Last May I helped in the organization of a book festival here in the province of Verona, and I had the opportunity to take part to a very special event: Ennio Trivellin’s conference, who’s a survivor of Mauthausen concentration camp.
Ennio Trivellin isn’t a Jew. He was interned in the concentration camp because of his political activity in Verona. But I’d like to speak about what he told us that night because he’s still a living memory of what happened in those places.
He spoke for almost three hours to a conference hall packed full of people, here I’ll just report what I remember most clearly. Let me tell you, it was horrible to hear, especially from someone who lived it, but I’m grateful I had this opportunity at least once in my life.
Life and death in Gusen concentration camp
In 1944, when Ennio was arrested with his father by the SS, he was 16. He was sent first to Mauthausen, then in Gusen concentration camp, which was at a walking distance from Mauthausen and where he would spend seven months before the war ended and all the prisoners were freed.
He said the concentration camp was a factory. The Nazis built aircrafts there, basically at no cost because they exploited the prisoners’ work as long as they could, and when the prisoners could no longer work, they just got rid of them and replaced them with new prisoners.
Prisoners would work all though the day with just one break of 20 minutes at lunch. They would eat a stew of turnip, standing in a line in front of the cauldron, and gulping down as quick as they could, so that everyone in the line could eat. Because when the time was up, the food would disappeared and if you hadn’t eaten, you just had to wait for the day after.
Ennio said they were constantly starving to a point that the hunger drove them mad. To try and quench it, many prisoners (him included) would eat pieces of bricks. “I don’t know what else this does to a person’s stomach,” he said. “But it does quench the sense of hunger.”
All prisoners were particularly horrified by the hospital. If you got into the camp hospital, it was nearly guaranteed that you wouldn’t get out. Ennio did ended up there once, because of a fever. He was laid in a bad with another man and left there. Luckily, he got though the fever and survived. Not so the man in the same bed. When Ennio realized the other man was dead, he started pushing him off the bed with all the strength he had. He had no sadness or feelings for that corpse, he just wanted to be rid of it.
“You have to understand this,” he told us. “When you are in such dire circumstances, you stop thinking, feeling, acting as you normally do.”
You become an idiot (that’s exactly the word he used: idiot). You don’t care for anything and anyone other than yourself, because the only thought you have is: I must survive, I must survive, I must survive, whatever it takes. You’re not afraid of doing anything that might be of any use, and you don’t fear the consequences as long as it allows you to go on. You don’t feel for the others’ sufferings, because you are concentrated on not getting into the same sufferings. You kind of get into an alternate reality where your mind conjures up anything that can allow you to survive and molds the reality around you and your values so that it will more likely get you thought it all.
It was chilling to hear.
“Many people ask me whether, young as I was, I wasn’t afraid of death all around me.”
Your sense of death changes completely. Ennio said he – as everyone else around him – saw hundreds of corpses in the camp, but nobody felt for them. They didn’t feel those were dead people. They were just things and you don’t feel for things.
It went to the point that when the Allies finally arrived and liberated the camp, they gathered the dead and asked the survivors to identified whoever they could.
“None of us could say any name. The dead we saw were things, not the people we had known. In our minds, the people we knew looked like the first time they arrived to the camp. They didn’t look anything like the skeletal corpses we now saw and so of course we could not identify them.”
Life and remembrance
Days after, I talked about the experience with my boss, Lara. I told her I was grateful for being there that night. Ennio Trivellin said only six survivors still live in Verona, and he is the only one well enough to still go around giving testimony. Lara told me, “We are indeed lucky to be able to hear that testimony from the very people who lived it. Soon there won’t be any of them left. What will be then of that memory?”
But this is life, isn’t it? No one lives forever. It will always come a day where all the witnesses will be gone. But memory endures. If we remember and we share, the memory will live on far longer that the people who was there, and remembering will make us better persons.
If we don’t remember, we may do the same mistakes over and over again, and more people will suffer. It doesn’t cost us anything, to remember and to share. Everyone of us can offer a little shard to pass down and let the memory leave on.
And so I try to do. I’m passing on what I heard that night.
About the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme
StoriaStorie – Il racconto di Ennio Trivellin, partigiano veronese deportato nel campo di sterminio di Mauthausen
Veja.it – A Gusen solo orrori, avevo perduto la mia dignità
What a disturbing – because true – story. And that is exactly the reason for which we should not ever forget. Thank you for the excellent reminder.
It was chilling. It truly was. The concentration camps were hottible places and they damaged everyone who touched them. Thant’s my feeling.
What an amazing experience to listen to this man and his experience during the holocaust. You have shared his story really well. It was truly a terrible thing and we do well to listen and remember. What suffering.
I think we need to rememeber especially today. Sometimes, when I watch the news of tv, I do feel we’re forgetting too fast.
Teagan R Geneviene
And remember, we must. Too many horrible things happen when the world is so determined NOT to see what is in the works…
This is a fine tribute, Sarah. Huge hugs.
I couldn’t agree more, Teagan.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Sarah. The eyewitnesses are becoming fewer and fewer, so we’ve got to preserve their memories and testimonies.
I think this moment we are living is the most delicate. Eyewitnesses are dying out, so we won’t have the emotional connection to them anymore. We need to create the outrage for what happened, for the very idea. And we may not succeed in doing it. That’s when we start to forget.
Very moving. We need to keep remembering, especially when you consider what is happening to the world today. Hearing something first hand always makes it more real and we are losing that opportunity as the years go by. His remarks about the depersonalisation of the dead bodies reminded me of sections in All Quiet on the Western Front which I recently read for my book group. The author fought in the trenches of 1WW himself so I take it as authentic. We can never know what it was like in such situations (and I hope we never have to find out) but hearing / reading direct experiences deepens understanding a little bit,
I think depersonalisation helps you survive. It’s probably a trick your mind plays on you, so that you don’t go mad and lose chances at survivals.
In our comfortable world, we have forgotten what it feels like being in true danger of death. This doesn’t mean we won’t be, one day. I bet young people who fought in WWI never imagined what they would go through. This is the greatest gift history can give us: the knowledge of what it may be, so that – hopefully – we will work hard not to let it happen again.
These testimonies are so priceless. I’ve listened to so many of the testimonies on the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive website, and hope to listen to many more when I finally have a chance to visit one of the big libraries where they have the full collection of interviews. I don’t think they’re actively collecting testimonies as frequently as they did in the Nineties and early Aughts (the dates of almost all of the interviews in that part of their collection), but they welcome people to interview survivors who haven’t told their stories yet. A lot of the people in those interviews have since passed away, particularly the people born before 1920. Someday, we’ll only have the survivors who were born during the war, and then we won’t have anyone left.
First hand testimonies, as every history researcher knows, are absolutely invaluable. Particularly the recent, visual ones, because you hear them and you see them. It’s like a part of you is there.
But honestly, I think even first hand testimonies lose their power if there isn’t the will to remember. This is what we need to build, particularly today.