If Not Now, When?

Written by Primo Levi William Weaver (trans.)
Review by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Primo Levi’s novel, If Not Now, When?, was first translated from the Italian in 1983. Levi has written several novels chronicling Jewish experiences during the Holocaust. He lived through WWII, at times fighting with partisans against the Germans, and was eventually arrested and taken to Auschwitz. His experiences there formed him as a writer; he is well-known and highly respected in his native Italy, joining the ranks of such writers as Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt.

In this story, we find a Europe at the end of the war, devastated and disorganized. Rumors of Allied victory fill the air, yet still German soldiers arrest and shoot people on sight, unaware of their impending defeat. Mendel, a watchmaker, meets Leonid, a teen-aged boy who has escaped from Auschwitz. They form a friendship of sorts as they travel behind German lines, sabotaging the Germans and freeing prisoners.

The pace of the novel is slow, allowing room enough to bring up the questions of evil in the world, how to live well if lucky enough to survive, God, and the deepest stirrings of the human soul. The writing is clean, clear and moving. This is a powerful book that deserves a wider audience.