Quotations from Primo Levi’s comments on ‘To See Atoms’
one of the lectures chosen by Primo Levi
when he set out on his ‘Search for Roots’:
A Personal Anthology – his essential reading –
the thirty pieces of prose and poetry
he chose for this book that was
translated into English by
At the age of sixteen a student
the youngest, smallest, cleverest
and the only Jew in this class
is studying the classics.
And no wonder, for the son of
a liberal Jewish Turin family in
Mussolini’s Italy might uncover
much in the story of ancient Rome
among poets, writers, historians
perhaps Virgil, Caesar, Seneca
even the work of the poet Lucretius
even De Rerum Natura.
And in 1935 he finds in lectures
perhaps in a library – call it chance -–
in English, Concerning the nature of things,
Lucretius’s poem about the Greek atomists
lectures given by a Nobel prize winner –
once the Elder Professor of Mathematics
who taught far from Europe’s centres of science
and found joy in life and physics in Adelaide.
Sir William Bragg had delivered them
in 1925 at the Royal Institution.
A decade on, Bragg’s words in ‘To see atoms’
offer this boy a way to explore the universe.
He is ‘captivated by the clear and
simple things that they say’ – ‘divining’ in
Bragg’s vision ‘a great hope’ moving from
‘the world of minute atoms’ . . ‘infinitely far’.
He decides to be a chemist and again –
with chance on his side – this student
matriculates and enters university
just before Jews are denied that right.
Chemistry will save him from German hands.
He is of value, worth keeping alive.
The SS in Auschwitz can use this chemist
to make synthetic rubber for their industries.
When he catches scarlet fever, fear of contagion
makes his guards isolate him in the sanatorium
where he lies while his compatriots are marched
to their death before the Russians arrive.
Auschwitz becomes the catalyst –
a writer and a poet comes back to Italy
ready to make all who would rather forget
feel and face their part in this genocide.
In different stories, in The Periodic Table,
chemist and story teller combine elements
in narrative for us – the general readers –
giving us the human connection we need.
Before he dies, in The Search for Roots,
he leaves us a legacy of four pathways and
there, is his conviction that William Bragg,
with Lucretius, Darwin and Clarke, belongs
on the pathway of ‘salvation through knowledge.’