It started some six or seven years ago, it is not a long time. During the week of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day a wagon appears in Piazza Bra, Verona’s main square. It’s one of those wagons, part of one of those trains, that transported so many people from the province of Verona to German concentration camps.
It always makes me feel so strange and funny to see it. I mean, knowing it is true, this is one of those wagons. People indeed entered it here, in Verona, and got off in one of the collecting stations and many of them never returned. In some ways it makes it more real. I know this happened, of course. But to see this rusty wagon in the heart of my city, somehow makes it even more real.
The first time the wagon appeared in Piazza Bra it was just there. Now you can get into the wagon (though I still have had no heart to do it), there’s a small exhibition of photos and testimonies of the Shoah and there’s a little tent nearby which houses a bigger exposition, but back then there was nothing. Only the wagon and a voice from inside that called out the names of the people deported from Verona and its province. Especially that first time it gave me the shivers. So many names, sometimes six or eight or more people with the same family name. It is shocking.
That first year, posters were all around the wagon telling about the Shoah, telling the numbers and the people most of all. And there was a tape all around the wagon and on that tape lots of pictures hang, with photos of people who were deported.
My father was friends for many years with a survivors of Auschwitz, Fabio Spaziani. My father always says that Fabio was the most kind, the most selfless, the most generous and all-around good human being he has ever known. So I approached the wagon thinking, maybe there is testimony of his family too, because I knew that his father, Gracco Spaziani (who wasn’t a Jew, but an intellectual and political dissident) died at Auschwitz (there are city streets bearing his name in the province of Verona).
I didn’t find him. But I found the picture of another person from Isola della Scala, my village. A young man I now don’t remember the name of.
I know it might sound odd, but that shocked me even more. I knew about the Spaziani family, my father was already Fabio’s friend when I was very little and so that was always part of my world. To find another person from my village who was too deported and never returned made it even bigger. I don’t know how best to describe it. It got out of my personal experience into a larger world, if it makes any sense. It grounded it in a reality that wasn’t just my own.
“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
― Survival in Auschwitz
Those who don’t wont to understand, never will
Last Thursday I was running to work early in the morning (it was a long week) but I stopped at the exhibition to take these photos. As I was taking the picture of Primo Levi’s poem, the keeper of the exhibition told me, ‘You can come in’.
I said, ‘I’d really like, but I’m heading to work.’ Still I did stop for a few minutes to talk and take the video here, where you can still hear the voice calling the names of the deported.
The keeper told me, ‘This year we’ve decided to talk about the kids, so that kids today may identify better. We have realised by now that adults who want to understand, have already understood. Adults who don’t want to understand, never will. So we want to talk to the children. Maybe all of them will understand. Because if people don’t understand, these things will happen again.’
Remember. Always remember. Not ‘learn’, but remember.
This is what I hear said by all the survivors. Because one day they won’t be here anymore, so it will be our duty to keep the memory alive. We – who were not there – will need and have to remember.
This morning I wanted to honour the International Holocuast Remembrance Day by watching at least one testimony of the Holocaust. I had the good fortune to have the possibility to hear two survivors speaking in meeting they did last year, where they – who lost their citizenship and civil rights when the Racial Laws came out – are awarded honorary citizenship now by so many towns.
Sami Modiano and Piero Terracina were prisoners in the concentration camp of Birkenau. Sami was 13 and came from Rhodes, Piero was 15 and came from Rome. Both their families were exterminated in the camp and they became friends and helped each other and I find it such a powerful thing that they both survived the camp and they are both still alive today, still friends and together they bring testimony of those days.One day there won’t be any Holocaust survivor left, so it will be our duty to keep the memory alive. We – who were not there – will need and have to remember. #HolocaustMemorialDay Click To Tweet
The documentary I saw this morning was so powerful. They gave testimony of so many things that we need to remember. But I want to write down here something that Sami Modiano said. I will report it at best I remember it.
“I was a kid in 1938. I frequented the Italian Boys School in Rhodes. I was a good student. I had high marks all through the first and the second years of elementary school, because I liked to study. I was hoping to continue my studies and my family also hoped for me to go on, because education was very important in Rhodes.
In my class we were Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christian, and I, a Jew. We were kids of eight, we did everything together. We played and studied together. We helped each other as kids will. We never thought we were different. We did all together. And our teachers never did any discriminations. They loved us all and they taught us.
I remember that day as if today, because you can never forget. My teacher called me to the desk. I thought he was going to examine me. He had assigned us homework the day before and I studied for it, so I was prepared and I was happy to have the opportunity to show my teacher. But as I approach the desk, I saw that he was worried. His face was dark, sad, preoccupied. As I stopped in front of him, he told me – this teacher who loved me – in a very small voice so that the rest of the class wouldn’y hear, ‘You are expelled from this school’.
My world shattered. I was eight and my world shattered. I started to cry, then sobbed. I asked, ‘What have I done wrong? Why is this happening to me?’
And my teacher, who loved me, put his hand on my head and dried my tears and told me, ‘No, Sami, don’t cry. You did nothing wrong, child. Go home now, your father will explain.’
And my father, poor soul, tried to explain to his 8-year-old son that Italy had passed Racial Laws that said we Jews were not citizens anymore and so we had no civil rights and this was the reason why I could no longer frequent school. And even if I was only eight I said, ‘No! I’m no different from my schoolmates. It’s not fair. I’m just like them.’
But that was true. I was made different because I was guilty of having been born a Jew. Is this a guilt, to have been born a Jew? But this is what happened. It did happen. And you who are young and have the world in your hands must remember. Always. Always remember.”
The Gardian – Primo Levi
Mao Valpiana Blog – Memorie di un uomo: Gracco Spaziani
Culture.pl – Janusz Korczak
Thanks for sharing the story of that wagon, Sarah. What a powerful reminder of the Holocaust. And we need things like that, because we can never, ever forget what happened. Every schoolchild needs to learn it in school, we need to talk about it publicly, and people need to have it brought to their attention. I can see how this all made it very real to you.
I think we particularly need it today. But I have to see, I passed by Piazza Bra today and there were so many people queing to enter the exibition. I take it as a good sign.
You are so right that this should never be forgotten and mustalways be taken seriously and pay homage to all the millions who were part of the holocaust and I mean the people who were the victims. This is a great tribute you wrote here and my heart went out to Sami that he could not go back to school.
Sami Modiano and Piero Terracina’s testimony were all aroudn powerful, but that passage about the expulsion from school really got me. Modiano said many times, ‘that teacher who loved me’ as he were saying, I was surrounded by people who loved me and wished me no harm, but this still happened to me.
JOHN T. SHEA
Amen and many thanks for this powerful post, Sarah! Let us never forget, particularly at this time of growing Anti-Semitism.
I agree. We need to remember now more than ever.
Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter
A survey shows that 1 in 20 people in the U.K. don’t believe the Holocaust happened. You are right – it is so important to remember in the face of this, and to pass on the memories to the young. In Scotland one child from each secondary school goes to Auschwitz each year and cascades the knowledge gained to his or her peers.
I’ve heard of that survay from another friend today. I’m totally shocked. How anyone can doubt it, with all the documents and the videos and especially the survivors who still live, is beyond me.
Thanks for this moving post, Sarah. You’re right – we do need to remember. Even now, when there are still survivors to tell their stories, there are those who either refuse to believe it or say, “What a pity Hitler didn’t finish the job!”
My parents survived it. Dad passed away in 2009 and Mum is 90. And even I had to listen to a colleague defending David Irving because, “He’s read documents in archives” as if it all happened hundreds of years ago! I told him what I thought of him, but it wasn’t going to change his mind. In Australia the Holocaust is part of the Year 10 history curriculum and I have regularly been invited to answer the kids’ questions at my school. They also have an excursion to the Holocaust Centre in my Mum’s suburb.
Well worth doing.
How can these people doubt it?
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to hear a survivor speak of his experience from his very voice a couple of years ago, and it was beyond shocking. It was so hard to listen to what he said, to how it was, how it fet to be there. But I’m grateful I had that opportunity.
I was talking about it with my boss the other day. She said this is going to be worst and worst, because who will keep testimony once all the survivors will be gone?
But this is life. No one lives forever, so it is really a duty of the ones who come next to keep memory alive.
In a passage of the documentary I haven’t mentioned, Sami Modiano met the people of the audience. Among them there was a younger man who said to him, ‘I’m so happy I could meet you. My dad was in a concentration camp and survived.”
Modiano asked, ‘Is he still alive?’
‘No, he passed away years ago.’
‘But YOU are here. This is the important thing. You are here and you remember.’