Trauma and Latency in Primo Levi’s The Reawakening

  • Jonathan Druker
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


Primo Levi’s second book, The Reawakening, describes his liberation from Auschwitz and his nine months as a “displaced person” as he waits and wanders through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, finally returning home to Italy in October 1945. This memoir usually has been read as a spirited odyssey, or as a lively, picaresque account that affirms the value of community, or as the story of Levi’s metaphorical “rebirth” after the Holocaust.1 Gian-Paolo Biasin brings nuance to the conversation in saying that the book describes a journey “haunted by the memories of the horrors past … which project their long shadow over the whole narration.”2 I would go even further: the historical trauma of Auschwitz does not merely color Levi’s second memoir but dictates its form and, therefore, its meaning. That is to say, the structure of The Reawakening closely follows the three stages of trauma posited by Sigmund Freud, which I summarize here.3 First, there is the initial shock, which is so extreme and unexpected that the subject cannot immediately absorb its impact; then, there is the latency period, an interval of forgetfulness between the primary exposure and the appearance of pathological symptoms; and finally, there is the onset of recurring traumatic memories that may last a lifetime.


Traumatic Memory Holocaust Survivor Pleasure Principle Final Page Matic Stress Disorder 
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  1. 1.
    The Reawakening, trans. Stuart Woolf, with afterword, “The Author’s Answers to His Readers’ Questions,” trans. by Ruth Feldman (New York: Macmillan, 1987). See, for example, Isabella Bertoletti, “Primo Levi’s Odyssey: The Drowned and the Saved,” The Legacy of Primo Levi, ed. Stanislao Pugliese (New York: Pal-grave Macmillan, 2005), 105–18. Bertoletti states that “the infernal sorrows of the Lager are replaced in La tregua by a mood of exuberance” (112). On the picaresque aspects of the memoir, see JoAnn Cannon, “Storytelling and the Picaresque in Levi’s La tregua,” Modern Language Studies, 31, no. 2 (2001): 1–10. Henceforth, all references to this edition will be included in parenthesis in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gian-Paolo Biasin, “The Haunted Journey of Primo Levi,”, Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness, ed. Roberta S. Kremer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 10.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 84.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In The Reawakening, Levi very often uses the term “Russia” and “Russian” when, for greater historical accuracy, he might have written “Soviet Union” and “Soviet.” The first three paragraphs of the book are typical. In his description of the arrival of the Red Army at Auschwitz, Levi employs the word “Russian” four times while the word “Soviet” does not appear (1). Levi’s usage speaks to the commonly held notion in Western Europe that the Soviet Union was just the latest iteration of the Russian Empire and that Russia dominated the other Soviet republics both politically and culturally. Levi describes Germany’s conqueror as “Victorious Russia” (107); he and the other prisoners contend with “the Russian Command” (114); and he describes “Russian trains,” not Soviet ones (67). It is noteworthy that Levi never actually touched Russian soil during his many months in the Soviet Union. After passing through Poland and before reaching Western Europe, he traveled through Ukraine, Belarus (Levi often calls it “White Russia”), Romania, and Hungary. Nevertheless, Levi and the other Italians speak of being detained in Russia (146); of confronting “the immense, heroic space of Russia” and “the Russian summer” (113); of struggling with the Russian language (120). Another commonly held notion shaping Levi’s account is that eastern Russia was not wholly “European” despite the strict cartographic definition. According to Neumann, many Western intellectuals of the 1950s considered Russia more Asian than European, and thought that Russia, nomadic and barbarian, was the antithesis of sedentary, civilized Europe. Iver B. Neumann, “Russia as Europe’s Other,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 6, no. 12 (1998): 26–73.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the idea that the Holocaust was enabled by the Enlightenment, see, for example, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  6. 07.
    See Robert S. C. Gordon, Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), particularly the chapter on friendship, 219–36.Google Scholar
  7. 08.
    Irving Howe, “Introduction,” Primo Levi, If Not Now, When?, trans. William Weaver (New York: Summit Books, 1985), 12.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (excerpt), in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 602; emphasis in original.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Random House, 1989), 24.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    This, and the quotations that follow, until otherwise noted, come from Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1993).Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Primo Levi, Collected Poems, trans. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), 10.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience: Introduction,”, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 4–5; emphasis in original.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Iver B. Neumann, Russia and the Idea of Europe: A Study in Identity and International Relations (London: Routledge, 1996).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 20.
    Krushchev’s 1956 speech, in which he denounced Stalin’s purges and war crimes, was much discussed that summer in the Italian press. See Elena Dun-dovich, “Khrushchev: Contemporary Perspectives in the Western Press,” in Wilfried Loth, ed., Europe, Cold War, and Coexistence, 1953–1965 (New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 2004), 190–200.Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    Terence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 210.Google Scholar
  16. 28.
    Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 24.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Risa Sodi and Millicent Marcus 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Druker
    • 1
  1. 1.Illinois State UniversityUSA

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