, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 76–84 | Cite as

Levi’s Auschwitz and Dante’s Hell

Culture and Society


On reading Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir If This is a Man, one is immediately struck by its literary quality, and especially its generous use of Dante’s Inferno, both of which point to the more general problem of Holocaust witnessing. This paper focuses on Levi’s reasons for using Dante’s poem in particular to communicate his experience. Levi’s choice of Inferno is pointed, not only because of the obvious trope of existence in Hell, but also because Levi conceived of Auschwitz as an experiment designed to destroy the “human,” created in part, at least in the West, by Dante’s poem. What I will be suggesting is that Levi emphasizes the distinctions between his and Dante’s experiences by including in his conversation with Dante’s Inferno (paradoxically) his rejection of that conversation. There may or may not be something “human” which persists after Auschwitz, and the only way to ask this question, without preconceiving an answer, is to dramatize silence. The resultant ambiguity urges readers to, as Levi puts it, “participate in” the events described and/or dramatized.


Levi Dante Imagination Experience Language 

Further Reading

  1. Epstein, L. 1988. Writing about the holocaust. In B. Lang (Ed.), Writing and the holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier.Google Scholar
  2. Farrow, S. (Ed.). 1990. Reason and light: essays on Primo Levi. Western Societies Program. Occasional Paper No. 25. Center for International Studies. New York: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Felman, S., & Dori Laub, M. D. 1992. Testimony: crises of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis, and history. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Hawkins, P. S. 1999. Crossing over: Dante and pilgrimage. Dante’s testaments: essays in scriptural imagination. Reading medieval literature series. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Levi, P. 1989. Se questo è un uomo. Torino, Italy: Einaudi (SQ) Postfazione di Cesare Segre.Google Scholar
  6. Levi, P. 1996. Survival in Auschwitz: the Nazi assault on humanity. New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster (SA) Translated by Stuart Woolf.Google Scholar
  7. Sodi, R. B. 1990. A Dante of our time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz. American University Studies. Series II: romance languages and literature (vol. 134). New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Religious StudiesConnecticut CollegeBox 5566, New LondonUSA

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