Cerium is commonly used in lighters. Photo courtesy Wikipedia


Primo Levi


How chemistry saved Levi’s life in the final days of Auschwitz

With a new introduction and commentary by Carole Angier

Cerium is commonly used in lighters. Photo courtesy Wikipedia


In the chemical adventures of the periodic table, one element tells a tale that sparked a victory in Auschwitz

Carole Angier

No one has ever known quite how to describe The Periodic Table (1975) by Primo Levi. It starts with the author’s ancestors, and moves through his youth to his time in Auschwitz and his life afterwards. So is it an autobiography? Yes, but a pretty strange one: devoting three chapters to his university years, and three more to a single year of freedom, in which he tried to run his own company with a friend, but only two to the factory in which he spent his whole working life, and none at all to his family.

He himself called it ‘a collection of chemistry stories’ (‘una raccolta di storie chimiche’). That was precise, as he always was. The Periodic Table is a collection of stories that explore chemistry more than the chemist and, through chemistry, life itself. Which takes us back to him, because it is his conception of life that we find here and in his still more famous book, If This Is a Man (1947): that is, the struggle of a lone, isolated, rational and moral being to understand and conquer a world of obtuse opposition to all reason and morality. In If This Is a Man the opposition comes from Nazism; in The Periodic Table it comes from matter. But it is the same struggle, and Levi tells it in the same way: by removing himself as much as possible from the story. He reveals only what is relevant to the battle and what he cannot help revealing in the telling: that he is a wonderful observer and writer, and an immensely intelligent, humorous, moving person.

The first clue to the strangeness of this autobiography comes from its title, and from the chapter headings, which are the names of 21 elements of the periodic table. But how do the elements relate to the stories?

The answer is wonderfully Levi-esque: the stories are about science, but in fact they are entirely literary. So almost all of them are the adventures of the chemist Primo Levi – as a schoolboy, a student, a Jew working illegally in Fascist Italy, a prisoner in Auschwitz, a survivor plying his trade – coming up against the dangers and lessons of hydrogen, potassium, nickel, chromium and the others. But not quite all. As Levi said, although The Periodic Table began with chemical adventures, ‘it grew into something more’. A third of the stories have nothing to do with battles in the lab, and in their case the relation of the element to the story becomes more subtle.

In ‘Argon’ and ‘Iron’, the elements are images of their characters: Levi’s Jewish ancestors mix as little with the Catholic population as the noble gases with any other element; Sandro Delmastro, the great friend of Levi’s youth who died as a partisan, was as strong and reticent as iron. ‘Gold’, which is about Levi’s weeks in prison before being deported, symbolises the preciousness of freedom and of life itself, which he is about to lose; ‘Lead’, ‘Mercury’ and ‘Titanium’ are fantasies of freedom; and ‘Carbon’, the great final story – but the first to be conceived, perhaps as early as Levi’s schooldays – is a masterpiece of imagination, in which an atom of carbon binds itself to life and escapes it again an almost infinite number of times, until it ends in Levi’s own brain, and makes him mark the page with the final full-stop.

Even those stories that are chemical adventures explore themes and people as well. ‘Tin’ is about a friend and (once again) freedom; ‘Zinc’ and ‘Phosphorus’ about being marked out as different and inferior, and also about girls; ‘Potassium’ about the great consequences of small differences, and also about a man, Nicolò Dallaporta, who defied the Fascist laws and took on the Jewish student Levi as his assistant. ‘Uranium’ is about the freedom of fiction (freedom again!); ‘Nitrogen’ about making aurum de stercore, turning shit into gold, which is what Levi did with his experience of Auschwitz. ‘Cerium’ and ‘Vanadium’ are both concentration camp stories, one set in Auschwitz and one 20 years after it, the first about a lost friend, the second about a re-found enemy. All tell us things most of us didn’t know about chemistry, in fascinating, funny, tragic and touching ways; but also and most of all, about the human condition that the condition of the chemist mirrors.

In ‘Carbon’, Levi muses again over how to describe The Periodic Table. It is not an autobiography, he says, but a history: the history of a trade. As I’ve tried to show, however, it is a great deal more than that. And it has strong elements of fiction. Much of ‘Argon’ was borrowed from other people’s ancestors; much of Delmastro’s history was invented or dramatised; a key episode in ‘Phosphorus’ never happened. In ‘Uranium’ Levi wrote of his longing for the ‘boundless freedom of invention’, tied down as he was in factory and family, and in the responsibility to facts of the witness-writer. But the truth was that he had already broken through that barrier in his writing – in The Truce (1963), in the Natural Histories (1966), and here in The Periodic Table itself. Writing was his freedom from the start; the only freedom he ever had.

Unlike the other Auschwitz story, ‘Cerium’ is set in the camp itself, and Levi was often asked why he didn’t include the episode in If This Is a Man. He answered that ‘Cerium’ is a tale of victory, while If This Is a Man is a canvas of defeats. This shows how carefully he shaped that first great book, despite his claim that it was a spontaneous, non-literary work.

At the entrance to Auschwitz. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Although his year in Auschwitz came early – when he was between 24 and 25 years old – ‘Cerium’ sits precisely in the middle of The Periodic Table. That perfectly symbolises the central role of Auschwitz in his life; and also the fact that this story is a key bearer of the theme of imprisonment and liberation; cerium is what finally liberated him and his friend Alberto from the camp. This relation between chapter title and chemical element is one of the simplest and most direct in the book.

As he says here, Levi stole many things from the camp lab, including, finally, some pipettes, when there was nothing left to exchange them for but a bowl of half-eaten soup. He describes in another work, Moments of Reprieve (1981), how this soup was infected with scarlet fever, which he caught but Alberto didn’t. As a result, Levi was among those whom the Nazis left behind to die, though against all odds, he survived; his healthier friend, meanwhile, was forced to join the death march westwards, on which most of the prisoners perished. As ‘Cerium’ recounts, Alberto was among them.

Carole Angier is a biographer living in London. She has taught English literature and philosophy at several universities and is the author of ‘The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography’ (2002). She is currently working on a literary biography of W G Sebald.

26 September 2017
Classic Text

Primo Levi


From ‘The periodic table’, translated by Ann Goldstein
With a new commentary by Carole Angier

That I, a chemist, engaged in writing here my life as a chemist, lived a different experience, has been recounted elsewhere. At a distance of 30 years, I find it difficult to reconstruct what sort of human specimen, in November of 1944, corresponded to my name, or, rather, my number: 174517. I must have overcome the harshest trial, that of inserting myself into the Lager system, and I must have developed a strange callousness, if I was then able not only to survive but also to think, to register the world around me, and even to undertake a fairly delicate job, in an environment infected by the daily presence of death and at the same time frenzied by the approach of the Russian liberators, who by now were within 80 kilometres of us. Despair and hope alternated in a rhythm that would have crushed any normal individual in an hour.

We were not normal because we were hungry. Our hunger at that time had nothing in common with the well-known (not entirely unpleasant) sensation of someone who has skipped a meal and is sure that he will not miss the next: it was a need, a lack, a yearning that had been with us for a year, had put down deep and permanent roots in us, lived in all our cells and conditioned our behaviour. To eat, to get food, was the primary stimulus, which was followed, at a great distance, by all the other problems of survival, and, even farther back, memories of home and the very fear of death.

I was a chemist in a chemical factory, in a chemical laboratory (this, too, has been recounted), and I stole in order to eat. If you don’t start as a child, learning to steal isn’t easy; it took several months for me to repress the moral commandments and acquire the necessary techniques, and at a certain point I realised (with a flash of laughter and a pinch of satisfied ambition) that I was reliving, I a respectable university graduate, the involution-evolution of a famous respectable dog, a Victorian and Darwinian dog who is deported and becomes a thief in order to live in his ‘Lager’ of the Klondike, the great Buck, of Call of the Wild. I stole like him and like the foxes: on every favourable occasion, but with sly cunning and without exposing myself. I stole everything, except the bread of my companions.

The I G Farben industrial complex at Monowitz in 1944. The actual Lager or camp is to the bottom right above the key. Wikipedia

In terms of substances that could be stolen with profit, that laboratory was virgin territory, all to be explored. There was gas and alcohol, banal and troublesome prey: many stole them, at various points of the worksite – the price was high and so was the risk, because liquids require containers. It’s the great problem of packaging, which every skilled chemist knows; the Heavenly Father also knew it, and resolved it brilliantly, for his part, with the cellular membranes, the eggshell, the multipart peel of the orange, and our skin, because in the end we, too, are liquids. Now, at that time polyethylene didn’t exist; it would have been useful to me because it is flexible, light, and splendidly impermeable, but it is also a little too incorruptible, and not for nothing the Heavenly Father Himself, who, though a master of polymerisation, refrained from patenting it – He doesn’t like incorruptible things.

In the absence of suitable packaging and boxes, the ideal thing to steal should be, therefore, solid, not perishable, not bulky, and above all new. It had to be of a high unit value, that is, not voluminous, because often we were searched at the entrance to the camp after work; and it had finally to be useful to or desired by at least one of the social categories that made up the complex universe of the Lager.

A photo from the German Federal Archives gives an idea of the scale of the I G Farben works in 1941. Wikipedia

I had made various attempts in the laboratory. I had stolen a few hundred grammes of fatty acids, with difficulty obtained through the oxidation of paraffin by some colleague on the other side of the barricade: I had eaten half, and it had truly sated my hunger, but the taste was so unpleasant that I gave up on selling the rest. I had tried to make pancakes with cotton wool, which I pressed against the plate of an electric stove; they had a vague taste of burned sugar, but they were so unsightly that I did not judge them to be saleable. As for selling the cotton directly to the infirmary in the Lager, I tried that once, but it was too bulky and had little value. I also tried to ingest and digest glycerin, relying on the simplistic reasoning that, as a product of the splitting of fats, it must surely in some way be metabolised and provide calories: and perhaps it did provide them, but at the cost of disagreeable side effects.

There was a mysterious jar on a shelf. It contained 20 small grey, hard, colourless, tasteless cylinders, and it didn’t have a label. This was very strange, because it was a German laboratory. Yes, of course, the Russians were a few kilometres away, and catastrophe was in the air, almost visible; every day there were bombing raids; everyone knew that the war was about to be over. But, finally, some constants must endure, and among these was our hunger, and the fact that the laboratory was German, and that the Germans never forget labels. In fact, all the other jars and bottles in the laboratory had clear labels, typewritten, or written by hand in beautiful Gothic lettering: that alone did not have one.

In the situation, I certainly did not have available the equipment or the peace and quiet needed to identify the nature of the cylinders. Anyway, I hid three in my pocket and at night brought them back to the camp. They were perhaps 25 millimetres long and had a diameter of four or five.

I showed them to my friend Alberto. Alberto took a knife out of his pocket and tried to cut into one: it was hard, and resisted the blade. He tried scraping it: we heard a small squeak and a sheaf of yellow sparks burst forth. At this point the diagnosis was easy: it was ferrocerium, the alloy used for common flints in cigarette lighters. Why were they so big? Alberto, who for several weeks had worked as a labourer with a team of solderers, explained that they were mounted on the tips of oxyacetylene torches, to light the flame. At this point I felt skeptical about the commercial possibilities of my stolen goods: maybe they could be used to light a fire, but in the camp (illegal) matches were certainly not in short supply.

Primo Levi in 1985. Photo by Reni Burri/Magnum

Alberto reproached me. For him, giving up, pessimism, despair were abominable and culpable. He did not accept the concentration-camp universe, he rejected it with his instinct and his reason, he would not let himself be polluted. He was a man of strong goodwill, and had miraculously remained free, and his words and actions were free: he had not lowered his head, had not bowed his back. A gesture of his, a word, a laugh had liberating virtues, were a hole in the stiff fabric of the Lager, and all who came near him realised it, even those who didn’t understand his language. I believe that no one, in that place, was more loved than he.

He reproached me: one must never be discouraged; it’s harmful, and hence immoral, almost indecent. I had stolen the cerium: well, now it was a matter of selling it, promoting it. He would see to that, he would turn it into a novelty, an article of high commercial value. Prometheus had been foolish to give men fire rather than sell it: he would have made money, placated Jove, and avoided the trouble with the vulture.

We had to be more astute. This topic, the need to be astute, was not new between us. Alberto had often discussed it with me, and before him others in the free world, and still others repeated it to me later on, innumerable times, up until today, with modest results; indeed, with the paradoxical result of developing in me a dangerous tendency toward symbiosis with an authentically astute person, who would get (or consider that he had got) temporal or spiritual advantages from living with me. Alberto was an ideal symbiont, because he refrained from exercising his astuteness to my detriment. I didn’t know, but he did (he always knew everything about everyone, and yet he had neither German nor Polish and very little French), that there existed a clandestine lighter industry at the worksite: unknown craftsmen, in their spare time, made lighters for the important people and the civilian workers. Now, for lighters flints are needed, and need to be a certain size: we would therefore have to make those I had in hand thinner. Make them thinner by how much, and how? ‘Don’t create difficulties,’ he said. ‘I’ll take care of it. You take care of stealing the rest.’

I had no trouble following Alberto’s advice the next day. Around 10 in the morning, the sirens of the Fliegeralarm, the air-raid warning, broke out. It was nothing new by now, but every time it happened we felt – we and everyone else – stricken to the core by anguish. It was not an earthly sound, not like a factory siren, but a sound of tremendous volume that, simultaneously throughout the entire area, and rhythmically, rose to a spasmodic high note and descended to a rumbling of thunder. It couldn’t have been an accidental discovery, because nothing in Germany was accidental, and, besides, it was too consistent with the purpose and the setting: I have often thought it was elaborated by an evil musician, who had put into it fury and lament, the wolf’s howl at the Moon and the typhoon’s breath; the horn of Astolfo must have had such a sound. It caused panic, not only because it was announcing bombs but also because of its intrinsic horror, like the wail of a wounded beast that reaches as far as the horizon.

The Germans were more afraid than we were of the bomb attacks: we, irrationally, weren’t afraid because we knew they were directed not against us but against our enemies. In seconds I was alone in the laboratory; I put all the cerium in my pockets and went outside to join my Kommando. The sky was already filled with the buzzing of the bombers, and falling from them, uttering softly, yellow leaflets that bore atrocious words of mockery:

Im Bauch kein Fett,
Acht Uhr ins Bett;
Der Arsch kaum warm,
In your belly no fat,
At eight you go to bed;
When your ass is warm,
Air-raid alarm!

We were not allowed to enter the air-raid shelters: we gathered in the vast spaces that had not yet been built up, on the periphery of the worksite. As the bombs began to fall, and I lay on the frozen mud and sparse grass, fingering the cylinders in my pocket, I reflected on the strangeness of my destiny, of our destinies as leaves on a branch, and of human destinies in general. According to Alberto, a flint for a lighter was worth a ration of bread, that is, a day of life; I had stolen at least 40 cylinders, from each of which could be made three finished flints. In total, 120 flints, two months of life for me and two for Alberto, and in two months the Russians would have arrived and liberated us: and in the end the cerium would have liberated us. It was an element that I knew nothing about, apart from its single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical family of the rare-earth elements, and that its name has nothing to do with wax, and evokes not its discoverer but, rather (great modesty of the chemists of the past!), the dwarf planet Ceres, the metal and the star having been discovered in the same year, 1801. And perhaps this was an affectionate and ironic homage to alchemical coupling: as the Sun was gold and Mars iron, so Ceres had to be cerium.

At night I brought out the cylinders, Alberto a piece of metal with a round hole in it: this was the stipulated calibre to which we would have to trim the cylinders in order to transform them into flints and hence into bread.

What followed should be judged with caution. Alberto said that we had to reduce the cylinders by scraping them with a knife, secretly, so that no competitor could steal the secret. When? At night. Where? In the wooden barrack where we slept, under the covers and on top of our pallets filled with shavings; that is, we risked starting a fire and, more realistically, risked hanging, since this was the punishment to which those who, among other things, lit a match in the barracks were sentenced.

One always hesitates to judge rash actions, one’s own or others’, after these have had a good outcome: perhaps they were not, then, so rash? Or perhaps it’s true that there is a God who protects children, fools, and drunkards? Or perhaps again such actions have more weight and heat than the innumerable actions that come to a bad end, and so are recounted more willingly? But we did not then pose these questions: the Lager had given us a crazy familiarity with danger and with death, and to risk the noose for more to eat seemed to us a logical choice, indeed obvious.

While our companions slept, we worked with our knives, night after night. The scene was so grim you could weep: a single electric bulb weakly illumined the big wooden shed, and in the shadowy light, as in a vast cavern, the faces of our companions were visible, overcome by sleep and by dreams: tinged with death, they wiggled their jaws, in dreams of eating. Many had a bare, skeletal arm or leg hanging off the edge of their pallet; others groaned or talked in their sleep.

But the two of us were alive and did not succumb to sleep. We kept the blanket raised with our knees, and under that improvised tent we scraped the cylinders blindly, by feel; at every cut a faint squeak could be heard, and a sheaf of tiny yellow stars could be seen rising. At intervals, we tested the cylinder to see if it fit through the sample hole: if it didn’t, we continued to scrape; if it did, we broke off the pared-down trunk and put it carefully aside.

We worked for three nights; nothing happened, no one was aware of our activity, neither the covers nor the pallet caught fire, and in this way we won the bread that kept us alive until the Russians arrived, and took comfort in the trust and friendship that united us. What happened to me is written elsewhere. Alberto left on foot with the majority when the front was near: the Germans made them walk for days and nights in the snow and cold, killing all who could not continue; then they loaded them onto open train cars, which carried the few survivors to a new chapter of slavery, at Buchenwald and Mauthausen. No more than a quarter of those who left survived the march.

Alberto did not return, and of him no trace remains; for some years after the war ended, someone from his town, half visionary and half swindler, lived by peddling to his mother, for a price, false consoling news.

Primo Levi was an Italian-Jewish writer and chemist. His best-known works include If This Is a Man (1947), The Drowned and the Saved (1986), and The Periodic Table (1975), a collection of 21 meditations, each named for a chemical element.

“Cerium” is excerpted from The Complete Works of Primo Levi, Vol. II, translated by Ann Goldstein. Copyright © 2015 by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.