The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi, Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books, 1984, 233pp, ISBN 0-8052-3929-4.

reviewed by Dr. William B. Lindsey

In the deluge of printed matter which competes today for our time and attention as well as our dollars, one is required to use all the selective skills at his disposal to discriminate and thereby eliminate as much chaff from the grain as is possible. Even then, it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever be able to read all that which one might consider worthy of one's time.

One of the selective criteria, of course, is whether the author knows whereof he writes. On this point, Primo Levi is certainly no late-comer, as are numerous others in the present glittering array of professional "Holocaustorians." His initial opus, If This Is A Man (1959), fits the general pattern of writing of this type and this period. It has a shaky, often imperceptible skeleton of autobiographical fact heavily clothed with the grossest and often the most shameless fiction posing as fact. At a time when a gullible, German-hating, sensation-hungry, grossly-misinformed public was eager to believe that every German concentration camp was erected to kill Jews, his first book was one of those effective, inundative ficational diatribes which reassured the uncertain and helped stampede the mesmerized herd into the inevitability of the post-war dismemberment of Central Europe.

But as I say, some of Levi's words are true. He is an Italian Jew, and was trained as a chemist ("summa cum laude," he tells us in the section entitled "Nickel"). As any self-respecting "lover of freedom" would do, he joined the (communist) underground in the Piedmont and was finally caught and delivered to the Germans. Instead of shooting him on the spot ("Gold"), the recognized and sanctioned penalty to which non-uniformed guerrillas were subject in military law, the labor-short Germans shipped him off to the Auschwitz complex in 1944 (prisoner No. 174517) where, he reveals, he eventually worked in the I.G. Farbenindustrie Monowitz industrial laboratory ("Cerium") which supported the huge German effort to manufacture sorely needed synthetic gasoline and rubber. When the Germans were forced to evacuate the Auschwitz area, Levi was one of those who chose, or was chosen, to remain with those unable to be evacuated-those who were to be captured or "liberated" by the Russians. (Some inmates apparently preferred death to such "liberation.") After "liberation," Levi remained for quite some time either willingly or-as he now states-because of a Russian "bureaucratic snarl- up," traveling in Poland and Russia before returning to Italy to resume activities as a chemist ("Chromium"), apparently in an Italian varnish firm.

An inquiring mind will at this point, I believe wonder why, if the Germans intended to kill all Jews, Primo Levi was spared? He had, after all, been caught red-handed as a communist partisan. He was a Jewish intellectual. He knew of the "exterminations" going on at Auschwitz. Any one of those categories, according to Exterminationist dogma, should have qualified him for immediate, certain "liquidation," as the Soviets prefer to put it. If the Germans had intended killing anyone, he should have been one of the very first to go. But he, along with countless others, survived. Indeed, unlike Levi, most did so because they were evacuated by the very Germans who were later to become the victims of the very evacuees they'd saved, as an ironic result of fantastic and tainted testimony given by the evacuess. In an endeavor which became very lucrative, Levi, proceeded, as did many others, to "get his" in the traditional manner. As might have been predicted, he has produced a number of profitable "I was there" books which led eventually to the current The Periodic Table.

Having established the position of the author as an "expert" on his subject, one must then be concerned with the credentials of the translator, Mr. Raymond Rosenthal. In this case, it seems appropriate to consider the judgment of Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow who exudes the following: "There is nothing superfluous here everything this book contains is essential. It is wonderfully pure and beautifully translated."

I cannot attest to the "beauty" of the translation, but I do not share Bellow's unrestrained enthusiasm for this book. It might better have been entitled The Periodic Accusations, since they, indeed, do seem to return almost as periodically as do Israeli needs for U.S. Dollars and German Marks. Levi's ploy this round has been to select a skeleton of twenty-one very real chemical elements and then to proceed to "clothe" them with his standard sentimental "Holocaust" reminiscences and fancies on a series of subjects. These subjects range from his ancestory ("Argon") through his schooling, demonstrations of his linguistic prowess, a fling at creative writing ("Lead" and "Mercury"), Greco-Roman mythology, a smattering of chemistry, his war experiences, an expected dash of braggadocio and, of course, his undying hatred of the inhuman Fascists -- all intended, I conclude, to impress the conditioned reader.

To demonstrate Levi's genius in more detail, I have chosen to review his "Potassium" more completely. In ten pages, he describes how, as a result of reading Lion Feuchtwanger's The Oppermanns (published in the U.S. early in 1934) and a British White Book, along with hearing stories from Polish and French refugees, he was in January 1941 already well aware of the Jewish slaughter occurring and still in store for the remaining European Jews. (At this point the Wannsee Conference was still a year away!) Already, the "I alone have escaped to tell you the story" anecdotes were the refugee's stock and trade. These stories didn't really improve with age, of course, they just got more numerous, as did the refugees, and more audacious as the stories were accepted without question, setting the stage for the anxious, guilt-ridden accounts of post-war raconteurs like Levi.

In school ("fourth year of pure chemistry"), he decided chemistry would no longer solve his problems and resolved to pursue physics. As an assistant, he was called upon to prepare pure, dry benzene for an experiment by distilling the solvent over sodium, a rather simple undergraduate operation. Using potassium instead of sodium, and apparently as adeptly as one might expect "Dr." Szymon Wiesenthal to practice "Inzyniera Architekta" (architectural engineering), he caused a laboratory fire which propelled him into his next literary effort, "Nickel."

Properly, the book contains no index. For any inquiring mind, however, there is little within its covers which is worth looking for. Compared to other "I was there" books, those of Langbein, Kraus, Kulka, Kogon, and Adler to name but a few, it is nothing. In an era characterized by its plethora of dogmatic, sterile, thought-torpifying "books," it may make it in some circles as a "best seller" and thereby qualify as the authoritative basis of a Hollywood "docudrama" on the "Holocaust." For anyone who is looking for fresh information, intellectual stimulation, or for that matter beautiful prose, the book, even by Exterminationist standards, is a failure. If intended as a contribution to culture, perhaps Dr. Levi's prose lost much of its beauty in translation.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1985 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pages 252-254.