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UConn celebrates Primo Levi

By Cindy Mindell

Primo Levi

Primo Levi

STORRS – A quarter-century after his passing, Italian-Jewish philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi is the subject of a year-long academic series, a collaboration between the University of Connecticut’s Department of Literatures, Cultures and Languages and its Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.
The program is organized by Dr. Philip Balma, who straddles the two academic foci, as both assistant professor of Italian Literary and Cultural Studies, and affiliated faculty member of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.
Balma credits a high-school teacher for inspiring his admiration for the Italian-Jewish philosopher. “I must acknowledge, first and foremost, the efforts of the late Carla Serram,” he says. “She was my literature professor in the Italian public school system in the 1980s in Florence, Italy, and she was the person who introduced me to Primo Levi’s first autobiographical book, If This Is a Man, also known in English translation as Survival in Auschwitz. Prof. Serra planted a seed that, many years later, has grown into a much larger initiative on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, on the flagship campus of UConn in Storrs.”
Last spring, Balma was reading Levi’s poetry on the Holocaust when he realized that 25 years had passed since the author’s death. “’Now more than ever,’ I thought, ‘it is time to honor and remember the life and works of Italy’s most widely celebrated Jewish artist of the 20th century,’” he recalls.
Launched in the fall, “UConn Remembers Primo Levi” was organized by Balma with guidance from Judaic Studies professors Stuart Miller and Jeffrey Shoulson. The program features three guest lecturers and several film screenings on the subject of Primo Levi’s life and the Shoah. The event is a collaboration between UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and the program in Italian Literary and Cultural Studies, and co-sponsored by the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (LCL), which houses the program in Italian Literary and Cultural Studies.
The organizers sought to bring to Storrs outside scholars who might otherwise not come into contact with the UConn community. Andrea Malaguti, assistant professor of Italian at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, gave the first lecture in fall 2012. Lecturers this semester include Sharon Portnoff, assistant professor of religious studies at Connecticut College, and Risa Sodi, Yale University Italian language program director.
Balma’s research focuses on literary and cinematic representations of Jewish life in contemporary Italy, most recently on the works of Hungarian-born, Italian-speaking novelist and Auschwitz survivor Edith Bruck. Since joining the UConn faculty in 2007, he has brought together his research interests and teaching “by seizing as many opportunities as I could to teach my students about the experiences of the Italkim, the Jews of the Italian rite,” he says. These efforts have led to the creation of a new undergraduate course, “Jewish Literature and Film in 20th-Century Italy,” which will be introduced during the 2013-2014 academic year.
The course will be cross-listed with Judaic Studies, making the program arguably the first in the U.S. to offer a course instructed in Italian, as opposed to English or Hebrew. Balma hopes to encourage colleagues in the LCL who are affiliated with the Hebrew and Judaic Studies section to follow suit, and eventually to offer similar undergraduate courses in German, French, and Spanish.
“UConn Remembers Primo Levi” is intended to achieve two goals, according to Balma. “First of all, to carry on the principal mission that defined most of Levi’s life, which was to never allow the world to forget, deny, minimize, or cloud the reality of the Shoah in any way,” he says. “Honoring Primo Levi’s achievements and engaging the study of his works is a way of honoring the millions who perished needlessly in the death camps,” a theme that informs the final lecture in the series, which coincides with the annual UConn Yom HaShoah convocation on April 8. “Beyond his efforts to document the Holocaust, however, we also want to pay homage to Primo Levi as a person, as a family man and an artist, and as the most critically and commercially successful Italian Jewish writer of all time,” Balma says. Risa Sodi’s April 8 lecture, “My Conversation with Primo Levi: Memory, Family, and the Shoah,” aims to bring Primo Levi into a more personal light.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

“UConn Remembers Primo Levi: After Auschwitz, Beyond Survival”
Thursday, March 7, 4 p.m.:  “Anguish, Storytelling and the Epic Poets in Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, Prof. Sharon Portnoff, Connecticut College, Babbidge Library, Class of 1947 Meeting Room

Monday, March 11, 6:30 p.m.: Screening: Kapò (1959), Babbidge Library, Video Theater 2

Wednesday, March 27, 7 p.m.: Screening: Primo Levi’s Journey / La strada di Levi (2006), Babbidge Library, Video Theater 2

Monday, April 8, 4 p.m.: Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day Convocation featuring “My Conversation with Primo Levi: Memory, Family, and the Shoah” by Dr. Risa Sodi, Yale University, Konover Auditorium

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