Saturday, September 22, 2007

Troubles don't come at a gallop, like the Huns ...

"Troubles don't come at a gallop, like the Huns, but arrive quietly, stealthily, like epidemics." The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (Sphere Books, 1986)

A chemist by training and trade, Primo Levi, an Italian Jew born in 1919 and only 20 when WWII began, appears, at first glance, an unlikely hero of the Holocaust. Timid by nature, afraid of much around him, cerebral and introverted, he survived Auschwitz to write beautifully written, harrowing memoirs of his experiences there.

In 1987, the man described by friends as the "the most serene person in the world" was dead, an apparent suicide. His friends believed, after the initial shock and horror of that news, that he was still plagued by what he had seen and experienced during the war. This poignant article sums up the response to his death.

Some of that sense of horror is present in these series of essays, each chapter named for one of the 21 elements on the periodic table. Certain essays fascinate more than others and are more effective than the two or three fiction pieces in the book. They are told in a more or less chronological fashion from Levi's pre-war experiences as a student of chemistry in Turin, Italy to his internment at Auschwitz during the latter part of the war to his post-war career as a chemist in Italy.

The ghosts of those swallowed up, or ruined, by the war remain with him: Sandro, his caustic fellow chemistry student and part time shepherd, with whom Levi discovers the Italian countryside in "Iron" is murdered by the Fascists and left to rot by the side of the road; the customer who invents fantastic lies about his role in the Resistance in "Uranium" inspires sympathy rather than disdain in Levi and the reader; the co-workers of a nickel mine in 1942 where "all fifty of the mine's inhabitants had reacted on each other" in a more or less salacious manner in "Nickel", reinforce the belief that despite all traumas and struggles, human desires will not be repressed.

Primo is corralled by the rapacious. amoral Giulia, a lab co-worker in 1942, into riding her on his bicycle to her future in-laws who have summarily dismissed the girl so that she may argue them out of their rejection with her sharp tongue in the essay "Phosphorus". Primo, captivated and obviously afraid of Giulia, quickly complies.

"Gold" details a bittersweet period during the war where seven friends from Turin (his birthplace) live in Milan, write poetry, fall in love, face freezing weather and food rationing, until some are captured and interrogated by inept Fascists.

After the war, Levi works in a lab analyzing various substances for customers. "Arsenic" tells the tale of a cobbler, one of Levi's customers, who suspects that a fellow cobbler is trying to poison him by adding arsenic to his sugar because he fears his competition. The suspicious cobbler is correct, Levi determines.

The most difficult chapter to read is "Vanadium" towards the end of the book which finds Levi after the war, working as a chemist again who encounters, during his business dealings as a chemist, the name of a certain Muller, whom he is corresponding with regarding a shipment of vanadium to his company. Vanadium is a greyish silvery metal, used as an additive to strengthen steels.

Levi recognizes Muller as a senior German bureaucrat, a Nazi, who worked for IG-Farben, an enormous pharmaceutical company that controlled the Buna-Monowitz lab at Auschwitz and under whom Levi worked as a slave-labourer. The man is still employed by IG-Farben at the time.

Levi tries to ascertain if it is the same man. They correspond and Herr Muller confirms his identity, expresses admiration for Levi even saying that he detects a certain "Christian" forgiveness in Levi's memoirs. Let us remember that Levi is a Jew and what he has suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Mr. Muller also expresses the view that the lab employed the Jews to "protect" them, indeed, that the lab was expressly built to do so. He is eager to meet Levi, now a universally acclaimed writer, and claims to remember "helping" Levi and that he felt a strong attachment to him when he was a prisoner.

Levi has two memories of the man: firstly, one time Muller got him a pair of shoes and, secondly, that he had asked Levi in Auschwitz for no particular reason, "Why are you so perturbed?" to which Levi silently replied, "This man has no clue what is going on." This is the extent of the attachment as far as Levi is concerned.

Levi tells Muller by letter that he is willing to forgive where there is repentance. He senses none, only evasiveness about the culpability of the Germans, rationalizations and regret but not true repentance. In response, the man calls, agitated and speaking quickly in German, which Primo barely understands, and begs for a meeting in a few weeks time.

Levi reluctantly agrees only to be informed by Muller's wife that the man has died 8 days later. In hindsight, one is left with the impression that those who were tortured and imprisoned were not the only ones who carried a burden of unwanted memories.

A partial list of books about the Holocaust by Primo Levi :
If This Is a Man
The Drowned and the Saved

No comments: