‘Vanadium’ – The Periodic Table (Primo Levi)
- Annerita Ng
Primo Levi was a Jewish chemist and author born in Italy. The majority of his writings revolved around his experience surviving the Holocaust of World War II, some with a heavy subtext of chemistry. One of his books entitled ‘The Periodic Table’ is a memoir of his life collated in 21 chapters, each of which is given the title of an element that is somehow woven intrinsically into the story. In chapter 20, called ‘Vanadium’, Levi does a seamless job of tying in the chemistry he learns with past personal experiences that plague his mind.
In 1941, after Italy had entered World War II as an ally of Germany, Levi accepted a job at a mine in which he was to extract nickel to aid the production of weaponry for the Germans2. He then worked in Milan with a former acquaintance from university, before returning to Turin in 1943. He became involved with an Italian partisan group when he returned to Turin after Italy became occupied by the Germans. Levi was captured and sent to a transit camp before being deported to a Monowitz-Auschwitz camp. The Buna Werke plant nearby the camp, run by German chemical industry corporation I.G. Farben, focused on the production of synthetic rubber and made use of slave labour from the concentration camp. Thanks to his professional abilities, Levi secured a position in the Buna Werke laboratory, which ultimately led to his survival in the camp. He was freed in 1945, eleven months after he was deported to the concentration camp.
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He began working different chemistry related jobs not long after his liberation and eventually obtained a job in a paint business as a chemist and technical director2. It was in this job that Levi based his short story ‘Vanadium’ from his book ‘The Periodic Table’. While working for the company a shipment of resin for varnishes is received, which Levi then learns does not dry properly when mixed with the required chemical agent. He then discovered that the supplier is a descendant of I.G. Farben, who operated the Buna Werke plant during his stay at the concentration camp. After a series of letters sent to their representative, Levi realizes that the representative, Doctor Muller, was an acquaintance of his from the Buna Werke laboratory.
This connection was set off after a misspelling of the name of a chemical, the same word which Muller often mispronounced while working at the Burna Werke laboratory. Memories of his experience working in the laboratory were triggered. Levi explains that Muller, along with other men, would often visit the laboratory he worked at to give himself and two other prisoners strict instructions. Muller only spoke to him a few times, but during one of those times he had continuously mispronounced ‘naphthenate’ as ‘naptenate’. Levi also remembered Muller giving him permission to shave twice a week (as opposed to the rule of prisoners shaving once a week), and also provided him with a pair of leather shoes. He also noted that Muller was rather ignorant to the events occurring at the concentration camp nearby the laboratory, as he asked Levi why he looked so anxious working at the factory.
As Levi sent letters to Muller regarding the flawed shipment, he had also sent him a private letter in order to confirm if he was the same Muller he met at the Buna Werke Laboratory. While he waited for Muller’s confirmation he begun testing the instructions given to him in order to cure the shipment of resin. Levi had been directed by Muller to add 0.1% of vanadium naphthenate to the resin in order for it to dry properly. Vanadium naphthenate acts to accelerate the drying process of the resin3,4. It is able to protect the inner material and keep it undamaged from oxidation by forming oxide layers. This occurs as the hydrocarbon ring of the vanadium compound reacts with the oxygen in air3. He discovered that the Italian version of the vanadium naphthenate was not as effective as the German kind, and accordingly he requested for a shipment of German naphthenate.
Muller had replied to his private letter a while later, confirming that he was the ‘Muller of Buna’ and requested to meet with Levi in order to rise above the past between them. Levi, however, was not so keen for this meeting, stating that he had no past that needed resolving. He avoided this topic altogether and, instead, Muller spoke of their ‘friendship’ as they worked together in the laboratory of the camp. Levi recalled no friendship between the two men, but realised that the other had saved his life by selecting him in to work at the laboratory. He assumed that Muller had perchance fabricated a convenient past for himself. In a sense, the variable effectiveness of the Italian and German versions of the vanadium naphthenate can be associated with the different versions of Levi and Muller’s memories of the camp.
A few days later, Levi had received a letter from the supplier apologising for the inconvenience he, and the company he worked for, had suffered. However from this disruption they had realised it would be more appropriate and convenient if they themselves integrated the vanadium naphthenate into the resin before delivering them.
Here, we see the success that prevails from the deductive processes of chemists and the elements of small-scale industrial chemistry. After the problem was encountered with the shipment of resin, Levi’s immediate action was to contact the source/supplier. The buyer-supplier connection is necessary for the industrial chemistry department, especially in when issues arise. These connections can be somewhat difficult when the buyer and supplier are located for apart, such as in Levi’s case. He was then given instructions in which he would test the effect of a required chemical and observe and confirm if it was the solution to the problem. In other words, trials were to be conducted to narrow down the cause of the issue. In this instance, materials monitoring is helpful for quality control and to review the materials and the processes they endure. In Levi’s case, a positive outcome was reached as the supplying company recognised a more convenient route to take with their resin product in order to avoid future issues.
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At first, Levi refused to forgive Muller despite his high respect for the man. He could not fathom the idea of meeting Muller with open arms after all he had to suffer through. He did not hate Muller, rather he harboured an abhorrence toward the Germans in general, and assumed Muller a substitute for those who harmed the Jews. But after further contemplation he became sympathetic to Muller’s plight as he tried to clear his conscience of any wrong doing. Levi then began drafting a letter to thank Muller for selecting him and even mentioned a readiness for forgiveness. On the same evening he received a phone call from Muller asking to meet with him in the near future. The language barrier helps prevent him from making his feelings of distaste known. He carelessly agreed to the meeting as he was caught off guard. However, the meeting would not occur as only a week later Levi discovered that Muller has passed away unexpectedly.
This chapter provided an insight of the relationship between his chemical career and other aspects of his life, such as his writing career. Chemistry seems to be quintessential to his life. Levi finds a brilliant way of linking his chemical profession to his personal and social experiences, showing that he was deeply invested in his profession. Even in the Auschwitz concentration camp, he couldn’t escape it, and it most probably saved his life. He continued working as a chemical professional after he was freed from Auschwitz despite the obvious psychological trauma he suffered.
From this chapter of his book, it is seen that Levi correlates the characteristics of vanadium naphthenate to the important features of his story. And although this unique chapter is mainly about his personal experience and his reflection on the injustices handed to him, it does contain factual information on the chemical it is named after. Levi also provides an understanding of the logical manner in which chemists must think within the industry and the elements involved in the processes of industrial chemistry – proving how communication is key within the world of industrial chemistry. Without a doubt Levi has a very powerful way with words, intertwining his personal tale with scientific principles.
- Levi, P., (1986). Vanadium. In: The Periodic Table, 1st ed. Abacus: Sphere Books Ltd, pp.211 – 223.
- Patruno, N. (n.d.). Primo Levi: Surviving the Haulocast. [online] Bryn Mawr College. Available at: http://www.brynmawr.edu/italian/holoc/essays/surv_hol.htm [Accessed 12 Dec. 2014].
- Chemical Land 21, (n.d.). Vanadyl Naphthenate. [online] Available at: http://www.chemicalland21.com/industrialchem/organic/VANADYL NAPHTHENATE.htm [Accessed 15 Dec. 2014].
- Kemi Swedish Chemicals Agency, (n.d.). Metal Naphthenates. [online] Available at: http://apps.kemi.se/flodessok/floden/kemamne_eng/metallnaftenater_eng.htm [Accessed 15 Dec. 2014].
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