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Survival of the Fittest?

March 1, 2007 By:
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Several months ago, the Royal Institution of Great Britain did an astonishing but wholly appropriate thing: It named Primo Levi's The Periodic Table as the "best science book ever written." The Levi volume, which is made up of 21 sections, each tied to one of the elements of the periodic table, beat out estimable works by James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA, as well as Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle. According to the Forward, which reported on the decision, Tim Radford, the former science editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper, championed the book throughout the contest. It "is the ultimate in nonfiction," said Radford. "This book pinions my awareness to the solidity of the world around me."

That may, in fact, be putting it mildly. Levi, a chemist throughout his life, never quite left the lab, even when he sat at his writing desk. His prose, in all of his numerous works, reflects his devotion to scientific objectivity. He once said that by the time he reached manhood, he had trained himself in the art of observation, and had become the kind of person "to whom many things are told."

And in no work of Levi's is the link between science and literature more apparent than in The Periodic Table, which he described as "tales of militant chemistry." For Levi, Mendelev's periodic table -- in which the chemical elements are arranged according to their atomic numbers, symbols and weights -- was equivalent to Proust's magical madeleine dipped in scented tea; each of the elements evoked something different for him about his life, "like the mountain valleys or beaches visited in youth." In the table, Levi discovered an austere, solemn poetry -- "the bridge, the missing link between the world of words and the world of things."

A Small, Telling Work

What is remarkable is that as the Royal Institution was making its decision, a British publisher called Verso was preparing to release Levi's Auschwitz Report, which has its own links to the scientific method. The work dates from 1945, when Levi was waiting in Katowice, Poland, to be sent back to Italy following his detention in Auschwitz. During this period, he, along with a friend, Dr. Leonardo De Benedetti, were asked to put together a report on what it was like to have withstood this infamous camp. The small work was published the following year as "Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews"; after that initial publication, it fell into oblivion. The Verso version is the manuscript's first appearance in English.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Army on Jan. 27, 1945. Until that day, Levi, who was then 25, and De Benedetti, who was 46, had worked at Buna-Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, a satellite camp of the larger Auschwitz-Birkenau complex that was run by the Nazis and the I.G. Farben company, the massive chemical combine responsible for the creation of Zyklon B, the gas, in pellet form, which slaughtered so many Jews. Levi and De Benedetti were but two of 12,000 slave laborers, mostly Jews, who had had to withstand some of the most appalling conditions in the Nazi hierarchy of torture and debasement.

According to Robert S.C. Gordon in his introduction, the two men, both of whom had been raised in Turin, arrived at Auschwitz on the same convoy, perhaps even in the same cattle car, on Feb. 26, 1944, following "a horrific four-day journey" from a detention camp at Fossoli in central Italy. The two had first met in Fossoli after their separate arrests in December 1943.

Writes Gordon: "Of the 650 men, women and children crowded into the closed wagons of that train at Fossoli with De Benedetti and Levi, only 24 were to survive. De Benedetti's wife, separated from him on arrival in Auschwitz, was murdered by gas within hours, as were 525 others. De Benedetti and Levi were 'fortunate' (both used the word) to be selected for labor and transferred to Monowitz, where they were disinfected, tattooed and numbered, respectively, 174489 and 174517."

Who had these two men been before they were, in a matter of minutes, reduced to mere numbers? De Benedetti, born in 1898, had served in the medical corps during World War I. He graduated from Turin University with a medical degree in 1923; in 1928, he married his wife Jolanda. During the 1920s and '30s, he worked as a general practitioner in a small town outside Turin, but lost his position in 1938 due to the anti-Semitic racial laws the Italian fascists initiated. In 1943, as he attempted to reach Switzerland, he was arrested. After the war, he worked again as a physician in Turin, and was active in survivor groups. He died in October 1983 at age 85.

Levi, born in 1919, graduated in 1941 with a degree in chemistry from Turin University and briefly lived in Milan. In 1943, he joined a partisan group, whose activities led to his arrest and deportation. When he returned to Turin after the war, he married Lucia Morpurgo, and began his long career in industrial chemistry (and later in management), which ended in the mid-1970s. He published his first book, If This Is a Man (printed here as Survival in Auschwitz) in 1947. But only when the book was reissued in 1958 did it receive the attention it deserved. Levi went on to an equally distinguished career as a writer, poet and translator, which ended with his 1987 suicide.

The tragic irony in the tale of these two survivors is justly noted by Gordon. Levi, the younger of the two, dreadfully scarred by his experiences and eventually visited by terrible bouts of depression, nevertheless seemed to bounce back more quickly than his older friend. Levi began working at the paint factory, married and almost immediately began writing. De Benedetti, Gordon writes, "was initially in deep shock and mourning for the loss of both his wife and his mother (who had died shortly after reaching Switzerland). It took the care of his family, and the friendship of Levi and others, to sustain him." Soon he returned to his medical practice in Turin. In 1946, the two men decided to return to their Katowice report and rework it; according to Gordon, it was probably due to De Benedetti that it was published in the prominent, Turin-based medical journal, Minerva Medica.

For interested readers -- those, say, who feel especially close to the great works of Levi -- it should be pointed out that Auschwitz Report, with all its close inspection of the minutiae of camp life, is not an unclaimed masterpiece (one section is headed "Diseases of the gastrointestinal apparatus"). The volume can be read in a sitting, but has none of the resonance of The Periodic Table, say, though it shares its devotion to rational observation. There is more emotion in the introductory sections and in the book's final pages than anywhere in the grim, factual descriptions that effortlessly depict the terrible reality of Auschwitz.

The historical importance of this brief, densely observed report is undeniable. But Gordon makes far too grand claims for it -- that it is as "essential" as other Levi texts, and that one should read between the lines and there discover the history of the great writer's "remarkable capacity for friendship" and how he helped sustain his friend De Benedetti whether in Fossoli, Monowitz or Katowice -- and for years beyond.

I don't doubt that this was a significant component in their relationship and a factor in the creation of this long-misplaced report, but Levi's capacity for friendship is far more evident in the two tributes he wrote in honor of Leonardo that end this curious publication. These words of love and devotion are brief, exquisitely composed in the inimitable Levi manner, and should not to be missed.

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