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The bricklayer who saved Primo Levi but went down himself. In 'A man of few words', Carlo Greppi gives silent Lorenzo a face

One of the most famous people to survive Auschwitz, writer Primo Levi, and a simple bricklayer who made sure that he survived - with such protagonists, an author has a strong subject on his hands. That can't go wrong, you would think.

Norse mason

He had just graduated as a chemist when Primo Levi, twenty-four years old and Jewish, was rounded up and deported to Auschwitz III-Monowitz, the labour camp that was still under construction. He arrived there in early 1944, on that "planet full of ghosts", where nothing lived "except machines and slaves, and the former more than the latter". The small, petite Italian was put to work in construction. That is how he met Lorenzo Perrone, a lonely, taciturn, gruff bricklayer, with a past full of drink and violence.

This very compatriot, a fellow Piedmontese even, helped Levi survive Auschwitz.

At the risk of his life and without any explanation, Lorenzo provided his helper with a bowl of soup every day for six months, and some bread if possible. He also sent cards to the home front on Primo's behalf to let them know he was still alive. It was not just the extra food that was vital to Primo, but above all the hopeful knowledge that evil did not infect everything and everyone. Without Lorenzo, the postwar world would never have come to know Primo Levi as one of the most finely crafted writers on the Holocaust.

Tragic downfall

In the biography A man of few words Carlo Greppi reconstructs Lorenzo's life's journey, his motivations and the friendship between the two men. A relationship that ends with the mason's tragic demise. For while Levi flourished after the war (he married, named his two children after his saviour and made a name for himself as a writer), Lorenzo actually sank into a deep pit. He had seen what man was capable of, and because his own good role had been played out, life was no longer worth living for him. Levi's attempts to help him were in vain. Lorenzo died in 1952, aged forty-eight, after a poor, wandering existence and drunken nights in ditches.

A dyke of drama. It is a pity, then, that Lorenzo's extraordinary life story is pushed too much into the background by the scientific content of this biography. The emphatic naming of facts, assumptions and gaps and Greppi's complex sentences regularly put the author between the main characters and the reader.

If only the passages in which the reader can experience Lorenzo and Primo's story had been more numerous. For this interesting history and Greppi's meticulous labour would have deserved a more compelling ending.

Carlo Greppi, A man of few words. The extraordinary story of Lorenzo Perrone who saved Primo Levi's life in Auschwitz (368 p.)Translated from the Italian by Hilda Schraa
Meulenhoff, €24.99

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A Quattro Mani

Photographer Marc Brester and journalist Vivian de Gier can read and write with each other - literally. As partners in crime, they travel the world for various media, for reviews of the finest literature and personal interviews with the writers who matter. Ahead of the troops and beyond the delusion of the day.View Author posts

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