Italian Holocaust survivor asks if she ‘lived in vain’

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For decades, Liliana Segre visited Italian classrooms to recount her expulsion from school under Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws, her doomed attempt to flee Nazi-controlled Italy, her deportation from Milan train station to the Auschwitz death camps. Her candid testimony about the gas chambers, tattooed arms, occasional atrocities and murders of her father, grandparents and thousands of other Italian Jews made her the conscience and living memory of ‘a country that often prefers not to remember.

Now she wonders if it was all a waste of time.

“Why did I suffer for 30 years to share intimate things about my family, my pain, my despair? For who? Why?” Ms. Segre, 93, with cotton-white hair, the memory of a steel cage and the official status of senator for life, said last week in her beautiful Milan apartment, where she was sitting next to a police escort, she wondered, not for the first time in recent days, if “I have lived in vain.”

Although Segre accepted another honorary degree on Saturday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, the rise in anti-Semitism and what she sees as a general climate of hatred have put her in a pessimistic mood.

THE Hamas-led massacre of Jews in Israel on October 7 It outraged her, she said, and Israel’s response to Gaza left her feeling “despair,” as did what she saw as the exploitation of the conflict to spread anti-Semitism under covered in a pro-Palestinian cause. In Europe, Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine has led it to ask questions about Russian President Vladimir V. Putin: “What is this, another Hitler?” while the rise of the far right in France and Germany makes her uneasy.

In Italy, Ms. Segre is dismayed by a recent mass gathering of right-wing extremists giving the fascist salute, by crude remarks against migrants whose plight reminds her of her own, and by a right-wing government led by Giorgia Meloni , who has sentenced Italian racial laws and the horrors of the Holocaust, but who herself was raised in parties born from the ashes of fascism.

Reflecting on a cyclical view of history, Ms. Segre wonders if she has lived long enough to see history repeat itself.

“It’s nothing new,” she said, tracing a circle with her hands.

So Ms. Segre left the comfort of her living room – with a “Reserved for Grandma” pillow on the armchair, family photos (“that’s me and my father”), paintings, books and piles of Opera CD she loves — remembering again. On television shows, at universities where honorary degrees are awarded, and at the Milan Holocaust memorial, she once again tells a story she hoped she would no longer have to tell.

Born in 1930 into a secular Jewish family in Milan, she lost her mother to a tumor when she was little. Her father, Alberto Segre, who worked in the family textile business, raised her with the help of his parents. He was so gentle, she said, that he stopped driving after accidentally hitting a beautiful bird on a mountain road.

An only child, she loved her friends at school, where she excelled at reading but abhorred arithmetic. In the evening, she fell asleep listening to her father, always present in the next room, turning the pages of his stamp collection.

When she was 8, Italy’s racial laws came into effect and Ms. Segre’s public school expelled her. All but three of his classmates ignored him in the street, listening to their mothers who told them that “there was no point” in saying hello. His uncle, himself a convinced fascist, became an enemy of the country.

Mr. Segre’s confidence in protecting the Italian family has been exhausted. In 1943, he prepared a binder of precious stamps and rolled a few diamonds around his waist to buy a new life in Switzerland. They crossed the mountains, but in December a Swiss border guard pushed them back.

Mr. Segre threw his stamps and diamonds in the mud to avoid handing them over to his captors. The Italians arrested them in Varese, not far from the border, and handed them over to the Nazis. She realized all was lost when they handcuffed him. “My father had beautiful hands,” she said.

On January 30, 1944, after weeks in Milan’s San Vittore prison, Ms. Segre, her father and more than 600 other Jews were transferred under cover of darkness to the train station’s underground freight track 21. central Milan. Loaded amid barking dogs onto freight trains strewn with hay and equipped with only one bucket, they left the city. They arrived in Auschwitz, Poland, in early February.

Most Jews were sent to the gas chambers and burned in ovens. Ms. Segre’s father was put in one line, she in another. She never saw him again. The Nazis tattooed him with the number 75190.

By day, she worked in a munitions factory. At night, she fought for blankets.

As the Soviets approached in January 1945, the Nazis forced her and tens of thousands of detainees to march toward Germany on a road paved with the dead. As the Germans shed their military uniforms and sought to melt away, she saw a gun on the ground. Her decision not to murder a guard, she said, was a product of her birth as a “free woman,” better than her captors.

“I was strong in my absolute weakness,” she said. However, she said with a laugh, “I might have shot him in the foot.”

After her release and her return to Italy, she desperately searches for news of her father. An uncle who converted to Catholicism arranged a private audience with Pope Pius XII, where she asked for help finding her father. “He was very disturbed by my presence,” she said, recalling that when she began to kneel, he stopped her and said: “I should be the one kneeling in front of you”.

Investigations into her father came to nothing and it was only years later, while searching in the Jewish documentation center in Milan, that she discovered that he had died two months after her arrival. at Auschwitz.

His life continued. She re-enrolled in school, feeling uncomfortable with now younger classmates, and went on vacation with her maternal grandparents, who spent the end of the war in hiding. In the summer of 1948, in Pesaro, on the east coast of Italy, she met Alfredo Belli Paci. He noticed the tattoo on his arm and told her that he had spent years in a German prison camp for refusing to fight for Mussolini and his new Nazi-allied state after Italy switched sides in 1943.

He was 10 years older, a Catholic and a lawyer. Her grandparents disapproved, but she saw it behind their backs. The couple married in 1951 and settled in Milan, where they were successful, he in his law firm, she in the family textile business. They had three children, but she rarely spoke about her past. Her husband told them not to ask.

But in the late 1970s, her husband became active in the Italian Social Movement, the far-right party created by former fascists who sided with the Nazis. She hoped it was a passing flirtation, but when he ran for office, they fought bitterly.

“I fell into depression,” she said, and days would pass without her being able to get out of bed. She finally gave him an ultimatum and gave him a minute to decide: “Me or this.”

He cast her, and over the next decade she felt she had an important story to tell. When her first grandchild was born, she said, she felt like she was finally out of a long fog. “I was different,” she says. “I was 60, on the cusp of old age, and I felt I couldn’t wait.”

She began telling her story in schools and continued to do so for 30 years. In January 2018, on the 80th anniversary of the promulgation of Mussolini’s racial laws, Ms Segre was buying a battery for her Swatch watch when she received a phone call from the Italian president’s office. He had made her one of Italy’s senators for life, the country’s highest honor.

Ms. Segre used her platform. In 2018, when Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, held up rosaries at political events, she told parliament that campaigning with Catholic icons seemed to her a “dangerous revival” of “God” mottos. is with us” on Nazi uniforms. And in 2019, the year Italian authorities decided online threats against her warranted a full-time police escort, she proposed the creation of a Senate commission against incitement to hatred.

After Ms. Meloni’s victory in the 2022 general election, Ms. Segre presided over the opening legislative session that would elect Ignazio La Russa — who had long had a bust of Mussolini in his home — president of the Senate. Ms. Segre said her office made her rehearse her speech “because they didn’t know how I would behave.”

In her speech, she recalled that 100 years had passed since the fascist march on Rome. “It is impossible for me not to feel a sort of vertigo,” she said, “thinking that this same little girl, who, on a day like this one in 1938, inconsolable and lost, was constrained by the laws racists for leaving his primary school. empty school desk. And that, by a strange fate, this same young girl finds herself today on the most prestigious bench, that of the Senate.

Last week, she led Mr. La Russa, who has condemned the Holocaust as evil and is a supporter of Israel, officials and members of his commission to the Track 21 Holocaust memorial, usually filled with school trips to discover the place from which Mrs. Segre and so many others were deported, and from which so few returned.

“Whether it will help or not, I don’t know,” she said in her living room, in front of an array of stamps her father had ordered and which her family discovered and were forced to redeemed years after the war. “But it helped me because I felt I needed it.”

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