Commentary Magazine

Vanadium-A Memoir

A varnish is an unstable substance by definition: at a certain point in its career, it must change from a liquid to a solid. This must happen at the right time and place. If it does not, the results can be unpleasant or even disastrous. It can happen that a varnish will solidify (we say, harshly, it “monkeys”) during its shelf-life in the warehouse, in which case the product has to be junked, or the resin can solidify during its synthesis in a ten- or twenty-ton reactor, which can verge on the tragic. Or instead, the varnish may not harden at all, even after application, which is farcical, because a varnish that doesn’t “dry” is like a gun that doesn’t shoot or a bull that doesn’t impregnate.

In most cases, the oxygen in the air takes part in the process of solidification. Among the various vital or destructive processes that oxygen can bring to completion, we varnish-makers care especially about its capacity to react with certain small molecules, such as certain oils, and to create bridges among them, transforming them into a compact and therefore solid network. That is how linseed oil “dries” in the air, for example.

We had imported a batch of resin for varnishes, one of those resins that harden at room temperature by simple exposure to the air, and we were worried. Treated as usual, the resin set normally, but after being ground with a certain type of lampblack (no substitution was possible), its capacity to harden diminished until it disappeared. We had already put aside several tons of black enamel that, despite all attempts at correction, remained sticky indefinitely after application, like flypaper in mourning.

In cases like this, we had to be cautious before making charges. The supplier was W., the great and respected German firm, one of the units the Allies had created by dismembering the omnipotent IG-Farben Company. Firms of that type, before conceding they are in the wrong, put into the balance all the weight of their prestige and all their capacity to wear out their opponents. But there was no way to avoid the controversy—the other batches of resin had behaved well with the same batch of lampblack; the resin was of a special type produced only by W.; and we were bound by a contract and absolutely had to continue to supply this black enamel without falling behind.

I wrote a polite letter of protest, explaining the details of the problem, and a few days later I received an answer. It was long and pedantic, advising us to use techniques we had already adopted with no results, and it included a superfluous and deliberately confusing exposition on the mechanism of the oxidation of resin. It ignored our need to deliver promptly, and on the issue in question it said only that the appropriate quality controls were in effect. There was nothing for us to do but order another batch, requesting W. to check with particular care the behavior of the resin with that type of lampblack.

A letter arrived with the confirmation of this latest order, almost as long as the first, and signed by the same Doktor L. Müller. It was somewhat more pertinent than the first, recognizing the justice of our complaint, and containing advice less trivial than before: “ganz unerwarteterweise,” that is to say quite unexpectedly, the gnomes of their lab had discovered that the contested batch would be remedied by the addition of 0.1 per cent of vanadium naphthenate—an additive that had never been heard of or spoken of in the world of varnishes before that time. This unknown Dr. Müller invited us to verify their affirmation immediately. If the effect were confirmed, it would spare both parties from the worries and unknown factors of an international controversy and a reexportation.

Müller. There was a Müller in one of my previous incarnations, but Müller is an extremely common name in Germany, like Miller in English or Molinari in Italian, whose exact equivalent it is. Why continue to think of it? Yet rereading the two letters, with their heavy, intricate sentences and the burden of their technical vocabulary, I could not quiet a doubt—one of those you can’t put aside and which hums around you like a mosquito. Come on now. There must be two hundred thousand Müllers in Germany. Forget it and think of correcting the varnish.

And then, suddenly, a part of the second letter that had escaped me caught my eye. It was not a typographical error; it was repeated twice: there was the word “napthenat” and not “naphthenat” as it should have been. You see, I keep memories of that world which has by now become remote with a pathological precision. Well, that Müller too, in an unforgotten laboratory full of cold, hope, and terror, said “beta-napthylamine” instead of “beta-naphthylamine.”



The Russians were at the gates; Allied planes came two or three times a day to smash the Buna factory to bits. There wasn’t a window intact; we lacked water, steam, and electricity. But the order was to begin producing Buna rubber, and Germans do not discuss orders.

I was in a laboratory with two other skilled prisoners, like the indoctrinated slaves imported from Greece by rich Romans. Working was as impossible as it was useless; almost all our time was spent taking down our apparatus when the air-raid warning sounded, and reassembling it at the all-clear. But of course, orders were not discussed, and every so often some inspector made his way to us across the ruins and the snow to certify that the work of the laboratory was proceeding according to plan. Sometimes a stone-faced SS guard came; other times an old soldier of the Territorial Force, as frightened as a mouse; at still others, a citizen. The citizen who appeared most often was called Doktor Müller.

He must have had a position of authority, because everyone saluted him first. He was a tall, corpulent man in his forties, and seemed rough rather than polished. He had spoken to me only three times, and each time with a timidity rare in that place, as if he were ashamed of something. The first time he spoke only of questions of work (of the dosage of “napthylamine,” to be exact); the second time he asked me why my beard was so long, to which I replied that none of us had a razor, in fact, not even so much as a handkerchief, and that according to regulations we were shaved every Monday; the third time he gave me a neatly typed note authorizing me to be shaved on Thursdays and to pick up at the Effektenmagazin a pair of leather shoes. He asked me, using the polite form, “Why do you seem so ill at ease?” I used to think in German at that time, and concluded to myself: “Der Mann hat keine Ahnung”—that guy hasn’t the faintest idea.



First to duty. I hurried to hunt down a sample of vanadium naphthenate among our suppliers, and discovered that it wasn’t easy. The product was not normally manufactured, but was only made to order in small quantities; I placed the order.

The return of that “pth” had thrown me into a state of violent excitement. To find myself, man to man, settling accounts with one of the “others” had been the sharpest and most permanent desire of my post-Auschwitz years. I had only been partially satisfied by letters from my German readers. I was not content to get these honest and generic declarations of repentance and solidarity from people I had never seen, whose other side I did not know, and who probably were not implicated except emotionally. The meeting that I hoped for with so much intensity that I dreamt about it at night (in German) was an encounter with one of those from there, who had charge of us, who never looked us in the eyes, as if we had no eyes. Not to take vengeance—I am not a Count of Monte Cristo—only to reestablish proportions, and to say “well?” If this Müller was my Müller, he wasn’t the perfect antagonist, because in some way, perhaps only for a moment, he had had pity, or even only a trace of professional solidarity. Perhaps even less—perhaps he had only responded to the fact that this strange hybrid of colleague and instrument, that still was a chemist after all, frequented a lab without the Anstand—the decorum—that the laboratory required. But the others around him had not even felt that. He wasn’t the perfect antagonist, but as everybody knows, perfection is one of those things you talk about, not something you experience.

I got in touch with the representative of W., in whom I had sufficient confidence, and asked him to check up discreetly on Dr. Müller. How old was he? What did he look like? Where had he been during the war? The answer was not long in coming: his age and looks matched; he had first worked at Schkopau learning the manufacture of synthetic rubber, then in the Buna factory near Auschwitz. I obtained his address, and sent him, as one individual to another, a copy of the German translation of my book, If This Is a Man, with an accompanying letter in which I asked if he was really the Müller from Auschwitz and if he remembered “the three men in the lab,” and that he excuse the brutal introduction and return of nobody—I was one of the three, in addition to being the customer concerned with the resin that didn’t harden.

I prepared myself to wait for the answer, while at the management level, like the oscillation of an enormous and very slow pendulum, the exchange of letters continued about the Italian vanadium that didn’t work so well as the German vanadium. Therefore kindly send us with all possible promptness the specifications of the product and ship us 50 kilos by air mail, whose cost will be deducted, etc. On the technical level the process was well under way, but the fate of the faulty batch of resin remained unclear: whether to keep it with a discount or reexport it at the expense of W., or request that the issue be submitted to arbitration. In the meantime, we threatened each other with resort to the vicissitudes of litigation, “gerichtlich vorzugehen.”



I continued to wait for the “individual” correspondence to resume, which was almost as irritating and enervating as the managerial dispute. What did I know of my man? Nothing. In all likelihood he had erased everything, deliberately or not. My letter and book had been for him a rude and bothersome intrusion, a maladroit invitation to stir up the sediment that had already settled, an attempt against Anstand. He would never answer. Too bad. He was not a perfect German. But are there perfect Germans? Or perfect Jews? They are an abstraction. Passing from the general to the particular always introduces stimulating surprises, when the phantom, featureless antagonist defines himself in front of you, a bit at a time or in a single stroke, and becomes a Mitmensch—a fellow human being—with all his substance, tics, anomalies, and solecisms. By now almost two months had passed; the response would never arrive. Too bad.

It arrived, dated March 2, 1967, on elegant paper inscribed in vaguely gothic script. It was a letter of introduction, brief and reserved. Yes, he was indeed the Müller of Buna. He had read my book, recognizing people and places with emotion, and was happy to learn I had survived. He asked for news of the other two “men of the laboratory,” and up to this point nothing was odd, since they had been named in the book; however, he also asked about Goldbaum, whom I had not mentioned. He added that because of the occasion he had reread his own observations on that period and would gladly discuss them with me at a hoped-for personal meeting, “useful both to me and you, and necessary for the purpose of overcoming that terrible past” (“im Sinne der Bewältigung der so furchtbaren Vergangenheit”). In conclusion he declared that of all the prisoners he had met at Auschwitz, I had made the strongest and most lasting impression upon him, but that comment might well have been flattery. From the tone of the letter, and especially because of the sentence about “overcoming,” it seemed that the man expected something from me.

Now it was my turn to answer, and I felt embarrassed. Here I was—the enterprise had succeeded, the adversary was collared. He was before me, practically a fellow varnish-maker. He wrote as I did, on engraved stationery, and even remembered Goldbaum. He was still rather fuzzy, but it was clear that he wanted something like absolution from me, because he had a past to overcome and I did not—all I wanted from him was a discount on the invoice for defective resin. The situation was interesting, but atypical, and coincided only partially with the question of the reprobate before the judge.

To begin with, in what language should I reply to him? Certainly not in German, I would make ridiculous errors that my role did not allow. Better to continue to fight on one’s own field—I wrote in Italian. The two others from the lab were dead; I knew neither where nor how. As for Goldbaum, he had died of cold and hunger during the evacuation march. The essential facts about me he knew from my book, and from the administrative correspondence about the vanadium.

I had many questions to ask him—too many, and too weighty for him and for me. Why Auschwitz? Why Pannwitz? Why the gassed children? But I felt it was not yet the moment to cross certain limits, and so I only asked if he accepted the judgments, implicit and explicit, of my book. Did he maintain that IG-Farben had spontaneously accepted the service of slave labor? Was he aware at that time of the “plants” of Auschwitz, which swallowed ten thousand lives a day seven kilometers from the Buna rubber plant? Finally, since he had mentioned his “observations on that period,” could he send me a copy?

I did not speak of the “hoped-for meeting” because I feared it. It is useless to look for euphemisms, to speak of modesty, timidity, restraint. Fear was the word: I consider myself neither a Monte Cristo nor one of the Horatii—neither a seeker of personal revenge nor a champion of my people. I do not feel capable of representing the dead of Auschwitz, and it didn’t even seem sensible to me to recognize Müller as the representative of the murderers. I know myself: I cannot argue on my feet; the adversary distracts me, interests me more as a human being than an adversary. I am ready to hear him and risk believing him. Indignation and good judgment are left behind, and only recaptured later, when they are no longer of use. It was better for me to continue by letter.



Müller wrote me administratively that the fifty kilos had been sent and that W. was confident of an amicable resolution, etc. Almost at the same time, the letter I was waiting for arrived at my house, but it was not what I expected. It was not a model letter, following a paradigm. At this point, if my story were fiction, I could introduce only two types of letter: a humble, warm, Christian letter by a redeemed Nazi, or a ribald, haughty, glacial one, from an obstinate Nazi. However, this story is not fiction, and reality is always more complex than invention—more unkempt, ruder, less symmetrical. It is rarely limited to only one level.

The letter was eight pages long, and included a photograph that made me shudder. The face was that face—older, and at the same time ennobled by a clever photographer. I felt it high above me pronouncing those distracted and momentous words of compassion, “Why do you seem so ill at ease?”

It was clearly the work of an inexperienced writer—rhetorical, half-sincere, full of digressions and long-winded eulogies, moving, pedantic, and cumbersome; it defied any summary, overall judgment.

He attributed the fact of Auschwitz to Man, making no distinctions. He deplored it, and found consolation in the thought of the other men cited in my book: Alberto and Lorenzo, “against whom the weapons of the night became blunt.” The phrase was mine, but when repeated by him it sounded hypocritical and discordant. He told his story: “Initially swept by the general enthusiasm for the Hitler regime,” he had joined a Nazi student league, which after some time had been officially incorporated into the SA. He had obtained a dismissal from it, and commented that “this too was therefore possible.” In the war, he had been mobilized for anti-aircraft duty, and only then, facing the ruins of the cities, had he felt “shame and scorn” for war. In May 1944 he had been able to put to use (like me!) the fact that he was a chemist, and he had been assigned to the Schkopau factory of IG-Farben, of which the factory at Auschwitz was an enlarged copy. At Schkopau he had been in charge of breaking in a group of Ukrainian girls to do laboratory work—girls I had met at Auschwitz and whose strange familiarity with Dr. Müller I could not explain. He and the girls had been transferred to Auschwitz only in November 1944; the name Auschwitz at that time had no meaning either for him or his acquaintances. Nevertheless, upon his arrival he had had a brief introductory meeting with the technical director (presumably the engineer Faust), and had been warned that “the Jews of Buna were to be assigned only the lowest jobs, and that compassion was not tolerated.”

He was directly subordinate to Doktor Pannwitz, the one who had subjected me to a curious “state exam” in order to ascertain my professional capacities. Müller showed he had a low opinion of his superior, and informed me that Pannwitz had died in 1946 of a brain tumor. It was Müller himself who was responsible for the organization of the Buna lab. He stated he had known nothing of that exam, and that he was the one who had chosen the three specialists, and me in particular. According to this news, improbable but not impossible, I was therefore obligated to him for my survival. With me, he said, he had had a relationship almost like friendship between equals; he had conversed with me about scientific problems, and had meditated, in that situation, on what “precious human values were destroyed by other men through sheer brutality.” Not only do I not remember any conversation of that sort (and my memory of that period, as I have said, is excellent), but the very suggestion of it, in that site of destruction, of mutual distrust, and of mortal fatigue is totally contrary to reality, and only explicable as the result of extremely ingenuous post-facto wishful thinking. Perhaps this conversation was an event he used to recount to many people, and did not realize that the one person in the world unable to believe it was precisely myself. Perhaps, in good faith, he had constructed a comfortable past for himself. He did not recall the two details of the beard and the shoes, but he remembered equivalent ones that seemed plausible to me. He had learned of my scarlet fever, and had worried about my survival, especially when he found out that the prisoners were to be evacuated on foot. On January 26, 1945 he was assigned by the SS to the Volksturm, the pieced-together army of pensioners, old men, and children which was supposed to resist the advance of the Soviets. Fortunately he had been saved by the technical director named above, who had authorized him to flee with the retreating forces.



To my question about IG-Farben he answered bluntly that they had indeed used prisoners, but only to protect them. He formulated the (crazy!) opinion that the entire Buna-Monowitz factory, eight square kilometers of gargantuan plants, had been constructed with the intention of “protecting the Jews and contributing to their survival,” and that the order not to have compassion on them was “eine Tarnung”—a camouflage. Nihil de principe—not a single accusation against IG-Farben: my man was still dependent upon W., which was its heir, and one doesn’t spit into the plate one is eating from. During the brief time he spent at Auschwitz, he “never came to learn of any section that seemed designed for the killing of Jews.” Paradoxical, offensive, but not automatically to be excluded—at that time it was the general practice of the silent German majority to know as few things as possible, and therefore not to ask questions. He too, apparently, had not asked for explanations from anyone, not even himself, although the flames of the crematorium were visible from the Buna factory on clear days.

Shortly before the final collapse, he was captured by the Americans and detained for several days in a camp for prisoners of war, which he described, with unintended irony, as being “primitively equipped.” As he had done when I first met him in the laboratory, Müller continued at the moment he was writing to have “keine Ahnung”—not the faintest idea. He had returned to his family at the end of June 1945. This was substantially the content of his observations which I had asked to know about.

He perceived in my book a rising above Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and an affirmation of faith in Man. He concluded by insisting on a meeting, in Germany or Italy, where he was ready to join me whenever and wherever I pleased—preferably on the Riviera. Two days later, a letter from W. arrived through managerial channels, which bore, certainly not by chance, the same date as the long personal letter, besides having the same signature. It was a conciliatory letter, recognizing their error and declaring themselves open to any offer from us. They wished to make clear that not all difficulties caused harm: the incident had brought to light the value of vanadium naphthenate, which from now on would be added directly to the resin, no matter what customer it was being sent to.



What to do? This personage, Müller, had “entpuppt”—had come out of his cocoon into focus. He was neither base nor heroic; after filtering out the rhetoric and lies, in good or bad faith, there remained a typically gray example of humanity—one of the not insubstantial number of the one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind. He granted me an undeserved honor by attributing to me the virtue of loving my enemies. No, despite the bygone privileges he had secured for me, and although he was not an enemy, strictly speaking, I did not feel I loved him. I didn’t love him, and didn’t care to see him, although I felt a certain measure of respect for him: it isn’t easy to be one-eyed. He was neither vile nor unfeeling nor cynical. He had not made an adjustment; he was settling accounts with the past, and the accounts were not profitable. He was trying to turn a profit—certainly cheating a little. Could one ask for much more from a former SA member? The encounter, which I had had occasion to make so many times with other honest Germans I had met on the beach or in the factory, was entirely in his favor. His condemnation of Nazism was timid and periphrastic, but he had not sought vindication. He was seeking a dialogue; he had a conscience, and was striving to keep it quiet. In his first letter he had spoken of “overcoming the past”—“Bewältigung der Vergangenheit.” I later learned that this was a cliché, a euphemism of contemporary Germany, where it was usually understood as “redemption from Nazism.” However, the root “walt” that is included in it occurs also in words meaning “dominion,” “violence,” and “rape,” and I believe that translating the expression as “distortion of the past” or “violence done to the past” would not deviate very far from its deeper meaning. Yet this taking refuge in the commonplace was better than the florid obtuseness of the other Germans. His efforts at overcoming were clumsy, a bit ridiculous, irritating, and sad, but nevertheless dignified. And hadn’t he provided me with a pair of shoes?

On my first free Sunday, filled with perplexity, I girded my loins to prepare a reply as sincere, balanced, and dignified as possible. I drew the letter out. I thanked him for admitting me into the laboratory. I declared I was ready to forgive my enemies, and indeed also to love them, but only when they showed certain signs of repentance—that is, when they ceased to be enemies. In the opposite case, where the enemy remained so and persisted in his desire to create suffering, it was certain that he could not be pardoned. One could try to reform him; one could (one had to!) communicate with him, but one’s duty was to judge him, not to pardon him. As for the specific judgment of Müller’s own behavior, which he had implicitly asked me for, I discreetly mentioned two cases known to me where his German colleagues, in our encounters, had done things much more courageous than anything he could take credit for. I granted that we were not all born heroes, and a world in which everyone were like him, honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but would also be an unreal world. In the real world the armed exist; they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed smooth the way for them. For this reason every German must answer for Auschwitz—no, every human being, and after Auschwitz it is no longer legitimate to be unarmed. About the meeting on the Riviera I did not say a word.

That very evening Müller called me on the telephone from Germany. The connection was poor, and in any event it is not easy for me to understand German on the phone. His voice sounded strained and cracked, the tone agitated. He announced that for Pentecost, in six weeks, he would come to Finale Ligure: could we meet? Taken by surprise, I answered yes, asking him to inform me of the time and details of his arrival, and putting aside my letter, which had become unnecessary.

A week later I received from Mrs. Müller the announcement of the unexpected death of Dr. Lothar Müller, in the sixtieth year of his life.

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