The Truce aka La tregua (1997) or Primo Levi´s Odyssey from Auschwitz back home

The late Italian writer Primo Levi was one of 650 Italian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. He was one of only five to survive.

All of his life he suffered of survivor´s guilt and feelings of shame remembering how much they were degraded. In 1987 he very probably committed suicide. I say probably since it was not 100% established but everything points to it.

He wrote two famous books about the Holocaust.  If this is a man aka Se questo è un uomo about his time in Auschwitz and  The Truce aka La tregua about his odyssey back home from Auschwitz to Italy.

Francesco Rosi’s movie The truce aka La tregua is based on the second of those books.

Did you ever wonder what happened to the prisoners of Auschwitz after they had been freed by the Red Army? Being free was one thing but getting back home another one altogether.

Levi´s odyssey brought him first farther away from his home country Italy, to Minsk.  You could not just board a train at leisure. The railway lines had mostly been destroyd. And what about food without money in countries whose populations were starving? It takes Primo months until he gets back.  He finally arrives after stressful moments of a long and complicated journey, mishaps, dangers but also of  joy and rediscovering the beauty of life.

I knew John Turturro from his movies with the Coen brothers where he plays mostly a comical character. This is a very different role but it felt as if it had been created for him. He plays this sad, pensive and gentle intellectual in a very endearing manner.

The last scene shows Primo writing. That’s what he will do from now on, that and working as a chemist. And he will leave two of the most accurate and painful accounts of Auschwitz and the journey home that we have.

People who read the book La tregua criticize the movie relentlessly but I think we should also see it as a homage to a man who had the courage to testify but never really got over the fact to have been one of a very few to survive.

I liked this movie, I really did, probably thanks to Turturro´s soulful acting.

During the last scene of the movie, when we see Primo Levi writing, we hear a voice in the off reading his poem If  This is a Man aka Se questo è un uomo.

Please, take a few minutes and read it.

Voi che vivete sicuri You who live safe
Nelle vostre tiepide case In your warm houses,
voi che trovate tornando a sera You who find warm food
Il cibo caldo e visi amici And friendly faces when you return home.
Considerate se questo è un uomo Consider if this is a man
Che lavora nel fango Who works in mud,
Che non conosce pace Who knows no peace,
Che lotta per mezzo pane Who fights for a crust of bread,
Che muore per un sì o per un no. Who dies by a yes or a no.
Considerate se questa è una donna Consider if this is a woman
Senza capelli e senza nome Without hair, without name,
Senza più forza di ricordare Without the strength to remember,
Vuoti gli occhi e freddo il grembo Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Come una rana d’inverno. Like a frog in winter.
Meditate che questo è stato Never forget that this has happened.
Vi comando queste parole. Remember these words.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore Engrave them in your hearts,
Stando in casa andando per via When at home or in the street,
Coricandovi alzandovi When lying down, when getting up.
Ripetetele ai vostri figli. Repeat them to your children.
O vi si sfaccia la casa Or may your houses be destroyed,
La malattia vi impedisca May illness strike you down,
I vostri nati torcano il viso da voi May your offspring turn their faces from you.
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Triumph of the Spirit (1989) or The Story of Salamo Arouch and how he survived Auschwitz

Salamo Arouch, a young Greek of Jewish descent became middle weight boxing champion of the Balkans in 1939. All his 24 fights ended with a KO. An absolute record. Surely he would have had a stunning career. Instead after Germany invaded Greece he and his family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau together with thousands of other Greek Jews in March 1943.

While the women of the family were gassed on the first day of their arrival, Salamo, his father and his brother were coerced into forced labour. Once the guards found out that he was a famous boxer they forced him to fight other prisoners for the entertainment of the Nazis. The loser would be gassed mercilessly. Somehow Arouch survived Auschwitz winning 208 fights by KO. After the liberation he emigrated to Palestine and witnessed the foundation of the state of Israel.

This incredible story, starring Willem Dafoe (at his absolute best) as Salamo Arouch is told in Triumph of the Spirit. Shot on location at Auschwitz this is one of the most impressive movies on the Holocaust I have ever seen. It feels spooky to know that we are actually seeing the very  place where all this happened. Salamo Arouch came back to Auschwitz as an advisor during the shooting of this movie. He died in April 2009.

I had so many questions while watching this… So many thoughts… What was it like to go back there after having endured all this? What was it like for the actors to play in such a movie in such a place that was saturated in pain? Can you still feel this? And what was it like to play a prisoner of Auschwitz? I think this must be one of the hardest roles for any actor. I was also wondering if this movie would not be good material to teach Auschwitz and the theme of the concentration camps in schools. And I was wondering, once more, how all this could have happened. When you see the guards, hit the prisoners, see how malnourished they are, so hungry that they would almost kill their own for a tiny piece of bread. The way they had to sleep with such little space. When you watch how thousands are forced to take showers but were ultimately gassed. When you see the piles of clothes, shoes, hair, jewelry… and the piles of bodies that had to be cremated. How could anyone help in any of this? How could that happen? I think we need to have such movies, we need to know what humans are capable of, and stay alert and never let this happen again.

Another question I was asking myself was: Would I like to visit Auschwitz? I must admit, I wouldn´t. I believe that places can store pain. I would not want to get this close to it. What about you? Would you want to visit Auschwitz?