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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Movie Filming Stirs Wartime Memories

HNIVAN, Ukraine -- The small town of Hnivan has seen little action and hardly any foreigners since the tumultuous times of World War II, when the Nazi army roared through this part of western Ukraine.

But this summer, its sleepy dirt roads -- and wartime memories -- are being stirred up by an international film crew shooting a movie about Primo Levi. The acclaimed Italian Jewish writer came through Ukraine on a nine-month journey home to Italy from the Auschwitz concentration camp after the war.

One recent day, a hunched, elderly resident of the usually tranquil town nearly dropped her bucket of raspberries when she stumbled upon the movie set.

"Pronto!" yelled director Francesco Rosi. And the cameras started rolling.

An old steam engine began chugging along a rusty track. Actors shouted and embraced around the dusty set.

The scene depicted Levi's departure from a small town in southern Belarus, where he and hundreds of other Italian refugees were held for months in 1945.

It was one of many emotional train scenes described in his book "The Reawakening." The movie will retain the book's Italian title, "La Tregua" or "The Truce."

The subject matter strikes a sensitive chord in Ukraine, which is struggling with conflicting memories of World War II. Some Ukrainian nationalists fought with Adolf Hitler's army, viewing it as a lesser threat to the country than Soviet occupation.

Ukraine is also haunted by a long history of anti-Semitism. Pogroms and Soviet-era persecutions killed or forced out millions of Jews in this century. There are virtually no Jews in small towns like Hnivan now.

The joint European production was filmed almost entirely in Ukraine. Much of Levi's journey took place in Ukraine and in neighboring Poland and Belarus.

Actor John Turturro, who plays Levi in the film, said the location brought him a new understanding of the role.

"They know what it's like to go without," he said, describing the wrenching poverty in some of the villages he visited. "It's really disturbing sometimes."

As many as 10 million Ukrainians died during the war -- either victims of the Nazi campaign or of Josef Stalin's brutal policies -- and many Ukrainians feel the world has ignored their pain.

Irina Bunshchuk, warehouse manager at the Hnivan sugar refinery used for several scenes in the film, had warm words for the visitors but was unsure about the project itself.

"We all suffered during the war. I don't know if they understand that," she said. "We remember the war very differently than people in Italy do."

Soviet-era monuments to war victims dot the willow-lined road and rolling meadows on the way from Hnivan to Vinnitsya, the nearest large town.

None of them mentions Jews, who had been singled out by the Nazis for extermination.

Actually, "The Truce" focuses less on Jewish themes than on Levi's painful personal "reawakening" and a Europe caught between war and peace.

The Italian-Swiss-German-British-French crew has won some local admirers in their three months of shooting.

"They've saved my life," said Marina Klyukova, a gaunt Ukrainian woman who worked as an extra in several scenes, playing a camp refugee.

The 33-year-old engineer was unemployed in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv when the film crew came to town seeking local help.

Despite the emotionally draining role and lack of Hollywood conveniences, Turturro's passion for the film remained undimmed. "I had to do it," he said. "[Levi] just pulls you in, he touches you."

Levi committed suicide in 1987.