Faced with the complexity and specific nature of torture-related disorders, five associations working in the field of health and the defence of human rights decided to set up the Primo Levi Centre in 1995.

Today, three of them still sit on the Board of Directors. From the outset, the Primo Levi Centre relied on a founding team with experience acquired within AVRE (Association for Victims of Repression in Exile). When the Centre was set up, the international political context was extremely serious: the war in the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda and, shortly afterwards, the dark years of violence in Algeria. The proximity and scale of this violence, and the political contexts that made it possible, never ceased to challenge the founding bodies of the Primo Levi Centre. In addition, policies towards foreigners in France and Europe could not leave these professionals working with victims of torture and political violence indifferent. A climate of suspicion towards asylum seekers was rapidly taking hold. They were denied the right to work during the asylum procedure. Reception deteriorated. It was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain international protection.

Under these conditions, support for these people had to be part of a wider associative and political project. While it was up to the association to bear witness to the effects of torture and the deteriorating conditions in which exiles were received, it was up to the clinicians to commit to sharing their clinical experience with other professionals. From the outset, the Primo Levi Centre has been involved in exchanges and interventions with other professionals working with exiles, which led to the launch of the journal Mémoires in 1997 and the creation of a training centre in 2002. This was followed by the organisation of a first conference in 2003 and the publication of numerous manifestos and advocacy reports to alert public authorities to the need to take account of the effects of torture in the reception and care offered to exiles.

Primo Levi’s testimony

The often invisible suffering caused by torture is complex and long-lasting. It is difficult for people who have survived humiliating treatment designed to destroy them as human beings to express their suffering. Drawing on the experience it has gained in supporting refugees in France, the Primo Levi Centre intends to bear tireless witness to the effects of torture. This ambition led to the choice of the name Primo Levi, for its symbolic value, synonymous with the refusal of inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment. For the strength of its historical testimony, which helped to establish the need for the Primo Levi Centre’s actions. The association benefited from the support and agreement of Mrs Lucia Levi, who died in 2009, to use her husband’s name. Since his death in 1987, Primo Levi’s fame has continued to grow in Italy, where he is now recognised as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and elsewhere in the world, where his books, translated into many languages, have made him the most famous survivor of Auschwitz.

“I survived, I bore witness”.

Primo Levi was born in Turin in July 1919 into a family of Piedmontese Jews originally from Spain. The beautiful house in which he was born was to be his home from the time he returned from the camps until his sudden death on 11 April 1987. He studied at the Azegli grammar school, where he was more interested in science than literature. He took up mountain sports and, despite the racial laws instituted under Mussolini, entered university, brilliantly defending his chemistry thesis in 1941. As soon as he started working, he went to the Val d’Aoste to join the Resistance. Denounced and arrested on 13 December 1943, he was interned near Modena in central Italy. In February 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. He was one of the 7,500 Italian Jews deported and one of the 88 who returned to their homeland.

Surviving Auschwitz

“I was lucky enough not to be deported to Auschwitz until 1944, when the German government, because of the growing labour shortage, had already decided to extend the average life expectancy of the prisoners to be eliminated…”. These are the opening lines of his seminal book Si c’est un homme, which he had already “written, if not in deed, then at least in intention and thought back in his Lager days”. It would take two more chances for him to make the transition from the huge cohort of shipwrecked prisoners to the skeletal group of survivors: the chance to work as a chemist in the Buna factory and, perhaps even more importantly, the chance to have contracted scarlet fever when, faced with the Russian advance, the SS left the camp with 58,000 prisoners – very few of whom would survive – leaving the sickest behind. That was on 27 January 1945. Eight months and 23 days later, at the end of a fabulous wandering through Eastern Europe that he recounted in La Trêve, Primo Levi landed in Turin where he found his family, who had been spared.

A desire to bear witness

And, not without difficulty, life resumed. Primo Levi found a job as a chemist and became manager of a paint company. He married, had two children and many friends. He spoke, constantly recounting what he had seen, on behalf of all those who could no longer speak and who had been alone at the end of the horror. Very quickly, in disorder, he wrote as he had thought in the camp, because “the need to tell others, to involve others, had acquired in us, both before and after our liberation, the violence of an immediate impulse, as imperative as other elementary needs”. However, in the post-war political and literary climate, the major publishers shied away. Se questo é un Uomo – If it’s a Man – was only published in 1947 by a small publisher, De Silva, in 2,000 copies. La Trêve, published in April 1963, was immediately more successful.

His work and family life left him little time for writing. Nevertheless, little by little, his work began to be recognised, translated and brought to the stage. Primo Levi was to continue and expand it. He successively published Le Système périodique (1975), a portrait of his ancestors and the Jewish community in Piedmont; La Clef à molette (1978), a tête-à-tête between a metalworker and a chemist; Lilith (1978), a tribute to his benefactor Lorenzo Perrone; and Maintenant ou Jamais (1982), the terrible story of a group of Jewish partisans in occupied Poland. In Les Naufragés et les Rescapés, Primo Levi takes up the essential themes of his analysis of the extermination camps. Other books followed, a dozen in all, works of fiction and poems, not all of which have yet been translated into French.

Having retired, Primo Levi satisfied – in part – his passion for study. “His appetite for culture was insatiable and always on the alert. It ranged from literature – in four or five different languages – to science, modern and ancient history, Jewish culture and philology. His fame imposed a multitude of obligations on him, which he tried to select and which sometimes prevented him from doing what he most wanted to do. Thus his warning was borne out: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of that witness” (Letter in French to Jean Samuel, April 1946). Primo Levi carried this burden to the end, never ceasing to recall “what was”, answering the same questions about causes and responsibilities with the rigour of a chemist. Right to the end, he fought against the resurgence of fascism and denial. Right up to the end, he faced his family and editorial obligations, operations and illness. On the eve of his death (which took place on 11 April 1987 in Turin), he discussed with Ferdinando Camon the possibility of publishing his great book Les Naufragés et les Rescapés with Gallimard. He writes a final Histoire Naturelle for La Stampa and says to a friend: “Do you think I’m depressed? I don’t think you’re depressed. I survived, I told the story, I bore witness”.

Founding associations

The Primo Levi Centre was set up by a number of associations working in the field of health and the defence of human rights: the French section of Amnesty International, Médecins du Monde, Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-France), Juristes sans frontières and Trêve, an association of professionals working in the field of care for victims of torture and political violence.