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A Wall of Indifference: Italy’s Shoah Memorial

The Milan Central Train Station is a grandiose building and a forceful presence at the heart of the city, used daily by 320,000 people. But this busy European railway hub harbors a dark history: Underneath the station, hidden from view, is the secret track used to deport Italian Jews to Auschwitz.

Opened in 1931, the station was designed, at the request of then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, to reflect the ideology of Italian fascism. The secret track, rediscovered in 1995, lies down a quiet street a short distance away from the 24 regular platforms, to the east of the station’s main entrance. The entrance opens wide into a warehouse space where stairs lead down to a boxcar, a cargo lift and a single train track.

“There is no similar archaeological site in all of Europe,” commented Michele Sarfatti, one of Italy’s most important historians of Italian Jewry.

Since 2002, this track of horror has been the official site for the Memoriale della Shoah di Milano, a planned memorial to honor the Jews deported from Milan in 1944. The completion of the memorial has been stalled time and again, partly because funds have been hard to raise. After almost 10 years, the end is still not in sight. But according to many involved in the project, there is another, more insidious force stalling it: an atmosphere of indifference to the idea that Italy was an active participant in the Holocaust.

Paradoxically, Italy is in the midst of a boom in Holocaust memorials. Besides Milan’s Shoah memorial, there are two projects planned to commemorate Italy’s role in the Holocaust, one in Ferrara and one in Rome. Though the recent news of these projects may contradict the alleged indifference, it also may help explain it. For Italy, memorials and museums — like the numerous events the country has held commemorating its role in World War II — can assuage a sense of awkwardness without acknowledging guilt for its actions.

Sarfatti says that the culture of memory is slower in Italy than elsewhere in Europe, because even into the 1970s many Italians believed they were not really involved in the Holocaust; it was, instead, the evil work of German occupiers who invaded northern Italy after the fall of Mussolini. Italians pointed to the documented refusal of soldiers and citizens to participate in the Holocaust under Mussolini or to assist the Nazis after they invaded in 1943. In the end, about 8,000 of Italy’s 50,000 prewar Jews were shipped to the Nazi camps or murdered by the Nazis in Italy.

Two historical discoveries in the early 1990s decisively shifted Holocaust discourse in Italy. One was the publication of “Il Libro Della Memoria” (“The Book of Memory”) by Liliana Picciotto, a book whose sobering statistics revealed, among other things, that more than half the Jews arrested and deported in northern Italy were arrested by Italian police and not by the Nazis, under an agreement regarding Jews reached between the German and Italian governments.

The second trigger was the 2000 publication, in book form, of the entirety of Italy’s racial laws of 1938, the so-called “Manifesto della Razza” (“Manifesto of Race”). Suddenly, Italians had to come to terms with the fact that their government had issued many indigenous laws, quite separate from — and in some areas harsher than — the Nazis’ racial laws. Italy’s promulgation of anti-Jewish laws was not just the result of Nazi influence; it also had been, as Sarfatti puts it, “an autonomous process.”

Even today, no one disputes the fact that Italy had its heroes, both governmental and civic. But the brava gente narrative — that the Italians did their best to protect their Jewish neighbors and that the Nazis forced them to deport Jews — is widely seen as simplistic. It was partially in response to these developments that, on January 27, 2001, the Italian government belatedly joined other European countries in observing an annual Giorno Della Memoria (Memorial Day) for the Jewish victims of the Shoah.

Meanwhile, Milan has faced unique issues in its long struggle to complete its memorial — beginning with the tepid support of its Jewish residents for the project. After World War II, many of Milan’s surviving native Jews emigrated. Today the community is largely made up of immigrant Jews from the Middle East who honor its memory but do not see the Holocaust as “their” tragedy. Milan’s smaller, ultra-Orthodox community, meanwhile, views the Holocaust as only one tragic event in a long chain of persecution.

Even longtime native Milanese Jews of the mainstream have been unresponsive. Roberto Jarach, president of the Milan Jewish community, reminded me that it was the Catholic organization Sant’Egidio that, in 1994, first alerted the Jewish community about the secret track. It was not the Jewish community that wanted to commemorate the space, but local Catholic institutions, and especially Milan’s then archbishop, Carlo Maria Martini.

I asked Jarach if active resistance to the memorial is slowing its completion. “No,” he answered. “Italians don’t feel that they are guilty, because they feel that they have always been a good people. They think that they have always cared for their foreigners.” Jarach paused to let the word “foreigners” sink in. “When they say that, you wonder,” he said. “My family has been here for more than 400 years. We are foreigners?!”

The nongovernmental organization formed to build the project, of which Jarach is vice president, has raised funds to cover about half its projected $15.6 million cost. Major supporters include the municipality of Milan, the regional government of Lombardy, the owner of an Italian supermarket chain and several anonymous private donors.

The lack of Jewish sponsors is striking. When I asked Sarfatti about this, he snapped, “You must exit the United States.”

Sarfatti explained that the Jewish community in Italy does not have the same resources as American Jewry. He added: “It’s very difficult to have memorials in the countries where the Shoah happened. The fortunate Jews who went to Israel or the States after the war could contribute to the making of memorials [in those places] without it being a reflection of that country, of their conscience or ethics. In Europe, however, the memory provokes more embarrassment, because you must know what’s been your responsibility.”

Daniela Tedeschi, who helped create pedagogical kits about the Shoah that are now offered for free to all Italian schools, told me of the hurdles that confront both those who teach about the Shoah and those trying to build the memorial: “It is especially difficult as the years pass,” she said. “The Shoah was important, people will say, but don’t forget Bosnia, Armenia…. We have found that this trend has become stronger, to lump all genocides together. I think it is guilt that makes Italians want to say, ‘You are not the only ones.’ But we, as Jews, must keep the Holocaust separate.”

Milan’s three most outspoken survivors, Liliana Segre, 81, Nedo Fiano, 85, and Goti Bauer, 87, believe that the Jewish community deserves part of the blame for staying quiet about the Shoah. Over the past 20 years, the three, driven by a sense of duty to share their stories, have spoken to thousands of students across the country. With few exceptions, the invitations come from Catholic schools and organizations. “I spoke in February, in a big church near Venice, and the priest organized for 1,300 students inside the church! But never in a synagogue. Never,” Segre said. “They say that Jewish students are afraid of the story, and parents are worried for them.”

Fiano says that after the creation of the racial laws that excluded him from attending school with his non-Jewish classmates, his classmates’ reaction was complete indifference. “I don’t even think it was a question of anti-Semitism,” he said of their lack of response. “They simply did not know what I was talking about.” When Segre returned from Auschwitz, her relatives told her that it was best to not think of what had happened, to just forget the whole thing. She did not speak of it publicly until 1992.

Although they were silent, the memories remained fixed “in our heart and soul,” Bauer hastened to add. “It is important for people to know what happened — not only so it won’t happen again to us as Jews, but to anybody. So that it will not happen anywhere else in the world.”

Today, visitors to the deportation track are greeted by sleeping bags and garbage, signs of the homeless people that camp out there. It is dark and chilly. The rumbling sound of the trains above, the slight shaking, reminds visitors why they are there. The subterranean darkness imbues the scene with an appropriate existential gloom. The track, the whole site, remains exactly as it was, awaiting its next cargo.

While touring the site with me, Sarfatti and the site’s architect, Guido Morpurgo, explained the deportation process. All the Jews in northern Italy — from Turin, Genoa, Val D’Aosta — were brought to Milan’s San Vittore prison and transported to Milano Centrale. Then, they were loaded like freight into a boxcar, which was then lowered down to the special track where the boxcar was hooked up to the train. The boxcar was loaded in the early morning hours to ensure that there were no witnesses, and to avoid hindering the daily operations of the mail and other cargo. The country could not afford distractions in the middle of a war.

To date, the site’s office space and bathrooms have been completed. The windows have been enlarged so that the memorial can reach out onto the street, preventing the genocide from remaining shut in and separate from everyday life. Aside from that, Morpurgo insisted on preserving the area: Its hundreds of exposed beams and huge pillars frame an ugly, uninviting space. The words “Wall of Indifference” are carved into the wall that leads the visitor into a powerful experience of the authentic Italian Holocaust — with its isolated train track, boxcar and cargo lift.

One of Italy’s most prominent architects, Morpurgo has worked on this project so far without compensation. He has been its most passionate advocate during the long decade of gestation. During the war, Morpurgo recalls, the SS captured his father, whose freedom his family took great risks in seeking. These experiences, drilled into him throughout his childhood, “have made me a sort of witness,” he said. “The Shoah is part of my life.”

Now, Morpurgo finds himself caught up in a critical, illuminating and painful debate about not only the Holocaust in Italy, but also the role of its commemoration in the 21st century and beyond. Should the memorial have an interfaith room? Should partisans who were persecuted for their political beliefs but not sent to Auschwitz be included? Those who fought in the resistance? Other victims?

These conversations may be more significant than the memorial itself. They may even have the power to forever shift Italy’s cultural response to the Jewish community and the Shoah. As the Holocaust recedes further into the past, and young people grapple to understand its significance, we are faced with the toughest problem of all: how to keep the Holocaust exposed and in sight, not buried underground down a side street of forgetfulness.

Contact Bridget Kevane at [email protected]

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