Remembering the Holocaust
Stories of Courage & Hope
For Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, Russell Bowles invites us to find out more about Lorenzo Perrone who saved the life of the famous author, Primo Levi.
Lorenzo Perrone, born in 1904, in Fossano, Italy, saved the life of the famous author, Primo Levi, when they were both in Auschwitz. Levi, a resident of Turin, had before the war, worked as a chemist specialising in paints and varnishes. In 1943, as soon as Italy was occupied by the Germans, Levi joined a partisan group in his native Piedmont. He was arrested in the roundup of December 13 1943, by the Republican Fascist militia and imprisoned in Aosta, a town 110km NNW of Turin, until January 20, 1944. He was then transferred to Fossoli camp and deported to Auschwitz on February 22, 1944. After he arrived he was sent to do slave labour in the I.G. Farben factory in the Monowitz camp, a sub-camp of Auschwitz where many significant companies made use of slave labour.
As a chemist, Levi was given a job in the synthetic rubber factory. One day, he was taken off his duties and assigned to a squad that was erecting a wall outside. Here in the summer of 1944 he met Perrone after hearing him speak in the same dialect as his own; they were both from the Piedmont region. Levi writes about Perrone in one of his books, ‘I met Lorenzo in June 1944, after a bombing that had torn up the big yard in which both of us were working. Lorenzo was not a prisoner like us; in fact he wasn’t a prisoner at all. Officially he was one of the voluntary civilian workers with which Nazi Germany swarmed, but his choice had been anything but voluntary. In 1939 he had been employed as a mason by an Italian firm that operated in France. The war had broken out and all the Italians in France had been interned, but then the Germans had arrived, reconstituted the firm, and transferred it part and parcel to Upper Silesia. Those workers, even though not militarized, lived like soldiers. They were stationed in a camp not far from ours, slept on cots, had Sundays off, one or two weeks of vacation, were paid in marks, could write and send money to Italy, and from Italy they were allowed to receive clothing and food packages.
Lorenzo did everything on his own. Two or three days after our meeting, he brought me an Alpine troop mess tin, full of soup (the aluminum type that holds over two quarts) and told me to bring it back empty before evening. From then on, there was always soup, sometimes accompanied by a slice of bread. He brought it to me every day for six months… Later Lorenzo found a way to take directly from his camp kitchen what was left in the cauldrons, but in order to do so he had to go into the kitchen on the sly at three o’clock in the morning when everyone was asleep.’
From the day they met, Perrone brought Levi food every day for half a year, until the end of December 1944. Then, with the front getting nearer, the foreign workers were sent home. The extra food, part of Perrone’s food ration, saved Levi’s life. Perrone also gave Levi a multi-patched vest to wear under his prisoner’s uniform to keep him warm. He also agreed to send postcards to a non-Jewish friend of Levi’s through which Levi’s mother, Esther, and sister, Anna Maria, were informed that he was alive. Levi’s sister and mother, who were in hiding in Italy, succeeded, through a chain of friends ending with Perrone, to send Levi a package of food, including chocolate, cookies, and powdered milk, as well as clothing. Perrone, an exceptional man, risked his life to save Levi. He did not expect any reward for what he did. He only agreed to have Levi arrange to fix his torn shoes at the camp’s workshop.
The last meeting in Auschwitz between the two, occurred one night after a heavy Allied bombardment. The blast had burst one of Perrone’s eardrums, and earth sprayed by the explosion had spewed sand and dirt into the bowl of soup he was bringing to Levi. When he gave him the food, Perrone apologized for the soup being dirty, but did not tell Levi what had happened to him, because he did not want his friend to feel indebted to him. Perrone reminded Levi that there was still a just world outside Auschwitz and that there were still human beings who were uncorrupted. Levi believed that he survived Auschwitz thanks to Perrone.
In an interview published in the Paris Review, Primo Levi described Lorenzo Perrone as “a sensitive man, almost illiterate but really a sort of saint….We almost never spoke. He was a silent man. He refused my thanks. He almost didn’t reply to my words. He just shrugged: Take the bread, take the sugar. Keep silent, you don’t need to speak”.
Levi told the interviewer that Perrone had been so impacted by what he had seen in Auschwitz that after the war he took to drinking, stopped working and lost his will to live. After the liberation, Primo Levi was in touch with Perrone, visiting him in Fossano. It was now Levi who tried to save Perrone – he arranged for him to be hospitalized and cured, but in vain. Levi said, “He was not a religious man, didn’t know the gospel, but instinctively tried to rescue people, not for pride, not for glory, but out of a good heart and out of human compassion. He asked me once in very laconic words: Why are we in the world if not to help each other?”.
Perrone died in 1952 of tuberculosis and alcohol. Levi named his two children after Lorenzo Perrone: his daughter, born in 1948, was called Lisa Lorenza; and his son, born in 1957, was called Renzo. Levi committed suicide in 1987. Lorenzo Perrone appears in Primo Levi’s autobiographical narratives: ‘If This is a Man’, ‘Moments of Reprieve’, ‘Lilit’; and the stories ‘The Events of the Summer’ and ‘Lorenzo’s Return’. In these writings he tells about the bricklayer from Fossano to whom he owed his survival.
On June 7, 1998, Yad Vashem recognized Lorenzo Perrone as Righteous Among the Nations.
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