“The Truce,” the story of Levi’s journey homeward after Auschwitz, across thousands of miles of war-ravaged Europe, starts from where “If this is a man” (published frequently as “Survival in Auschwitz”) ended, with Primo Levi in the infirmary of Buna surrounded by the dead and dying just as the Russian troops arrived to liberate the camp.
In the days following liberation the survivors are moved from Buna to the disorder of a liberated Auschwitz
Levi’s book is a careful study in the motley characters that he meets as he makes his way in search of a “camp equipped to receive us,” such as the fifteen year-old Hungarian boy Henek, who, in order to survive, had worked his way into a position as the childrens’ block Kapo – “When there were selections at the Children’s Block [in order to determine who would go to the gas chambers and who would live] he was the one who chose. Did he feel no remorse? No: why should he? Was there any other way to survive?”
After the ordeal of Auschwitz, they are hoping for a “short and safe journey towards an acceptable substitute for our homes; and this hope formed part of a far greater hope, that of an upright and just world, miraculously re-established on its natural foundations after an eternity of upheavals, of errors and massacres, after our long patient wait. It was a naive hope.”
On the way, Levi yearns for a civilized face and an open ear so that he can begin to tell the world what happened at the Lager.
Some have heard of Auschwitz, such as a shopkeeper in Katowice who, along with her husband, “never liked Hitler” and had been “too incautious in allowing these singular opinions to leak out in the neighbourhood.” Her husband was taken by the Gestapo in 1935 and was never seen again. In 1938 she wrote a personal letter to Hitler telling him “any child could understand” that going to war with the world would only lead to defeat and misery. The brown-shirts came and ransacked her house but told her she was just a “stupid old goat” not worth the hangman’s rope, and expelled her from Berlin.
But mostly he is met with incredulity, disinterest, condescension, disgust:
“We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us; we felt an urgent need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment. […] 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? […] But no one looked us in the eyes, no one accepted the challenge.”
Levi makes his stop-start way across Europe, meeting and parting with a host of failed pick-pockets, dodgy traders, con artists, insane actors, skilled doctors, opportunist self-appointed officials, trainloads of Ukrainian women being returned from German work camps with “closed and bitter faces,” “evasive eyes,” and an “animal-like humiliation and resignation,” a scattering of German prisoners left to starve in the sun like “abandoned cattle,” “Germans, Poles, French, Greeks, Dutch, Italians and others; Germans pretending to be Austrians, Austrians declaring themselves Swiss, Russians stating that they were Italians, a woman dressed as a man and finally, conspicuous in the midst of this ragged crowd, a Magyar general in full uniform, as quarrelsome, motley and stupid as a cock,”
“all in the hands of the inscrutable Soviet bureaucracy, an obscure and gigantic power, not ill-intentioned towards us, but suspicious, negligent, stupid, contradictory and in effect as blind as the forces of nature.” It is chaos, a Boschian nightmare, a “testimony to … the pestilence that had prostrated Europe.”