Zhmerinka was a large agricultural village, formerly a market town, as could be deduced from the huge central square, of trodden earth, with numerous parallel rows of iron bars to which beasts could be tethered. It was now wholly empty; but in a corner, in the shade of an oak tree, a tribe of nomads had encamped, a vision stemming from distant millennia.
It must have been true that groups of Allied ex-prisoners had embarked at Odessa months before, as some Russians had told us, for the station of Zhmerinka, our temporary and scarcely intimate residence, still bore the signs: a triumphal arch made of branches, now withered, bearing the words “Long live the United Nations”; enormous ghastly portraits of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, with phrases extolling the victory against the common enemy. But the brief season of concord between the three great allies must now have been drawing to its end, for the paintings were discoloured and faded by the weather, and were taken down during our stay. A painter arrived; he put up scaffolding along the wall of the station, and covered the slogan “Works of the world, unite!” with a coating of whitewash; in its place we saw, with a subtle sense of chill, another quite different slogan appear, letter by letter: “Vpered na Zapad,” “On towards the West.”
The repatriation of Allied soldiers had now finished, but other trains arrived and left for the south before our eyes. These were also Russian trains but quite distinct from the military ones, glorious and homely, which we had seen passing through Katowice. They were trainloads of Ukrainian women returning from Germany; only women, because the men had gone off as soldiers or partisans, or else had been killed by the Germans.
Their exile had been different from ours, and from that of the prisoners of war. Not all of them, but the majority, had abandoned their homes “spontaneously.” A coerced, blackmailed spontaneity, distorted by the subtle and heavy Nazis lies and propaganda, both threatening and enticing, blaring out from the radio, newspapers, posters; nevertheless, a demonstration of free will, an assent. Women aged sixteen to forty, hundreds of thousands of them, peasant women, students, factory workers, had left the devastated fields, the closed schools and bombarded factories for the invaders’ bread. Not a few were mothers, who had left to earn bread for their children. In Germany they had found bread, barbed wire, hard work, German order, servitude and shame; now under the weight of their shame they were being repatriated, without joy and without hope.
Victorious Russia had no forgiveness for them. They returned home in roofless cattle trucks, which were divided horizontally by boards so as to exploit the space better: sixty, eighty women to a truck. They had no luggage, only the worn-out discoloured clothes they were wearing. If their young bodies were still solid and healthy, their closed and bitter faces, their evasive eyes displayed a disturbing, animal-like humiliation and resignation; not a voice emerged from those coils of limbs, which sluggishly untangled themselves when the train stopped at the station. No one was waiting for them, no one seemed aware of them. Their inertia, their fugitive shyness, their painful lack of pudency, was that of humiliated and tame beasts. We alone watched their passage, with compassion and sadness, a new testimony to, and a new aspect of, the pestilence which had prostrated Europe.
From Primo Levi’s Daphne Award nominated memoir of his travel home to Italy after the liberation of Auschwitz, The Reawakening