful, cautious, sensitive, calm, and just Primo Levi was at the same time a profoundly wounded, scarred, disillusioned man still haunted by the experiences of his past. He was a man very possibly suffering from symptoms of PTSD.  The key to the discovery of a different side of the author lies in the manifestation of nightmares in his verse.

According to Patruno, in his poetry Primo Levi shows an ‘emotional charge’ that allows him to vent ‘his innermost sentiments expressive of, but not limited to, joy, love, anger, social and environmental concerns, irony, humor, frustration, sadness and solitude’ where he sometimes ‘touches the nadir of despair.’7 Especially in the poem ‘Il superstite’ one clearly detects the heart-wrenching topos of ‘survivor’s guilt’ that heavily haunts Levi (see also the chapter entitled ‘La vergogna’ in his I sommersi e i salvati).8 In his poetry, ‘Levi expresses the pain of a man who fears that his story, and through his that of millions’ of others ‘will be forgotten.’9

Primo Levi’s volume of poetry Ad ora incerta (1984)10 discloses to the reader a psychologically more complex portrait of the chemist-turned-writer who died in April of 1987. First published in 1975 under the title L’osteria di Brema, Levi added (in the 1984 edition, published with its better-known and present title) another thirty-four poems to the twenty-eight already published.  Ad ora incerta, published by Garzanti, was an immediate success among the readership and critics alike. Posthumously, a collection of Levi’s opera omnia appeared in Einaudi’s series Biblioteca dell’Orsa, and it included poems dating through January 1987 which, incidentally, is the date of his last-known published poem.11 Primo Levi’s verse spanned his entire adulthood, from February 1943 to a few months before his death.

Primo Levi’s sudden death left the literary and Jewish world speechless. We, his readers, stood in mute disbelief at the news, mostly because in I sommersi e i salvati, his last volume in prose, Levi appeared to have rationalized and partially come to terms with the aftermath of his ordeal in Auschwitz. In this book’s series of essays, he gave the impression of being able to face the Shoah and its terrible legacy in his typical, clear, rational, linear prose. Levi’s poetry, on the other hand, is permeated by helplessness, resignation, sadness, and nightmares. Only a pale trace is left of the author’s characteristic impotentia judicandi (suspension of explicit judgement) exhibited in his essays. In his poems surface fear, sketched impressions, anxiety, and the misgivings of a man whose emotional life spanned from the annihilating humiliation of Auschwitz to public recognition as a successful author.

Motola defines Levi as a scientific humanist.12 He correctly points out that literature (especially the recollection of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the chapter ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ in Se questo è un uomo) was so important for Levi that he was willing to have ‘given up one day’s ration of soup’ (Ibid., p. 506). Recalling Dante’s poetry in the concentration camp was important, for it would attempt to preserve Levi as a Mensch, a human being, in Auschwitz. After the liberation, Levi’s continued poetic production (not necessarily abundant, but nevertheless so seminally meaningful) contained, as Motola has noted, numerous references to Latin, French, German, and British poets (Ibid., p. 506). Motola observes that Levi wrote 14 poems between ‘45 and ‘46, representing 25% of his whole poetic production; ‘writing [poetry] fulfilled more of an emotional or psychological need than a creative one’ (Ibid., p. 507).  And Tesio worked out the statistics on Levi’s poetry: 1 poem in 1943, 1 in ‘45, 14 in ‘46, 1 in ‘49, 1 in ‘52, 1 in ‘53, 1 in ‘59, 2 in ‘60, 1 in ‘64, 1 in ‘65, 1 in ‘70, 1 in ‘73, 2 in ‘74, 3 in ‘78, 3 in ‘79, 5 in ‘80, 4 in ‘81, 5 in ‘82, 6 in ‘83, 9 in ‘84.  The peak is thus 1946 [....] and then a continuous flow between ‘78 and ‘84.13

The topics of Levi’s poems span many subjects, from his concentrationary experience, to his return to civilian life post-war, to his interest in his work as a scientist. In the midst of this all, Levi allowed the nightmares that scarred his life to surface. Through poetry, less constrained by the linearity of syntax, one is freer to express sentiments via associative cognition, whether consciously or not. Poetry in general ‘has a tendency to dehistoricize events.’14

Benchouiha points out that the composition of Primo Levi’s poetry spans a wider time frame than the composition of his prose. Of his earliest poems, ‘a significant amount [of them] deal directly with Auschwitz’15 When looking to compare his poetry to his prose, one finds meaningful images that mirror and amplify each other, thus aiding the readers’ understanding of Levi’s motives. Benchouiha successfully seeks parallels and echoes of terms used in his prose which appear also in his poetry, and vice versa (such as between the poem ‘Il tramonto di Fossoli’ and the chapter ‘Il viaggio’ from Se questo è un uomo). The prose and the poetry of the earlier composing years often reflect, engage and enhance each other. Benchouiha writes: ‘Between Levi’s narrative and his poetry there . . . exists a very unique form of intertextuality and a very original form of rewriting’ (Ibid., p. 126). Among the topics covered in Levi’s poetry, according to Benchouiha, one finds the animal world, the natural world, science, historical figures, daily life, writing, and others (Ibid.). Also, Benchouiha sustains, Levi deems the suffering of enslaved and/or encaged animals as a mirror of the suffering of mankind: ‘The humiliation of these creatures reflects the degradation of the prisoners of the concentration camps’ (Ibid., pp. 127-28). Failure to communicate, failure to be understood, failure to be heard are subjects evident in both Levi’s prose and in his poetry.

What follows is a brief analysis of a few poems by Primo Levi, with the intention of highlighting a few passages which focus on some of his characteristics as a poet.

In ‘For Adolf Eichmann’ (composed in 1960) Levi displays some of his most intensely bitter reactions. Deep anger, acute offence and a cry for just punishment emerge from the lines, while concentration-camp victims ask for and await justice. Severely firm in his indignation, rather than granting the position of judge to himself, Levi adds his voice to that of the other victims. Addressing Eichmann directly, Levi writes,

prezioso nemico, / Tu creatura deserta, uomo cerchiato di morte. / Che saprai dire ora, davanti al nostro consenso? / (…) / Dell’opera tua trista non compiuta / Dei tredici milioni ancora vivi? / (…) O figlio della morte, non ti auguriamo la morte. / Possa tu vivere a lungo quanto nessuno mai visse: / Possa tu vivere insonne cinque milioni di notti, / E visitarti ogni notte la doglia di ognuno che vide / …

When writing in prose, Levi had never expressed quite so explicitly this inner anguish. Anger and profound sadness appear throughout his volume of poetry Collected Poems. Here, as in ‘Shemà’, a ghost appears from Levi’s past. Levi dates his penning of ‘Per Adolf Eichmann’ as 20 July 1960.

In another poem, ‘Annunciazione’ (composed in June 1979), Levi resorts to a cynical, sad parody of the Christian motif of the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. He borrows religious terminology from the narrative in the New Testament.16

From the first verse, though, it is clear that Primo Levi adds a pessimistic and macabre quality to the event. The dreadful angel (who clarifies that he is not bird of prey, but a messenger – and this clues the reader to his appearance) materializes in front of a pregnant woman announcing the birth of a child (clearly the angel is talking to Hitler’s mother), a baby son whose magnetic eyes and rhetoric will captivate an audience of believers, will instigate hatred and crime, ‘predicherà l’abominio’ and ‘evangelizzerà con la bestemmia e la forca.’ As though the poem were not tragic enough in its very conception, and painful in its elaboration, Levi writes the concluding lines with such sarcasm, so as to leave no gleam of hope:  ‘Morrà non sazio di strage, lasciando semenza d’odio. / È questo germe che cresce in te. Rallegrati, donna.’  The ever-agnostic (or atheist?) Levi appears to be asking himself and his readers the long-standing question, ‘If God exists – a concept Levi could never quite resolve because Auschwitz did happen – how could history have run its course the way it did in Auschwitz and in other concentration camps? Why were such atrocities allowed to happen? Why did God not intervene? How does one question God’s role in human events?’17 Primo Levi is obviously pointing his reader to a theological or pseudo-theological discussion about the role that religion plays (or does not play) in history.

In another poem, ‘Un ponte’ (composed in 1982), that which should unite divides instead. Levi describes a different kind of bridge, an anthropomorphic structure which can sense people’s confusion concerning the eternal questions of purpose and relevance of life: ‘Gode se ti fermi a mezzo cammino / […] e ti domandi se / Metta conto di vivere l’indomani’  DSM-5 lists under criterion B1, ‘recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)’ (p. 273). As invisible chemicals dissolved in water, ‘lento [in] veleno’ can damage the pillars of a bridge and destroy its foundations, similarly existential doubts may permeate human minds in subtle ways creating ‘un malefizio’. Nobody finds peace when crossing this kind of bridge. Some people would like to traverse it to admire the beauty of the landscape on either side of the river; however from atop, there are no soothing sights of quiet waters slowly dancing under the bridge’s span. Instead, one sees the vortexes and currents violently crushing against the structure, slowly sanding it down. This bridge does not offer refuge to the weary travelers, writes Levi, it is not a haven for restless minds who seek solitude and peace: it is ‘non … come gli altri ponti/ che reggono alla nevicata dei secoli.’ Halfway destroyed by the impetus of water and debris, this bridge draws a kind of Mephistophelian pleasure in witnessing people’s most troubled thoughts, most profound moments of doubt.

Phonetically, the last lines of the poem provide the harshness of pebbles and stones pressing and crashing against one another, slowly grinding the pillars to sand, while also demolishing the shore line:  ‘Perciò lima se stesso in sabbia, / E stride pietra contro pietra, / E premepreme preme contro le sponde / Per spaccare la crosta della terra.’ [Italics are mine, and are added for phonetic emphasis.] Somehow, this bridge and mankind are connected by the same fate: they can both either link different worlds or, paradoxically, create isolation instead. Moreover, mankind can feel itself slowly crushed into insignificance, or oblivion, or powerlessness. There are many possible interpretations to ‘A Bridge’, the prism of meanings which Primo Levi sketched here.

The German title ‘Nachtwache’, appears both in the English and in the Italian versions. Written in August 1983, the poem provides an eerie ambience. From the well-known question ‘A che punto è la notte, sentinella?’ unfold verses treating mankind’s ephemeral status. The impassive and predictable answer comes in a monotone voice: death and life go on, indifferent to one another, in a repetitious cycle of disinterest in human affairs. DSM-5 includes under criterion D6, ‘feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.’ The watchman who answers the question above proves to be emotionless to the tragedies surrounding him, and incapable of human compassion towards the subjects over whom he keeps watch. The point, of course, is not that the Watchman suffers from PTSD (there is nothing in the poem that would lead the reader to believe that the watchman has suffered a past trauma so terrible as to warrant PTSD on his part). The point is that Levi was surrounded by indifference to human suffering during the war, thus he knows well how to describe it and include it in his poems. The hint for this kind of reading lies in the title, which is in German. I believe the reference to German indifference to the plight of deported Jews is quite obvious. In ‘Nachtwache’, Levi briefly sketches the portrait of a suicidal girl – without realising the full depth and consequences of her gesture (‘[del]la ragazza che ha smarrito il senno’, as Levi calls her) – who effectively makes a coffin out of her own bed.  The watchman relates that another elderly man dies while wasting his last drop of strength to futilely fight against inevitable death. The impassive, monotone voice of the watchman from within the darkness continues to describe these and other facts revealing no emotion: ‘Stenditi e prendi sonno, cittadino, / È tutto in ordine; questa notte è al suo mezzo.’ Levi’s pessimism targets today’s world, and seems to suggest that ‘man’ is ultimately a creature of habit surrounded by a quasi-Leopardian universe of apathetic indifference.

Written during the summer of 1984, ‘Scacchi’ and ‘Scacchi II’ reveal Primo Levi worried and sadly resigned. In ‘Chess’, the white queen proudly proclaims her superiority above all other pieces of the chess board, disdainfully scorning both ‘inept and cowardly’ kings, while reserving special bitter words of contempt for her white king, who – at first – fearfully hides behind a row of courageous pawns, and later flees the battle ‘askew, absurd, with little stumbling steps.’ She openly and readily acknowledges the worthiness of her fiercest enemy, the black queen, for it is she, her enemy, who swiftly and proudly takes charge of her black ranks, while her clumsy king proves inconsequential to any vital plan. ‘Le battaglie non son cose da re’ the white queen concludes. However, this image of victorious and prideful regality shatters in the second strophe when ‘una gran mano’ sweeps the chessboard clear, and the game pieces fall into a box ‘con scroscio di ghiaia.’ How ephemeral the white queen’s pride, how fleeting her hatred, contempt, and final victory. Primo Levi shows here the force of destiny, mightier than any human achievement which can only be temporary and nearsighted within the larger frame of existentialism. The author points out how in life we each play out our role on the chessboard of everyday events. Whether mankind actively plans resolutions or simply relies on destiny’s path, Levi seems to be writing, we all fall under the rulership of fate, a mighty hand indeed, which has the power to sweep clear the stage of life at any moment. Those who fight for their own and others’ rights are just as vulnerable to destiny’s brutal ‘cleaning of the slate’ as those indifferent to their surroundings.

Published back to back in its English edition, ‘Scacchi (II)’ retains the same theme while changing points of view.18 This time, it is personified fate who challenges man to continue a chess game previously started. A monologue on fate’s part, the poem mocks humans’ indecisiveness, fears, and incompetence. At the same time, fate sternly admonishes the human opponent that ‘il nostro è un gioco serio, non ammette / contratti, confusioni e contrabbandi.’ Chess as a symbol for life is developed in this poem as one of Levi’s most pessimistic topics. Life grants only one opportunity at a time, and that which is not seized at the moment is lost forever. Humankind stands alone against life’s agents, against the indifference of the elements. Even the reader feels trapped within mankind’s inadequacies, in a survival game whose winner has already been declared before the start. No matter the situation, Levi suggests, humans are trapped in a no-win situation. On the one hand, it is foolish to believe that we might conquer death; on the other hand, however, even knowing that ultimately death comes for everyone, people refuse to easily surrender their only opportunity to play out their life. This position is both heroic and futile at the same time. Keep in mind, admonishes Levi, that no matter the choice, the outcome of the game is clear before the start: eventually we will all die. It could be argued that the game is rigged from the beginning: why, then, not recognize the ineluctability of it all, and surrender one’s life in the face of destiny’s mockery? ‘Non senti ticchettare l’orologio? / Del resto, perché insistere? / Per prevedere i miei tratti / Ci vuole altra sapienza che la tua. / Lo sapevi fin da principio / che io sono il più forte.’

Eighteen additional poems appear in the second volume of Levi’s opera omnia (Biblioteca dell’Orsa).19

In ‘Ladri’ (composed in 1985) the poet approaches the problem of contemporary, fading collective memory, as an older generation feels robbed of the truth of its experiences, and is disillusioned by not having anymore a captive audience to listen to its history of survival. The thieves of time (a symbol for involuntary memory loss, both personal and collective) are portrayed as creeping through the keyholes and crevices of a house (the House of History, I would submit; and tragically also the house of one’s own life) leaving behind no broken windows, and no signs of burglary whatsoever. This robbery of memory of times past is an overlooked and unsolvable crime, for it leaves no fingerprints. The thieves are ‘mignatte: / Bevono il tuo tempo e lo sputano via / Come si butterebbe un’immondezza.’ The thieves, who have no faces, show ‘dentini minuscoli, affilati’ with which they slowly suck and ingest their booty, causing more discomfort than actual pain. Burglars who leave no clues behind are seldom caught, and their victims are left with little consolation. The reader cannot but notice, embedded in ‘Ladri’, Levi’s dismay at today’s general cultural indifference towards remembering and learning from the past, towards allowing recent history, specifically that of the Shoah, to slip away from the forefront, and the general cultural indifference, still many years after the WWII, of bringing to justice the perpetrators of crimes. It appears to me that there is, in ‘Ladri’, an implicit condemnation of coeval historical revisionism.

As Cesare Segre has written, most of Primo Levi’s poems directly address his audience through a II plural form, ‘voi’.20 Because of this explicit apostrophe, his poems speak to us, revealing his innermost thoughts, they envelope us, they involve us, they exact a response from us. Levi’s verse shows an impetus, a force, anger, and a passion that do not leave his reader impassive. One such poem that moves the reader is ‘Il superstite’ written in 1984, and dedicated to Bruno Vasari. Levi borrows his first line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’21 and lines 2-5 are Levi’s own translation (and interpretation) of Coleridge’s subsequent lines (Ibid., vv. 582-85, pp. 109).

Levi does not translate Coleridge, he paraphrases and edits meaningfully the original English text,  The last line of ‘Il superstite’ also draws close scrutiny. It obviously is borrowed from Dante’s Inferno (‘e mangia e bee e dorme e veste panni’).22 Branca D’Oria  is relegated to the worst part of Inferno, reserved to the traitors. In fact, when Dante was composing Inferno, Branca D’Oria was still alive: in Dante’s estimation, Branca is already so corrupt that his soul has been banished to Hell while still living.

In ‘Il superstite’ the topic goes to haunting flashbacks of Auschwitz’s dead from which Levi cannot escape. DSM-5 indicates some of the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis as ‘distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences o the traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others’ (Ibid., p. 272).23  In this poem, Levi is clearly defending himself from a group of dead souls whom he perceives as accusing him of having survived Auschwitz. But are the ghosts actually accusing Levi? There are no words in the text of the poem that explicitly indicate such indictment. The sorrowful, empty, emaciated, tired ghosts simply appear as a vision, as they go about their own heart-wrenching concentrationary existence. As Levi defends himself from the vision, he borrows from Dante, crafting again the words of the damned Branca D’Oria, condemned to Hell as a traitor to others.

Logotherapy has been essential in helping find a meaning for life.24 By transposing thought into words, oral or written, one can shed some light on life’s circumstances and clarify one’s own position regarding life. Primo Levi may well have resorted to coping with his own possible PTSD by writing and employing in his poems a style so passionate and emotional, uncovering a part of his psyche unlike anything else he produced in his rationalizing prose. Primo Levi shows two authorial voices, one in his prose works, and the other in verse. In most instances, it is his poetry which reveals Levi-the-Survivor’s innermost feelings and psychological turmoil. It is through his poetry that we are privy to, and understand, a more complex dimension of his personality.

Primo Levi was a courageous witness to history. He was also a magnificent science-fiction writer, a skilled chemist, a profound thinker, and chronicler of our time. After surviving Auschwitz, apparently he went on with his life. However, he understandably was haunted by those past ghosts. I believe that in light of recent PTSD research, we must question whether the scar of a survivor of the horrors of the Shoah is truly a ‘scar,’ or whether, instead, it should be considered a ‘permanent wound’, continually trying to heal, but never quite able to do so. Can one ever completely overcome PTSD?  Through clinical therapy most PTSD patients learn how to get on with their lives and be productive, manage some or most symptoms of the disorder. They master coping mechanisms in an attempt to conquer PTSD. Most PTSD patients learn to co-live with their diagnosis, as are provided with therapeutic strategies to successfully face their ghosts, the nightmares, the unpredictable. However, and in light of Primo Levi’s poem ‘Scacchi (II)’, for some survivors of the Nazi persecution (Bruno Bettelheim, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Jean Améry-Mayer, and others), perhaps death might have been the only way to defeat the ghosts of a survivor’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.


My appreciation goes to Roberta S. Kramer, Nicholas Patruno and to Roberta Ricci for their comments on a preliminary version of this study.  I am grateful to Dr. Robert Krell (psychiatrist, Professor Emeritus of the Dept of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, and founder and former president of the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society) for a brief conversation which we had on this subject several years ago.  He maintained, and I agree with him, that PTSD manifestations in Shoah survivors do not necessarily constitute a medical pathology.  Indeed, in this, my analysis of Levi’s poems, I never intend to imply PTSD as a pathological component to the author’s personality.  Rather – and I hope that here I paraphrase Krell correctly – PTSD in Levi and in other concentration camp survivors forms a personality trait which is, tragically, relatively predictable and common among Jewish lager survivors, thus not pathological nor strikingly exceptional among most individuals who share this terrible and haunting life experience.  Krell states ‘it is a relatively normal response to a desperately abnormal experience.’  Krell, R. Personal conversation. November 1995.

Lang, A., ‘Reason As Revenge: Primo Levi and Writing the Holocaust’, Symposium: A Quarterly Journal of Modern Literature, 54, 4 (1999), pp. 255-68 (p. 255).

Levi, P., Se questo è un uomo (Turin: De Silva, 1947); Levi, P., La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1963).

4  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Also Available: Accessed 10 February 2015.

Kuch, K., and Cox, B. J., ‘Symptoms of PTSD in 124 Survivors of the Holocaust’, American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 3 (March 1992): 337-40 (337 and 339).

Nadler, A. and Ben-Shushan, D. ‘Forty Years Later: Long-term Consequences of Massive-Traumatization as Mani­fested by Holocaust Survivors from the City and the Kibbutz’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57 (1989): 287-293 (292).

Patruno, Nicholas, ‘At an Uncertain Hour: The Other Side of Primo Levi’, in Memory and Mastery. Primo Levi as Writer and Witness, ed. Roberta S. Kremer (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), pp. 91-102 (pp. 94, 95, 96).

Levi, P., I sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Einaudi, 1986).

Patruno, 2001, p. 98.

10 Levi, P., Ad ora incerta (Milan: Garzanti, 1984).

11 Levi, P., Opere. Volume II: Romanzi e poesie, Collana Biblioteca dell’Orsa n. 6 (Turin: Einaudi, 1988).

12 Sewanee Review, 1990, pp. 506-14.

13 Tesio, G., ‘At an Uncertain Hour: Preliminary Observations on the Poetry of Primo Levi’, in Primo Levi: The Austere Humanist, ed. Joseph Farrell (Oxford-Bern: Peter Lang, 2004), pp. 161-170 (p. 168).

14 Lang, A., ‘Reason As Revenge: Primo Levi and Writing the Holocaust’ (1999), p. 257.

15 Benchouiha, L., ‘Ad ora incerta and Altre poesie: “Dopo Auschwitz non si può più fare poesie se non su Auschwitz ” ’ in Primo Levi.  Rewriting the Holocaust (Leicester, UK: Troubador, 2006), pp. 120-31 (p. 120).

16 One can look at similarities  between Luke 1:26-38 and Levi’s text.  Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus foretold recounts the trepidation and initial confusion expressed by the innocent young Mary in front of the mysterious angel of annunciation.  Angel Gabriel announces to her the salvific message of her baby, of Christ’s redemption for humankind.  Also in Levi’s re-make of the Gospel’s narrative, the messenger angel of ‘fierce form’ appears to tell the expecting mother of Hitler the plans of her yet-unborn son to ‘evangelize … rule …’ among the people who will follow him ‘jubilant and wild, singing … kissing his footprints’.  Levi’s poem represents an ‘Annunciation’ of hatred and spilled blood, of slaughter, darkness, and loathing.

17 For a better understanding of Primo Levi’s denial of God’s existence in matters connected to Auschwitz, it is worth re-reading the last couple of pages of his interview with Ferdinando Camon. ‘Camon. – Lei non è credente?  Levi. – No; non lo sono mai stato; vorrei esserlo, ma non ci riesco . . . Devo dire che l’esperienza di Auschwitz è stata tale per me da spazzare qualsiasi resto di educazione religiosa che pure ho avuto.  Camon. – Cioè: Auschwitz è la prova della non-esistenza di Dio?  Levi. – C’è Auschwitz, quindi non può esserci Dio.  [Sul dattiloscritto, a matita, ha aggiunto: Non trovo la soluzione al dilemma.  La cerco, ma non la trovo]’. Within an entirely different context, I am reminded of Elie Wiesel’s remark during a conversation with Cardinal O’Connor: ‘We Jews don’t blame God. We question God. I can blame human beings. And I do, and we should blame human beings when they do something wrong to other human beings. But to blame God, that’s quite an act of arrogance.  And we don’t do that. But we question God’ (p. 12). Camon, F., Conversazione con Primo Levi (Milan: Garzanti, 1991),  pp. 71-72.

18 ‘Scacchi’ and ‘Scacchi (II)’ are divided by ‘Pio’ in Ad ora incerta. ‘Pio’, however, is not translated, as is not ‘L’ultima epifania’. Moreover, the authors of the translation, Feldman and Swann, note that ‘Agenda’ appears in the English edition even though it is not part of Ad ora incerta.

19 The following poems first appeared in the Italian newspaper La Stampa between September 1984 and January 1987. It is rather clear that the nightmare of PTSD, which may have tormented Levi, permeated through in his poems until the end of his life.

20 Segre, C. in Levi, P. Ad ora incerta (Milan: Garzanti, 1990), pp. 143 – 147 (p. 144).

21 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’.  The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. James Dykes Campbell.  (London: MacMillan, 1914): pp. 95-110. See (Insana, 2009, pp. 76-81) for an excellent textual analysis of ‘Il superstite’ which includes a careful reading of Levi’s changes to Coleridge’s original text. Insana, L.,  Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation, and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

22 Alighieri, D.,  Commedia,  ed. Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi (Milan: Mondadori, 1991).  3 vols.  Inf. 33, 141, p. 1001.

23 Criterion D3, p. 272.

24 Shoah survivor Viktor Frankl claimed that logotherapy allowed him to find meaning and scope in life, even under the most drastic, dreadful, and tragic moments of the human experience. Both Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim used logotherapy extensively as a  psychoanalytical method of existential therapeutic healing. Their logotherapy was applied both as a ‘search for meaning,’ as well as the use of logos, ‘word’, to transfer the trauma of an experience into its narrative form, thus setting some therapeutic distance between the stressor and the patient. See Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992); Bettelheim, B., ‘Forward’ in Nyiszli, M., Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), pp. 8-21.