Emanuele Fiano on Activism against Oblivion — Interview with Barbara Faedda; Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022
Europe and the United Nations commemorate the victims of the Shoah each winter on the date of Auschwitz’s liberation in 1945, and the Italian Academy marks Holocaust Remembrance Day annually with an exploration of issues of discrimination and crimes against humanity. Throughout the years, the Academy has broadened its focus to explore groups that were targeted in the racism and xenophobia of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, and that suffered and died along with the millions of Jews. Of particular concern recently is the wave of antisemitism, historical denialism, and misinformation, and the manipulating of social media to pursue neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist ideas.
This month Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Italian Academy, had an exclusive interview with Emanuele Fiano, a member of the Italian parliament (he has served in the Chamber of Deputies since 2006) and a son of Nedo Fiano, who was deported to Auschwitz.
Hon. Emanuele Fiano
Interviewed by Barbara Faedda, January 17, 2022
Read the original Italian text of the interview.
I would like to open this interview by speaking of your father, Nedo Fiano (1925–2020); he was deported to Auschwitz and ended up as the only survivor from his entire family. He became an exceptional educator, engaged for many years in continuous and meticulous labor to pass on the memory of the Holocaust, especially to young people. In 2021, you published your book Il profumo di mio padre. L’eredità di un figlio della Shoah [My Father’s Scent: The Legacy of a Son of the Shoah]. How did you experience his commitment to his task, which was so constant and so precious, but also so devastating and painful? Do you feel that you are continuing your father’s educational program—against racism and antisemitism and for the preservation of memory? When did you process your family history to the point of making it a solid basis for your politics?
Thank you for the question. It’s difficult to say how I experienced my father's commitment to his mission of bearing witness about the Shoah, simply because that dimension of my father was the constant one—it was how I always knew my father. There are no other facets of my father that were ever more important than this main mode of his activism in life. Ever since I was old enough to understand, I saw my father as “The Survivor,” as “The Witness.” Certainly, he passed on the baton to us children, and this decisively marked our lives, our passions, and the message we feel we wish to convey. Obviously, each one of us experienced our father at different ages and at different points; each one of us brothers, as often happens, had a slightly different version of our father. My brother Enzo, the eldest—13 years older than me—knew our father when he was still very, very traumatized by Auschwitz, a father who had nightmares and strong fits of rage. My brother Andrea, more than we others, lived close to our father after he had finally arrived in America—the land of liberators and of freedom—a father probably at the peak of his catharsis after the hell of Auschwitz. Perhaps I, more than they, lived with the father who had chosen his daily mission of going to schools to tell his story to young people. Each one of us, however, did pick up that baton, and we each live with a consciousness of our history. I must tell you that I have never conceived of my personal story as the basis of my politics. Rather, it’s more likely that my father's example led me to instinctively choose public commitment, to search for the humanity that the dehumanization of the Shoah strove to erase—and obviously, in this, the anti-Fascist matrix of our history is dominant.
Liliana Segre once declared that no one has ever really come out of Auschwitz, that it is impossible to leave it behind. Similarly, your father wrote that that poison had penetrated his body forever. How much was that poison present in your childhood and adolescence?
The poison definitely was injected into us, too; and it is up to us to turn the poison into an antidote. Every scene, every episode, every incident recounted by survivors of the Shoah provides the impetus to ask ourselves, how was it possible that millions of people supported a mass extermination? —How was it possible to strip millions of accomplices of every ounce of humanity towards their neighbor? And all this happened, moreover, in the heart of European culture (meaning Germany), of European Christian culture, in the cradle of modern philosophy; all this happened, moreover, in Italy, in the cradle of Europe’s greatest artistic and humanistic expression.
The poison that was injected into them should have produced in all of us—not only in the children of the Shoah—a very strong antidote; but that didn’t fully happen. For me, politics was the antidote: I approached politics full of anger towards a part of my country that had abandoned us, delivered us to the German murderers. Working for others, for the common good, for one's country, for liberation from slavery and oppression, against inequality and for equal opportunity: for me politics was the antidote to that poison.
Did you visit Auschwitz-Birkenau with your father?
I have visited Auschwitz many times, with my father and without him. I have to let you in on a secret: to me, that place feels familiar; it almost feels like home when I'm there. I know that seems impossible —supernatural—but that is the way it is. Several times, I walked with my father to the spot where he was torn away from my grandmother; where he labored; where his father probably died. It is hard to say this, but when I go back there, I feel welcome, as if I were returning to a place that is mine—and in part it is mine.
You have expressed appreciation for Holocaust Remembrance Day, for the national and European observances; however, you stress that it’s necessary to move “from commemoration to the construction of civil responsibility.” Is Holocaust Remembrance Day part of that “activism against oblivion” that you often mentioned? How do you think that this day of commemoration can stay current—across the years and the generations—and can keep being an effective tool for the transmission of memory and historical awareness?
The value of the Holocaust Remembrance Day depends a lot on the way it is expressed by the person—in this case by the educator. Obviously, ceremonies are not enough. We need the content of the words and images that are transmitted. We need to know how to convey memory, which means processing history and its messages. In my opinion, it is necessary above all to transmit to young people the ability to ask themselves questions, to not live in indifference. Why did these events happen? How does mass infatuation with a dictator come about? What triggers hatred towards an entire people? What does mass indifference produce? What does the dehumanization of the enemy lead to? These are all questions that educators (especially on Remembrance Day—but not only) should be able to answer, to show what that devastating history has taught us. I have to say that in the 22 years since we began marking that day, I have often seen commendable results in young people, and I support Remembrance Day.
Recently, not only in the USA, we have seen anti-vaccine protestors using symbols such as the yellow star (the badge that the Nazis imposed on the Jews). Why do you think that the protestors use these painful historical symbols for something that is so dissimilar (and use them so coarsely, so disrespectfully)?
I think it all stems from a terrible transposition of the meaning of the word “freedom” in our time. This word has gradually become synonymous with the deregulation of any behavior, with the crushing of any limits, and with the progressive deterioration of the principle of authority—such that when the State restricts our behavior (even, as in this case, for the common good), it becomes a “usurper state,” and thus it can be likened to the worst dictatorships. (Through contortions that are obviously unsustainable.) And so even science, which is based on principles of the reproducibility of experimental evidence, is put on par with any random opinion, regardless of its demonstrability. Anything is valid now, in the digital era of unchecked, widespread information. Anything is valid, and therefore a leader who tries to enforce rules (arising from the democratic process) is painted as a dictator; and anti-COVID restrictions are depicted as equivalent to the laws against the Jews. The history that we have failed to clearly explain swings back around and slams us. But all this is not just about COVID: it is generally about the liberalist intoxication—taken to excess—that has swept through the West in the last 40 years, and which bears responsibility for some of the world’s most serious economic crises. It makes some believe that we can return to ancient nationalisms or sovereignties, against shared supranational forms of government; it makes some believe that it is more right to address the people directly, without the “boring” intermediation of representative democracies. The COVID crisis has brought to the surface the worst elements of this crisis—what I see as the crisis of the West.
You have been a promoter or supporter of many political and cultural initiatives and bills addressing Fascist ideology, antisemitism, and respect for diversity. In particular, a few years ago you proposed a bill calling for “the introduction of Article 293bis of the Penal Code, concerning the crime of propaganda of the Fascist and Nazi-Fascist regime” (Act C.3343 of October 2, 2015). You said that this law had a symbolic meaning. Could you explain the motivations, details, expectations, and developments of this bill, and how it relates to your other legislative initiatives on discrimination?
I presented a bill that would allow more concrete and quick action against any form of Nazi-Fascist apologia and propaganda. Right now, our legal system (thanks to the 1952 Scelba Law) makes such conduct punishable under criminal law, but only if the intention is to reorganize the dissolved Fascist Party—as stated in the 12th transitory and final provision of the Constitution. But the situation has changed a lot with respect to that Party. Nowadays, in just five minutes, some lone kid can post and propagate horrible and dangerous Nazi-Fascist propaganda material on a Facebook page—without any intent to reconstitute the Fascist Party. Do we want to let such a kid do that? Do we want the worst and most aberrant ideas of racial supremacy to circulate freely? —along with praise for the Fascist war, and the exaltation of those actions and those criminals who bloodied Europe? I, and many others, do not want that. For this reason, a new bill of mine will be presented soon, with the same purpose as the earlier bill.
Sadly, for some time now we have seen behaviors, declarations, and attitudes of open intolerance and racial hatred. It almost seems that now people can be racist and antisemitic once again, publicly, without any shame or any scruples. You yourself have unfortunately been the target of this several times. I ask you the same question I posed to Senator Segre a year ago: where have we failed—as citizens or, simply, as human beings—since the end of Nazism and Fascism? What could have been done that has not been done?
That’s a very difficult question. I would say first of all that we have clearly not educated people well enough, or simply not educated people enough. Italian high schools these days require only two hours of history per week. That's too little. Secondly, there is a political problem; social hardship is the most fertile ground for the growth of anti-establishment stances, including attitudes with a Fascist and/or racist matrix. The people who govern—political leaders—must solve the issue of social discomfort, which is increasing, not decreasing: inequality, social injustice, distressed neighborhoods, housing, work, health. An efficient Social State can free the mind from the search for absurd worlds where a person can believe that violence and oppression are the solution to all one’s problems. We see this from the history of Italy, first, and then the history of Germany in the 1920s and the 1930s....
Neo-Fascist movements remain active in our societies, as do neo-Nazi, supremacist, and antisemitic ones. A few years ago, you said, “when democracies do not work well, these rough solutions always arise. Fascisms or populisms are shortcuts, scapegoats; they are mechanisms that are repeated.” Do you stand by that analysis today? And how can we heal our democracies in order to eliminate such a turn? What role do social inequalities play, and what power does politics have to counteract them?
I would say that I have already answered this, with my previous reply: good policy is the only possible answer. And the care and maintenance of our Democracies… to make them more fair and more efficient.
On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022, do you have a particular message for young people—both Italian and American?
Democracy may not be the best social system imaginable, but it is the best we have found so far. There are no other shortcuts. The most precious gift is freedom, and we know little about it, because very few of us have experienced its absence. Keep hold of freedom, for yourself and for others; preserve it, maintain it, defend it if necessary. Nothing is more precious.
Interview translated by Abigail Asher.
Click here to to see Nedo Fiano among the survivors interviewed in "Memoria" (by Ruggero Gabbai, with Marcello Pezzetti e Liliana Picciotto). The Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, CDEC. Forma International, Italia, 1997.
(Talks marked with an * appear in the Academy's 2016 book, Present and Future Memory: Holocaust Studies at the Italian Academy, 2008–2016)
2008 Law and Science in the Service of Racism: the “Leggi Razziali”
New York University
The Italian Racial Laws: Pretexts, Subtexts, Aftermaths
New York University
The Righteous Enemy?
Fascist Italy and the Jews in Axis-Occupied Europe
The Holocaust and the Case of Italy
2009 Antisemitism at Home and Abroad
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University
The Liberal Alternative: Jews in the United States during the Decades of Italian Fascism *
Claudio Lomnitz [originally scheduled]
Director, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity; Professor, Anthropology Department, Columbia University
Dreyfus in Latin America: Anti-Semitism and the Ideology of the Mexican Revolution
2010 Rome’s Jewish Ghetto
Professor of Jewish History Emeritus, University of Haifa
“Doing as the Romans Do” . . . But Also Staying Jewish.
The Challenge of Life in the Roman Ghetto, 1555–1870 *
Society of Fellows, Columbia University
Accommodating the Jews in the “New Jerusalem” *
2011 “Racially Inferior”: Roma, Sinti, and Other Holocaust Victims
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies
“Unknown Holocaust”: Roma and Sinti in Hitler’s Europe
Executive Director, European Roma Rights Centre
Roma in Today’s Europe: Contemporary Patterns of Prejudice and Discrimination *
2012 “Unnatural Indecency”: Sexuality and Homosexuality during Nazism and Fascism
Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933–1945 *
Department of Italian, Columbia University
Fascism and Sexuality in Italian Literature and Film
2013 “The Unfit”: Disability under Nazism and Fascism
Patricia Heberer Rice
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Giving a Face to Faceless Victims: Profiles of Disabled Victims of the Nazi “Euthanasia” Program *
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race *
New York University
Photographing Places of Social Exclusion
2014 Gender and Antisemitism: Women’s Rights Yesterday and Today
Victoria de Grazia
Fascist Men and Jewish Women
Women’s Rights and Women’s Freedoms: A View from the Present *
Queens College of the City University of New York
Female Voices of the Holocaust
2015 Music, Fascism, and the Holocaust
New York University
Moravia and the Wild Goose: Terezin, Summer 1944
Curtis Institute of Music
Jewish and Anti-Fascist Musicians in Mussolini’s Italy *
2016 To Be a Child during the Holocaust
Patricia Heberer Rice
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
In Their Own Words: The World of the Child during the Holocaust *
The Washington Post
“We Are Very Lucky”: Two Young Italian Sisters Who Survived Auschwitz
2017 Looted Art, Nazism, and Fascism
Senior Vice President/International Director of Restitution, Christie's;
formerly Deputy Director, Holocaust Claims Processing Office, NY State Banking Department
Department for Provenance Research, City of Düsseldorf
"Non signalés par les Anglais." Provenance research on French drawings acquired in France in 1944
Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa; Italian Academy Fellow 2017
Jewish persecution and looted art in Italy: evidence and denial, 1938–2015
Senior Provenance Specialist, The Museum of Modern Art
2018 Spaces and Geographies of Concentration Camps: How to Preserve the Memory of Discrimination
Executive Vice President, World Monuments Fund
Remembering a Difficult Past
Chair, Geography Dept., Texas State University
From the National to the Individual: Narratives of the Holocaust in Italy
2019 Antisemitism, Hate Speech, and Social Media
Assistant Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Assistant Professor, Columbia Journalism School
Memes, Misinformation, and Antisemitism: Coded Communications on Social Media
University Professor of Law and Comparative Democracy & Justice; Sydney L. Robins Professor of Human Rights, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University
Reassessing Antisemitism in an Age of Online Hate
2020 Misinformation, Media Manipulation, and Antisemitism
Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Learning Technologies Design, Teachers College, Columbia University
“Youth political expression in online spaces”
Rachel Deblinger (via Skype)
Director of the Modern Endangered Archives Program at the UCLA Library;
Co-Director of the Digital Jewish Studies Initiative at UC Santa Cruz
“Remix, remember, retweet: meditations on Holocaust memory, social media, and antisemitism online”
Irene V. Pasquetto
Chief Editor, “HKS Misinformation Review,” Harvard Kennedy School
Costanza Sciubba Caniglia
Managing Editor, “HKS Misinformation Review,” Harvard Kennedy School
“De-platforming Neo-Nazis in Italy: impacts and unexpected consequences”
Litigation Director, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
“Free speech in black boxes”
2021 Liliana Segre on Auschwitz and What It Means Today
Interview with Barbara Faedda
1) Emanuele Fiano and Nedo Fiano. (Courtesy Emanuele Fiano)
2) Fossoli transfer camp in Italy where Nedo Fiano was held before going to the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Andy Hay/CC BY 2.0)