Glossary

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The Novel La tregua by Primo Levi (1963)

 a  “I also had other duties; to help Leonardo in the surgery, naturally; and to help Leonardo in the daily check for lice. This last service was necessary in those countries and in those times, when petechial typhus crept about, endemic and mortal. The job was not very attractive; we had to go through all the huts, and ask everybody to strip to the waist and hand us his shirt, in whose creases and seams the lice normally nestled and laid eggs.”

(Primo Levi: The Reawakening (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987), p. 53.)
 
 b  “But from another point of view, the fact of feeling a piece of Germany under our feet for the first time, not a piece of Upper Silesia or of Austria, but of Germany itself, overlaid our tiredness with a complex attitude composed of intolerance, frustration and tension. We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German [...]; we felt an urgent need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment, like chess players at the end of a game. Did ‘they’ know about Auschwitz, about the silent daily massacre, a step away from their doors? If they did, how could they walk about, return home and look at their children, cross the threshold of a church? If they did not, they ought, as a sacred duty, to listen, to learn everything, immediately, from us, from me; I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore. [...] I felt that everybody should interrogate us, read in our faces who we were, and listen to our tale in humility. But no one looked us in the eyes, no one accepted the challenge; they were deaf, blind and dumb, imprisoned in their ruins, as in a fortress of willful ignorance, still strong, still capable of hatred and contempt, still prisoners of their old tangle of pride and guilt.”
(Primo Levi: The Reawakening (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987), pp. 190–191.)
 
 c  “[…] and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, ‘Wstawańá’.
(Primo Levi: The Reawakening (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987), p. 53.)

“All my limbs ached, my blood throbbed violently in my head and I felt myself overwhelmed by fever. But it was not this alone; in the very hour in which every threat seemed to vanish, in which a hope of a return to life ceased to be crazy, I was overcome – as if a dyke had crumbled – by a new and greater pain, previously buried and relegated to the margins of my consciousness by other more immediate pains: the pain of exile, of my distant home, of loneliness, of friends lost, of youth lost and of the host of corpses all around. In my year at Buna I had seen four-fifths of my companions disappear, but I had never faced the concrete presence, the blockade, of death, its sordid breath a step away, outside the window, in the bunk next to me, in my own veins.”[1]

 

In his second book, La tregua (English: The Reawakening), which appeared in Italian in 1963, Buna/Monowitz concentration camp survivor Primo Levi describes the period following his liberation by the Red Army and the long journey back to Italy.

 

Primo Levi stayed behind when the SS “evacuated” the camp on January 18, 1945, and forcibly drove the prisoners on a westward death march. In La tregua, he describes the immediate postwar experience from the viewpoint of the narrator, “Primo”: Suffering from scarlet fever, he is a patient in the prisoner infirmary of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. For 10 days, the men abandoned there had fought against hunger, cold, and disease, a battle that many of them lost. On January 27, the soldiers of the Red Army arrive: the survivors are freed. Only after a few weeks in the hospital of the main camp can Primo set out on the long trip home, in late February. Taking several trains, walking on destroyed tracks, and making huge detours, he first reaches Cracow, accompanied by “the Greek,” Mordo Nahum. In the daily struggle to get the food he needs, it often is made clear to him that “the war is not over, there is always war,”[2] that anti-Semitism and supply problems, for example, are part of everyday life in Cracow. In the next camp, Katowice, he works for a few weeks as a “doctor” in the pharmacy of a Displaced Persons camp (DP camp)  a , until June 1945, when the DPs are to be repatriated, crossing the Black Sea in railroad cars belonging to the Russian army. The way to Odessa has been cut off, however, and the train, carrying passengers with a wide variety of origins and past histories, is rerouted northward to Starye Dorogi, a transit center in the Ukraine. In September, at last, a train is ready and scheduled to take Primo through Hungary, Austria, and Germany  b  and back to Italy. On October 19, 1945, the narrator returns to Turin, to his mother and sister.

 

The narrator interweaves the description of his odyssey with observations that reflect the path of the Auschwitz prisoner back into human society. Precise and insightful sketches of the people he encounters along the way create the background for his exact, compassionate description of his fellow travelers, who can come to grips only very gradually with the experiences of the concentration camp and the war. Even the narrator himself succeeds only partially in this attempt in his story: many of his portrayals are characterized by aloofness regarding his own experience, as when he withdraws to the position of observer or, in talking about the group of travelers, uses the pronoun “us” instead of “me.” The trip, a “reawakening,” “living images of a unique season of our existence,”[3] is a transitional phase presented in emotionally described images, whose end point does not mark an arrival: the conclusion suggests that the survivors will continue to be tormented by their memories as long as they live.  c 

 

In this regard, The Reawakening can also be read as the completion of Primo Levi’s testimony: Written more than 10 years after If This Is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz), The Reawakening is more than just the “continuation” of the former as a direct account of “Auschwitz”; it simultaneously testifies to the difficulties experienced by those who survived it when they try to speak about their experiences of the Holocaust.

 

The first English translation appeared in 1965. A film version of the book, directed by Francesco Rosi, was made in 1997.

(SP; transl. KL)



Literature

Benchouiha, Lucie: Primo Levi. Rewriting the Holocaust. Leicester: Troubador, 2006.

Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Levi, Primo: La tregua. Torino: Einaudi, 1963.

Levi, Primo: The Reawakening. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

[1] Primo Levi: The Reawakening (New York: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 4–5.

[2] Levi: Reawakening, p. 41.

[3] Levi: Reawakening, p. 166.