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About the book

The Truce documents Primo Levi’s long and difficult journey back to Italy, through the confusion and destruction in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Describing a physical journey back to his homeland from Poland (through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany), Levi also explains a more personal journey to regain control over his life and to begin to consider and learn how to live with his experiences in Auschwitz.

The liberation of the Nazi concentration camps was not the end of the struggle for survival, either physically or psychologically. For Primo Levi, his liberation is not the end of living with death – after the Soviet troops liberated the camp ‘the sick died in their cold bunks by the dozen’. Even with coordinated efforts, such as with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, many could not survive and the food supply after liberation in Auschwitz – ‘Russians, still engaged in fighting, sent irregularly to the camp: sometimes little, sometimes nothing, sometime in crazy abundance’. After leaving Auschwitz, Levi has to remain resourceful and there is often a daily struggle to find food and shelter – the war in Europe is four months from its end, the continent sparing few resources for those liberated from the camps.

The journey described, back to Italy, is as much about daily survival as a return home and the newly won freedom from the Nazi regime is often only partial freedom. Transport is chaotic, the direction of travel often unclear and the Soviet authorities often take decisions that sent Levi further from home – as he leaves Poland, he finds himself ‘travelling together towards the north, towards an unknown goal… in the hands of the Soviet bureaucracy, an obscure and gigantic power, not ill-intentioned toward us, but suspicious, negligent, stupid, contradictory and in effect as blind as the forces of nature’. 

Through a blend of luck, judgement and resourcefulness Levi negotiates a circuitous route back to Italy. All the while maintaining an observant and interested eye, documenting a continent on the move, desperate and disparate groups of people trying to cling to what little they have left as the Soviet forces advance and defeat the Nazi regime. With the tide of war drawing back from the villages, towns and cities of eastern Europe, Levi documents the reawakening continent, the migrations and the struggles that are being played out in the innumerable attempts to survive each day, find food, transport and consider what may remain for them if they are able to return to their home.

The Truce can perhaps be described as an exploration of hinterlands – the places between places that he travels through but also a continent moving from the brutal war of the Nazi regime and into the Cold War. Levi is part of a continent on the move, with prisoners of war, prisoners of the camps and displaced civilian populations, trying to survive each day while also trying to rebuild a new life. The Truce is certainly a record of personal survival – surviving the camps, surviving the aftermath – but also speaks of the start of Primo Levi's long-term survival with the burden of memories of the Nazi concentration camps.

The Truce is an exceptionally well written book. While it can challenging to speak of the literary merits of survivor's testimony, this book does speak of a great talent and a great mind that survived the Holocaust, which in turn points to all who were lost. The Truce is a book that documents important historical events but also, without anger or moralising, clearly shows how survival, for victims and societies, was only at a start when troops liberated the camps.

About the author

Born into a Jewish family in Turin, Primo Levi is commonly acknowledged as one of the most significant Italian writers of the 20th century, perhaps most well-known for his accounts of his year as a prisoner in Auschwitz and the journey he took as a refugee following his liberation from the camp.

Key themes

  • Caring for victims of atrocities: Primo Levi starts The Truce immediately following liberation, documenting the immediate needs of the survivors – the lack of a coordinated approach, given the chaos of the situation and the lack of planning, contributed to the very low survival rates of those liberated.
  • Displaced peoples: Throughout his journey, Levi encounters a continent on the move and clearly records the impact of war and how war displaces people, rendering the task of reviving nations and societies more complex and complicating the task of identifying and providing help to survivors of atrocities.

Discussion Questions

1. This book, The Truce, is titled as The Reawakening in the North America. The British title is a more direct translation of the Italian but why do you feel The Reawakening was chosen as an alternative?

2. There is lack of organised help for survivors when Levi is liberated. What would you have seen as the priority for helping the survivors?

3. The Truce describes a chaotic Europe where many of the survivors had to fend for themselves. Do you feel modern nations would be able to offer better help? (You may wish to explore our website to help you consider this question).

4. Throughout his journey Levi maintains an interest in his surroundings and is quick to form partnerships and friendships. How do you feel this impacted on his ability to survive and tolerate his journey across Europe?

5. How do you feel Primo Levi would contrast his treatment by Soviet forces with the actions of the Nazi regime?

Further reading for those that enjoyed this book:

  • After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945, Ben Shepherd

You can use HMDT resources to find out more about:

The Holocaust

The camps

Liberation

Life after the Holocaust