Born on Sunday 11th September 1904 in Fossano, a town in the province of Cuneo, Lorenzo Perrone was the second son of a large family living in Burgué, an old village of bricklayers, tinsmiths and fishermen: his parents - Giuseppe and Giovanna Tallone - lived off old irons and rags, even though they were officially a “bricklayer” and a “worker”. He had three brothers, Giovanni, Michele and Secondo, and two sisters, Giovanna and Caterina.
He only attended the first three years of primary school and, although he had been christened, he was not religious nor did he know the Gospel; he found it hard to write and started working at the age of ten. After the rise of fascism, although he was not among antifascists who operated in the territory according to the regime, he was certainly hostile to it, even though he was inconspicuous. In 1924-25, at the age of nineteen, he served in the military as a bersagliere with the 7th Regiment in Brescia. Then, like many other bricklayers, he became a border worker, often staying away from Italy. In the 1930s, starting in 1935 or 1936, he consistently crossed the Alps - to Côte d’Azur or other towns in southwestern France - to work, even crossing the border illegally with his older brother Giovanni, on smuggling passes. They both drank a lot.
In June 1940, when Fascist Italy entered the Second World War, Lorenzo Perrone was just across the Alps: he was one of those thousands - no less than 8,500 - who were imprisoned, and he was freed after a few days in jail: in early July he was already in Fossano, at the employment office, applying for unemployment benefits. Going back to France to work would be more difficult from that moment on. However, in 1942 an opportunity came to leave for Poland as a volunteer.
On 17th April 1942, employed by the company Beotti in Piacenza as part of a German-Italian agreement, he arrived on the outskirts of Auschwitz, where he would work at “Buna”, founded in October of that year aimed at producing synthetic rubber, synthetic petrol and dyes and other coal by-products. He specifically arrived at Leonhard Haag Camp, the Lager I where Italians stayed who, unlike prisoners, maintained their identity, with documents and with a salary. It is almost certain that he had no idea about where he was going, namely to Auschwitz III, which simply appears as “Auschwitz” in industrial documents, initially considered as a satellite of Auschwitz I and of the immense Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Officially becoming Auschwitz III in December 1943 by order of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, the imposing presence of Buna-Werke plants built by I.G. Farben in November 1944 would make Konzentrazionslager a self-contained concentration camp (KL Monowitz) the size of a city, on which most of the complex sub-camps would depend, covering an area of hundreds of square kilometres, approximately forty of which were “camp grounds”.
In June 1944, Lorenzo Perrone met one of the “slaves of the slaves”: Primo Levi. And he had no hesitation. Running an immense risk, namely to end up on the other side of the fence in his turn, Perrone supplied extra litres of soup to Primo Levi and his friend Alberto Dalla Volta every day for six months.
At “Suiss” (as he called Auschwitz), Lorenzo Perron did not simply help two young men with their vital and basic needs, he went further. He acted three times as a frontman, managing to get news to Levi’s family in Italy through his non-Jewish friend Bianca Guidetti Serra; and managing to get a reply and a parcel of food and clothing to him. Out of the three factors of salvation Levi would insist on throughout his work, namely prevarication, skill and luck, the latter is thus mainly embodied in Perrone, literally his “stroke of luck”.
And so it happened that Levi, who in the meantime had entered the chemistry laboratory - i.e. in the warmth - with the onset of winter, was saved. His last piece of luck was to fall ill with scarlet fever in January, a few days before the arrival of the Red Army, narrowly avoiding the death march in which his friend Alberto lost his life. By that time, Perrone had already taken the road back, after bringing him soup one last time, despite having a perforated eardrum due to a bombing. The last certificate of payment was dated 15th January 1945.
When he arrived in Italy, Perrone went to Turin to tell Levi’s mother and sister that, in all probability, his friend Primo had not made it. He did not want anything, not even money for a train ticket. He said, on the contrary, that by then he was practically at home; and he marched even the last sixty kilometres. About his friend’s fate, however, he was wrong.
After a “labyrinthine itinerary” in Central and Eastern Europe, which he would recount in The Truce, Levi as well arrived in Turin on 19th October 1945. And he immediately looked for him: they certainly met for the first time, both free, by 3rd November.
The two often met after the war. It was on one of those occasions that Levi discovered that in Auschwitz his friend from Fossano had not only taken care of him, as he was to reveal in Lorenzo’s Return, published in 1981 in his collection Moments of Reprieve.
Down there he helped not only me. He had other protégés, Italian and not, but he had thought it right not to tell me about it: we are in the world to do good, not to boast about it. In “Suiss” he had been a rich man, at least compared to us, and had been able to help us, but now it was over, he had no more opportunities.
In 1948, Primo Levi named his eldest daughter Lisa Lorenza, to pay tribute to his bricklayer friend. In the meantime, they went to the tavern together, they wrote to each other, but while Levi began to live, there was nothing for Perrone to do. He simply did not want to be in the world any more. He still drank, and much more than before. He fell ill and already in 1948 his situation was dramatic, as a letter he wrote to his friend Primo at Christmas reveals:
Dear Mr Primo,
I answer your letter and I was very pleased to hear that you still remember me and it is only I who cannot remember you because when one is poor one will always be poor but this year I have been rich in health but you know what my illness is like when I touch the winter and it is always a bit of bronchitis and I keep it until I die. I was very pleased to hear that two months ago your wife had a baby girl and the greatest pleasure of the gift that you can give me was to have given her the name of Lisa Lorenza so that she will also bear my name but I hope, thanking the Lord, that she will not have to bear the suffering that I have brought in my life.
He eventually contracted tuberculosis and began six months of comings and goings between admissions and discharges from the hospital in nearby Savigliano, until he was at the end of his life. At around 7 p.m. on Wednesday 30th April 1952, pierced by the pain of living and the need to never do it again, Lorenzo Perrone, the man who had saved Primo Levi in Auschwitz, died.
His body arrived in Borgo Vecchio, and many people came, including, in the front row, Levi, with his wife and probably Lisa Lorenza. At the funeral, Perrone’s five brothers and two sisters watched in silence as he laid flowers on the open coffin of his friend Lorenzo. The chemist and witness, who had already published If This is a Man in 1947 De Silva first edition and would become famous much later, wore a white sweater.
Basically forgotten for decades despite the fact that Levi would write and speak about him on numerous other occasions, and until the last months of his life, Lorenzo Perrone, the “man of few words” who had saved him, would become a Righteous Among the Nations almost half a century later: he was awarded this prestigious recognition by Yad Vashem on 29th July 1998, with a ceremony held in Alba, 35 kilometres from Fossano, on Wednesday 3rd February 1999.
Primo Levi’s second son, Renzo, who was named still in memory of his friend in 1957, paid tribute to him when the recognition was awarded to him:
No one deserved this recognition more than he does, because at the risk of his life and with severe personal injury he helped our dear one and many others to survive. Perhaps he would have welcomed this ceremony with his sad smile, convinced that what he had done was only his duty: a lonely and profoundly good man scarred to death by that terrible experience.
A plaque in Viale delle Alpi in Fossano was subsequently dedicated to Lorenzo Perrone, affixed in 2004 at the behest of the then mayor, Beppe Manfredi, and in 2023 his biography was published: Un uomo di poche parole. Storia di Lorenzo, che salvò Primo (Laterza), currently being translated into several other languages.
The words written by Primo Levi to recall him in If This is a Man, since 1947 first edition, when his friend Lorenzo was still alive, still resonate today as a hymn to humanity that, despite everything, managed to survive. And they are a sort of antidote to the “contagion of evil” that Levi would probe in the chapter “The Grey Zone” of The Drowned and the Saved:
However much sense there may be in wanting to specify the causes for which precisely my life, among thousands of other equivalent ones, has been able to stand the test, I believe that it is to Lorenzo that I owe being alive today; and not so much for his material help, as for having constantly reminded me, by his presence, by his plain and easy way of being good, that a just world outside of our own still existed, something and someone still pure and whole, uncorrupted and untamed, foreign to hatred and fear; something very ill-defined, a remote possibility of good, for which he nevertheless set out to preserve himself. [...] Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of denial. Thanks to Lorenzo it happened that I did not forget that I myself was a man.
Carlo Greppi, historian and writer
Gardens that honour Lorenzo Perrone
Lorenzo Perrone is honoured in the Gardens of Marina di Campo - Secondary school of Marina di Campo e Yad Vashem.