Recollections of a wandering Jew

A documentary retracing Primo Levi's route from Auschwitz to Turin reveals what has changed over time.

By TOM TUGEND
November 1, 2007 08:03
2 minute read.
primo levi 88 224

primo levi 88 224. (photo credit: Cinema Guild)

 
X

Dear Reader,
As you can imagine, more people are reading The Jerusalem Post than ever before. Nevertheless, traditional business models are no longer sustainable and high-quality publications, like ours, are being forced to look for new ways to keep going. Unlike many other news organizations, we have not put up a paywall. We want to keep our journalism open and accessible and be able to keep providing you with news and analyses from the frontlines of Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World.

As one of our loyal readers, we ask you to be our partner.

For $5 a month you will receive access to the following:

  • A user experience almost completely free of ads
  • Access to our Premium Section
  • Content from the award-winning Jerusalem Report and our monthly magazine to learn Hebrew - Ivrit
  • A brand new ePaper featuring the daily newspaper as it appears in print in Israel

Help us grow and continue telling Israel’s story to the world.

Thank you,

Ronit Hasin-Hochman, CEO, Jerusalem Post Group
Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief

UPGRADE YOUR JPOST EXPERIENCE FOR 5$ PER MONTH Show me later

Primo Levi's Journey, shown at the Toronto, Berlin, Rome and London Film Festivals, defies neat categorization. It's part travelogue, part Holocaust remembrance, part philosophical reflection. The documentary's roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer's long journey from Auschwitz, after his liberation in January 1945, to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers on a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself. Levi, and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex prisoners of war crossed from Poland to the Ukraine, laid over two months in Belarus, then through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later. Levi wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in The Truce (published in the United States as The Reawakening), many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, If This Is a Man. In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi's liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi's earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much - and how little - has changed in the 60-year interval. In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets, patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still. In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz. Old ethnic hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days. Levi's 1945 observation of a planet "that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason" seems as apt as ever. There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers, with a sign "We accept credit cards." Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, "You don't speak Yiddish, you can't be Jewish." When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing only intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi's family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally. Ferrario himself believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word 'suicide,' simply states in the film that "he threw himself down the stairs." Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi's death, he remarked, "Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz." For more on the film, visit www.cinemaguild.com.

Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>

Related Content

Sarah Silverman
August 26, 2014
Jewish women take home gold at 2014 Emmys

By JTA