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New Voices on Primo Levi

25Oct4:00 pm6:00 amNew Voices on Primo Levi4:00 pm - 6:00 am(GMT+00:00) Primo Levi ForumPrimo Levi Forum

Event Details

An International Symposium on the Occasion pf Primo Levi’s 90th Anniversary

Concert & Round Table

Sunday, October 25, 2009. Center for Jewish History, CUNY Graduate Center, NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò. Admission: Free


From Poetry to Music: Primo Levi and Tzvi Avni

Greetings: Consul General of Italy Francesco Maria Talò, Consul General of Israel Asaf Shariv, Israel Ambassador at the UN Gabriela Shalev.

Introduction: Aoibheann Sweeney (Center for the Humanities, CUNY Graduate Center); Stefano Albertini (Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marim˜ New York University), Mustapha Tlili (NYU Center for Dialogues-Islamic World-U.S.-the West)

Opening remarks: Andrew Viterbi (University of California, San Diego)

If This Is a Man, for piano and soprano. Five poems by Primo Levi set to music by Tzvi Avni. Featuring: Sharon Rostorf-Zamir (soprano) and Rainer Ambrust (piano).

“Avni’s vivid settings recalled Mahler and Shostakovich, always responsive to the poem’s meditation on inhumanity, based on Levi’s Holocaust experiences. The five songs are structured as a set, the steady march like pulse of the first two intensifying to the almost brutal cataclysmic third song about destruction, giving way via a bleak fourth song to a more optimistic lyrical celebration of compassion.”
From a review by Malcom MIller, Jewish Music Institute of London, November 2008

Post-concert talk: Samuel Adler (Juilliard School of Music) in conversation with Tzvi Avni

Italian kosher gourmet delicacies by San Domenico, New York


About our speakers and performers
Andrew J. Viterbi’s best known contribution to science is the Viterbi Algorithm, which revolutionized cellular technology. Prof. Andrew Viterbi spent equal portions of his career in industry and academia (UCLA, UCSD, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology). The recipient of seven honorary doctorates and awards, Prof. Viterbi received the Franklin Medal, the Millennium Laureate Award, and the National Medal of Science from the President of the United States. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. Born in Bergamo, Italy, Prof. Viterbi came to the United States in 1939 as his family fled Mussolini’s anti-Jewish laws. He will remember Primo Levi as friend and family.

Tzvi Avni is one of Israel’s foremost composers today. Born in 1927 in Saarbrucken, Germany, Avni immigrated to Israel as a child in 1935 to escape the Nazi persecution, and his experience living alongside Arab villages and families in his youth influenced his Arabic-Jewish musical synthesis in his early works of the 40s and 50s. He evolved a modernist style after working at the Princeton Electronic Music Center and at Tanglewood in the 1960s, where he encountered the European and American avant-garde, and figures like Copland, Lukas Foss and Xenakis. In 1998 he wrote a song cycle for soprano and orchestra based on If This Is a Man and other poems by Primo Levi. He received the prestigious Israel Prize (2001).

Samuel Adler is Head of the Composition Department at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, and a member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music. He was born in Mannheim, Germany, and came to the United States in 1939. Prof. Adler studied at Boston University and Harvard University. His teachers were Walter Piston, Paul Hindemith, and Aaron Copland. A composer of considerable repute, in 2003 he was awarded the Aaron Copland Award for lifetime achievement in Composition and Teaching. He is the author of Sight-Singing and Study of Orchestration.

Sharon Rostorf-Zamir studied in Venice with Sherman Lowe and she has been for five seasons the principal soloist with the Frankfurt Opera. In 2004, Mrs. Rostorf-Zamir made her New York City Opera debut as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” to high critical acclaim. She regularly appears with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, and has also worked with conductors such as Kurt Masur, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Julius Rudel, Gabor Hollerung, David Stern, Dan Ettinger, and many others. Recently, she has performed in Händel’s “Amadigi di Gaula” and “Rodrigo” at the Händel Festspiele in Halle, Germany, and recorded both operas with Al Ayre Español for Naïve. She has also recorded Händel’s “Floridante” with the Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis, for Deutsche Gramophon/Archiv. She has interpreted the role of Agilea in Händel’s “Teseo” with the Lautten Compagney in Potsdam, Bayreuth, London and Oxford. This production was released on DVD by Arthaus. She has recorded the rare German-language version of Händel’s “Messiah” with the same ensemble. Her solo Schumann disc with renowned Israeli pianist Jonathan Zak was released on Romeo Records in 2007.

Rainer Armbrust was born in Germany and received his musical education from the State’s Academy in Karlsruhe. An award-winning pianist, he is highly appreciated as accompanist and opera coach. In 1989 Mr. Armbrust started his career as a conductor at the State’s Opera in Karlsruhe where he made his debut leading Lehár’s Land of Smiles. He gained experience interpreting contemporary music when he was assistant to Yves Prin for the creation of the opera “Micromégas“ by French composer Paul Méfano. In 1998 he made his debut in China leading an opera concert at the Century Theatre in Beijing. Since 1999 he has been associated with the Company of Opera International in Washington D.C. where he was invited for the “Tosca“ and “Falstaff“ productions. In 2002 Rainer Armbrust joined the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth where he worked with Christian Thielemann, Pierre Boulez, Adam Fischer, Marc Albrecht, and Peter Schneider. In 2005 he prepared the first Israeli production of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck“ for the New Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, together with Music Director Asher Fisch. He returned to Tel Aviv for Israel’s first “Rosenkavalier“ and Israeli Opera’s productions of “Fidelio”, “Magic Flute“ and “Ariadne auf Naxos”. Since January 2007 Rainer Armbrust has been working for the Teatro Sao Carlos in Lisbon and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy.


New York University, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò | 24 West 12th Street

5:00 pm | Primo Levi: Anthropologist of Normality
Opening remarks: Dario Disegni (Compagnia di San Paolo and Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi, Turin). Ernesto Ferrero (author and director of the Turin International Book Fair)

In this rare New York appearance, Ernesto Ferrero, longtime editor of Levi’s work at Einaudi, offers new insight into Levi’s intellectual and moral concerns and visions:

“The reception of Primo Levi’s work has been characterized, in Italy and abroad, by serious misunderstandings. In the United States, If This Is a Man was published in 1961 by Collier Books with a different, and misleading title: Survival in Auschwitz. A title that makes it sound like a war report, which emphasizes the protagonist’s trials and tribulations and concludes with a happy ending. Apart from fact that the book ends with a scene of death and desolation, the new title avoids the question implied by the whole book: Is this a man? The German, the good family man who belongs to the most civilized country in Europe, the country which produced Bach and Goethe, yet plans the extermination with bureaucratic rigor? Is it the Jewish prisoner who becomes a kapo, collaborating to gain a few more days of life? Was Auschwitz an accident in history, and as such cannot be replicated? But in fact it has been replicated (let’s think of Soviet gulags, Cambodia, Chile, Argentina, Bosnia, Congo-Zaire, or Sudan). Or is Auschwitz the rule rather than the exception, a modality imprinted in the human DNA, a revelation of a deviant gene ready to unleash the metastasis, the sadistic pleasure described by Sigmund Freud? These are the questions that Levi tried to answer for forty years and the burden he carried on his shoulders; who could have shared his anguish? Not the nihilists, such as Cioran, who would just shrug and say that they already knew all of this. Not the Marxists, who were already tormented by the doubt that between social project and human biology there might be some gap that could never be filled. Not the post-war philosophers, who were elegant, subtle, fastidious, but not likely to test themselves with such fundamental questions (by Ernesto Ferrero).


7:00 pm | Levi, Agamben, and the Era of Witness

Marianne Hirsch (Columbia University), Chair and moderator, Debarati Sanyal (University of California, Berkeley), Thomas Trezise (Princeton University), Manuela Consonni (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

In his essay on “Shame,” Primo Levi wrote: “I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. …We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it, or have returned mute, but they are the ‘Musulmann,’ the submerged, the complete witnesses. We speak in their stead, by proxy.” In Giorgio Agamben’s reading, Levi’s mute witnesses of the concentration and extermination camps, define the impossibility of bearing witness to what Agamben insists on simply calling “Auschwitz.” In addition, they also become the exemplars of his notion of “bare life,” the basis for a “new ethics” and a new politics based on the concentration camp as permanent “state of exception.” The speakers in this session will challenge what they deem to be Agamben’s hyperbolic, ahistorical and sacralizing reading of Levi’s writings about the camps. They will question his allegorical deployment of the gray zone as a perpetual and transhistorical site of complicity between victims and executioners. Instead, they will propose that we read of Levi within the historical context he so carefully laid out and to which he felt such enormous responsibility.


CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York City

1:30 – 4:00 pm | Film screening
(in collaboration with RAI Corporation and RAI Teche)

La bella addormentata nel frigo, RAI, 1961 (Sleeping beauty in the fridge)
Primo Levi in TV, 1958-1974, RAI, 1998
Il filo del lavoro, RAI, 1985 (The thread of labor)


5:00 pm | Quest and Judgment: Reading Primo Levi in German

Franco Baldasso (New York University), Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg (Brown University), Ernestine Bradley (The New School), Ernesto Ferrero (author and former editor in chief of the Einaudi publishing house)

In a letter to his German translator, Primo Levi claimed that he wrote If This Is a Man with the Germans in mind as his audience. His first testimonial book is only the initial step in Levi’s relationship vis-à-vis the Germans and their culture—a relationship strongly linked to his personal experiences at and beyond Auschwitz. Understanding the Germans, both bystanders and Nazi perpetrators, is one of Levi’s main themes. This roundtable will explore that relationship as seen in his works, from If This Is a Man to the final chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, which not by chance he titled “Letters from Germans.” It will address such issues as the problem of judgment in Levi’s works; his personal connections with German intellectuals and survivors, from Jean Améry to Hety Schmitt-Maas, and their contributions to the development of his thought; and his books’ reception in the context of the Germans’ efforts to confront their past.

coffee break


8:00 pm | In Arabic and Farsi: The Universality of Suffering
Boualem Sansal (author, The German Mujahid, Algeria); Abraham Radkin (Aladdin Project, France); Salem Joubran (writer; translator of If This Is a Man) (invited); Clifford Chanin (The Legacy Project, co-editor of Blooming through the Ashes); Moderator: Talal Asad (CUNY Graduate Center); Respondent: Ammiel Alcalay (CUNY Graduate Center)

The recently published Arabic and Farsi translations of If This Is a Man open a new world of references and possible readings of Primo Levi’s books and pose a new challenge to the appreciation of Levi’s humanism. In which ways is his voice relevant to an Arabic- and Farsi- speaking readership And does this new world of readers test the universality of Levi’s understanding of suffering and of human nature? As translations of his other works are planned in the same languages, a panel of scholars, editors, and writers will discuss the circumstances in which the book was published and the responses in the Arab and Persian worlds to Levi’s writings as a testimony of history and a reflection on the possibility of evil. Inevitably destined to enter the broader discourse on the Middle East, this new life of a book whose publishing history has not been easy in any language, has a strong potential to shed new light on its author and open untapped perspectives of dialogue and exchange. Held on the occasion of the publication of the translations of If This Is a Man into Arabic (tr. by Salim Jubran) and Farsi (tr. by Roya Toloui) – (



The Cahnman Foundation, Consulate General of Italy, Italian Cultural Institute, Offices of Academic and Cultural Affairs of the Consulate General of Israel, Consulate General of Germany, Alliance Française, Regione Piemonte

The reception is sponsored by: Tony May and San Domenico, New York with contributions in kind from: YotvataSmeraldina CorporationSentieri Ebraici Fine Wines, Bottarga Sardegna, Lavazza USA. We thank Rav Umberto Piperno for the supervision and advice.

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