“Sometimes, when you keep talking about things so much, they end up losing their value.”
There is a tone of resignation in Liliana Segre’s voice as she sits opposite me in her Milan living room and begins to tell her story. Do not get me wrong, her strength is palpable. She may be 89 years old, but there is a steeliness to her that defies age.
That is, perhaps, unsurprising. Most of us can never truly comprehend the horrors she experienced as a young girl in Auschwitz.
However, I get the sense that it is not the past that haunts her now but the future. Because Liliana Segre, who survived the Holocaust and has spent the past 30 years sharing her testimony, will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp under police protection because of anti-Semitic death threats against her.
Even three-quarters of a century after the end of the Holocaust, there are still those who want to take her life and have in some measure managed to curtail her freedom.
And yet, she is undeterred and continues to tell her story which, rather than losing its value, seems more valuable than ever these days.
Liliana looks away as she tells me about the child she was. “Such a naive young girl.”
She was born in Milan in 1930. Her mother died of a tumour when she was an infant. An only child, this strengthened her bond with her father, a strict but loving man who she says was both mother and father to her.
Liliana’s life began to change in 1938, when she was just eight years old. Under the rule of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Italy passed its notorious Racial Laws. These discriminated against Italian Jews, imposing severe restrictions on what they could do and the jobs they could hold.
That was the year Liliana was expelled from school; the year she first realised she was Jewish.
Her family had been secular and it was only when she was no longer allowed to be with her classmates that she understood she was seen as “different”.
A death sentence
That “difference” would become a death sentence in 1943.
In July of that year, Mussolini was toppled by his own National Fascist Party and placed under arrest. But whatever optimism the fall of Italy’s Fascist regime induced in the Segre family was short-lived.
In September, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. The south of the country and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia came under the control of Allied forces. But Nazi Germany promptly occupied northern and central Italy, installing Mussolini, who had fled north, as a figurehead leader.
Milan fell under Nazi occupation.
On December 8, 1943, Liliana and her father tried to seek asylum in Switzerland but were turned away at the border and promptly arrested. Their attempted escape had come too late.
Under Nazi occupation, and with the help of Mussolini’s fascists, the arrest and deportation of Italian Jews to the death camps in Northern Europe had begun. Of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, 8,000 came from Italy.
After being imprisoned for 40 days in the San Vittore jail in Milan, the young girl, who was used to taking the train from Milan to go on holiday in the mountains or at the seaside, found herself being pushed onto a train carriage.
This time, the train was departing from a well-hidden underground platform meant for goods and livestock. Platform 21 at Milan Central Station is now the site of the city’s Holocaust Memorial.
It was January 30, 1944, and, although the train’s passengers did not know it then, their destination was the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
It only happens to crazy people, to leave without knowing where you're going. Everyone else, in every station all over the world, leaves knowing where they're headed to.
Liliana describes this “not knowing” as “a tragedy within a tragedy”.
“It only happens to crazy people, to leave without knowing where you’re going. Everyone else, in every station all over the world, leaves knowing where they’re headed to.”
“It was such a huge shock, and the violence around us was savage. There were children, there were old people, and it was a scene of people running because we were being pushed, forced to run into those carriages. It was dark, there were torchlights. We were being shoved in with swear words, insults and punches,” she says.
But the terror she experienced on that platform was soon eclipsed by what she found in Auschwitz.
Liliana was separated from her father on arrival. She never saw him again. Alberto Segre was murdered in Auschwitz on April 27, 1944. So were his elderly parents, deported only a few months later.
Liliana was forced to work in a munitions factory while in the camp – work that, by sparing her from hard labour in freezing conditions outside, would prove vital to her survival.
On January 20, 1945, as the Soviet army closed in on the camp, Liliana and nearly 60,000 other Auschwitz prisoners were forced on a “death march” to various other camps inside Germany. The Nazis wanted to leave no witnesses to their crimes.
They walked hundreds of kilometres to the north of Germany, eventually reaching Ravensbruck, a concentration camp that was, by this time, serving as a transit camp. They stayed there for two weeks. From there, Liliana moved on to two other camps, the last of which was Malchow.
It had become clear that Germany was losing the war. When she left Malchow, Liliana walked for two days. She had no idea where she was. But on May 1, 1945, she saw US troops on the road she was travelling on.
They were “smiling, happy, tanned”, she recalls, and were handing out food to those they met. Liliana managed to grab a dried apricot. “To this day, apricots to me taste like freedom,” she says.
A country’s conscience
Liliana Segre has become a symbol in Italy. In a country that consciously and subconsciously separates its early fascist decades from the genocidal turn that Fascism took once it allied itself with Nazism, she is the country’s conscience, a constant reminder of what can happen under dictatorial regimes.
But she only started speaking publicly about her experiences in her 60s. When she returned from the extermination camp she found a post-war Italy that did not want to focus on the past, that was trying to move on from World War II.
It took until 1990 for her to find her voice. She started touring schools to share her eyewitness account of the Holocaust.
Her impact over the years has been so great that in January 2018 she was made a Senator for Life in the Italian parliament.
In the autumn of 2019, she called for parliament to establish a Committee to fight all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and incitement to hatred on religious or ethnic grounds in Italy. The motion passed despite the right-wing parties, including Matteo Salvini’s Lega, abstaining from the vote. But it unleashed a tide of hatred against Liliana, who started receiving some 200 anti-Semitic and hate messages each day. The Prefect of Milan responded by assigning her police protection.
It seems incredible that someone who has suffered so much at the start of her life should feel threatened once again. With the rise of anti-immigrant nationalist and far-right parties in Italy, does she sense a return of the hatred and intolerance that led to the Holocaust?
“I’ve noticed an enormous decline in recent times, a kind of barbarism,” she reflects.
“They seem to me like new barbarians, these certain politicians who express themselves in a way that sounds like something I’ve heard before. A language that speaks to the crowds about finding a scapegoat that must be hated. And then? How do things end for this scapegoat?
“Recently there was the case of a three-year-old boy, I think from Ethiopia or Kenya, in the town of Cosenza. He approached a baby in a pram because he wanted to look at her, and the baby’s father kicked the toddler very hard in the stomach. A three-year-old boy,” she says.
“Well, when I hear of such things … I remember three-year-old children, in the arms of their mothers, being sent to the gas chamber for the only crime of having been born. And it all starts by hating them, by kicking them in the stomach. And then, how does it end?”
“Myself, my family, my relatives and my friends were victims of that indifference that today you see writ large as you enter the Holocaust Memorial in Milan. Among the hundreds of words that we could have chosen, I fought so that ‘Indifference’ was the one written. And it was this extremely grave, enormously guilty, indifference that was the sin committed by the Italians. Because the vast majority of them were indifferent.”
The interview is drawing to a close. I can see that Senator Segre is tired but, as is often the case, the most surprising revelation comes at the end of our conversation.
As we are wrapping up we discuss the film I am working on, Fascism in the Family, which partly focuses on my grandfather, who was a member of the Fascist regime in Sardinia.
“Ah yes, my uncle was a fascist too. Poor man,” Liliana says.
“My family was very small. My father, who was an anti-fascist, had one brother, Amadeo, the only other member of my family who survived. A very good and kind man, who had been an officer in World War I. After the war, he saw how the socialists in Milan, who had been opposed to the war, were mocking the vets and the war wounded. He’d fought in many terrible battles, he’d seen tragic things, he’d been awarded medals of honour, so he reacted very violently to this.
“He joined Fascism right after World War I and he really liked this new sense of patriotism. And, poor man, he even got married in a fascist black shirt in 1937 and then in 1938, when the Racial Laws were passed, I remember that he cut himself out of every single photograph of his wedding so that his black shirt wouldn’t be visible,” she continues.
“In 1938 he understood what his mistake had been until that point. And then, due to the mysteries of life, he managed to save himself, unlike the rest of our family. He died roughly at the same age that I am now.
Every night, he had a terrible nightmare, where he wanted to pull his father off the deportation train but he couldn't do it.
“He loved his parents very much,” she says.”Every night – and I know this because I lived with him in his last years – he had a terrible nightmare, where he wanted to pull his father off the deportation train but he couldn’t do it.
“… Until his death at 88 years old in 1986, he had this same nightmare every night. He used to scream in desperation. I remember that when I lived with him to keep him company, I’d go to wake him up and console him. ‘Don’t worry Uncle, it’s ok, it’s ok’,” Liliana recalls.
“He’d lost his father, mother and only brother. I never told him anything about the death camp.”