Primo Levi’s memoir The Reawakening begins where his Survival in Auschwitz ended. It’s the last days of the WWII, and Levi is trying to stay alive in what passes for a hospital or sick bay in concentration camp.
Levi, who committed suicide in 1987, was an Italian Jewish writer and a chemist. He was arrested in as a part of the Italian resistance in 1943, and to escape being shot as a partisan, he confessed to being Jewish, and after a short interment in Italy, was taken to Auschwitz, where he lived for eleven months. He managed to evade the gas chamber, because as a chemist, his skills were useful in a laboratory to make rubber.
In my goodreads review for Survival in Auschwitz (that U.S. title is all wrong, but more on that later) I wrote that “To me the most powerful chapter was the last one, where Levi chronicles the very last days before the Red Army liberated the camp. He spent those days at the camp hospital with the dead and the dying. After the Germans have left, the camp becomes a barren, smoking wasteland where the last remaining survivors scavenge for food and water trough frozen soil and snow and shit. It’s horrifying, apocalyptic.”
In The Reawakening, Russian soldiers approach the camp on horseback, come to liberate those who still somehow live there. But that does not mean that Levi’s troubles are over, not by a long shot. He’s still sick, and he still has a long way to go before getting back home to Italy. The homecoming takes him and his fellow Italian survivors to places like a small village in Ukraine. The tone of the book is naturally lighter than that of the camp memoir, but Levi’s overall pessimism prevails.
Which brings me to the issue of the U.S. titles. Their both quite misleading. The bulk of the text in so called Survival in Auschwitz actually deals with how difficult, or nearly impossible it is to survive in a concentration camp as the same person you were before. The title If This Is a Man is much better. Likewise, The Reawakening is much better titled as The Truce, because Levi describes in some length and detail the discussions he has with a friend about the belief that the war is human kind’s natural state of being, and that peace is just a short respite before war continues. And the war is always the same, just a continuation from the last one.
As a title The Truce also paves way to the gut-wrenching last page of the book, which makes it clear that how difficult it is to ever fully survive a trauma as deep and incomprehensible as Auschwitz. So why did these books have to be published under these falsely optimistic titles in the U.S? It’s a mystery.
This is apparently my “compulsively editing Cannonball Read reviews” Sunday, but I have to add something. If you follow the Amazon link provided here, you can read Levi’s own Afterword to the U.S. edition. It’s very interesting, and actually somewhat disproves or at least contradicts my interpretation of these books as fundamentally pessimistic.