Liliana Segre on Auschwitz and What It Means Today
Interview with Barbara Faedda; Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021
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.
This week Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Italian Academy, got an exclusive interview with Liliana Segre, a survivor of Auschwitz who was named a lifetime member of Italy’s Senate in 2018. Read the whole interview here, for Senator Segre’s reflections on the Holocaust, hate speech, racism, the January 6 assault in Washington, DC, and more.
Senator Segre, you were expelled at the age of eight from your school because of the Italian racial laws. “You were expelled from school because we are Jews,” your father explained to you. From that moment on, the situation worsened: initially you were moved to a private school and then—displaced to Brianza [north of Milan]—you were forced out of school. You were arrested in 1943 and the situation degenerated further: deportation; arrival at the Auschwitz concentration camp with your father on January 30, 1944; the immediate separation from him (he did not make it out alive, nor did other members of his family); and the beginning of the nightmare. What was that young teenager thinking, especially in the early days in the camp? And how did her awareness grow during her imprisonment? How could an adolescent process that unprecedented ugliness and violence?
The camp is a place without color and without time. Some have spoken of “senselessness” or loss of meaning; I would add, “loss of the senses.” The enormity of the tragedy was evident from the very first moment: it was already part of the journey that took us from Track 21 of the Milan railway station directly to the end of History. The process of mourning is never-ending. I was an adolescent only on paper: in Auschwitz, one grew old in an instant. It began with the loss of identity, with the cancellation of one’s name. Everything else was pure barbarity.
Over the years, I have seen many of your interviews and public talks. One that was particularly touching and profound for me—and not only for me, of course—was your speech in January 2020 at the European Parliament (on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and of the Remembrance Day ceremony). As a woman and as the mother of a teenager, I can’t forget these words of yours: “We were young, but we looked old. Without sex, without age, without breasts, without menstruation, without underpants. That’s how you take away a woman’s dignity. That’s how.” How complex and painful was it later, to reclaim your female dignity?
I believe that the knot was loosened naturally, definitively, when I met my husband, Alfredo, on the seafront in Pesaro. It was love at first sight and it lasted a lifetime. Love wins!
You once said that no one has ever really come out of Auschwitz— that it is not possible to leave it. The Nazis stamped the number 75190 on your arm, with the intention of erasing your name, the first element of your identity. But your name, Liliana, remained. That number remained too, though. What was the psychological process that made you declare that that number, imposed on you by the Nazis, should be written on your tombstone someday?
That’s a good question. The loss of identity is the most heartrending of woes. So I am leaving a little message to posterity, a sort of reverse “Memento mori.” I will die as I have lived, with history on my skin.
You have said that the date of January 27 [marking the liberation of Auschwitz, in 1945, as Holocaust Remembrance Day] is used wrongly because, actually, the violence did not end suddenly on that day. On the contrary, as the Allied armies continued to advance, the Nazis devised death marches to move many of you (often on foot, in the snow and over long distances) before and after January 27. You were 14 years old when, in January 1945—along with thousands of other prisoners—you left Auschwitz after a year of living in the camp. Your march stretched on for months, into April 1945. What do you remember about this second phase? What experiences, feelings, and thoughts did you have during this long, terrible, and exhausting march from Poland to Germany?
I remember everything, perfectly. It is an indelible journey that I have recounted a thousand times: exhaustion, pain, loneliness, but above all hunger and cold, cold and hunger. And the presence—I would say the physical presence—of death. That’s it.
You were 14 years old and you had already had the unimaginably horrible experience of a year in a concentration camp, followed by the long months of the death march. During the days of the Liberation, you tell of picking up a dried apricot thrown by the American soldiers and, as you ate it, tasting “the taste of freedom” after so long. What happened within you when you realized that the nightmare was ending? Above all, who had Liliana become by then?
The taste of freedom is an alienating feeling. Sudden. Invasive. The memory still makes me dizzy. I didn’t understand the scope of it; inside me, peace had not yet “broken out.” I was a skeleton of a 14-year-old girl, hairless and nameless, alone in the world. I didn’t know what my future would be, even the next day.
After returning to normal life you did not speak—especially in public—of your tragic experience; not for about 45 years, until you finished the long and troubled processing of the trauma. At that point you began your exceptional work of educating young people with your testimony. And also, when you were appointed a Senator for life you began your political/legislative activity. In 2018 you introduced a bill for the establishment of a parliamentary commission to address and monitor the phenomena of intolerance, racism, antisemitism, and incitement to hatred and violence. In 2019, you co-wrote a bill to declare the former prison camp of Servigliano a national monument. How have you meshed these two missions and different responsibilities? What is the role of the schools, and what is the role of law, in the battle against racism and antisemitism?
When I was appointed Senator for life by the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, three years ago, I declared that I would be guided by the Constitution, from which all else flows. I carry in my heart its untouchable Article 3. . . which speaks of equality without any limits or boundaries. Reconciling the role of witness with the role of parliamentarian is a simple action, quite natural. What changes are the modalities. I would say that my new role reinforces the action. I often say (and I repeat myself here), that Memory serves to keep democracy healthy. Keeping it healthy can be done in a thousand ways. I have recently stopped doing public testimony, but I do not intend to disregard my institutional commitments.
You often reiterate that the child Liliana, who experienced the ugliness and the horrors of Nazi-Fascism, gives you no peace. In an extremely intense phrase—which is poetic, despite its tragic nature—you say, “I am my own grandmother. I am the grandmother of that little girl.” Among the reasons that have prompted your educational work for so many years—and your political/legislative work now—is there also a fear that, one day, other children and teens might face the same atrocities experienced by little Liliana?
The answer is yes, but I prefer to use Primo Levi’s incomparable words: Reflect on this. . . it happened, so it could happen again.I would add, given the temporal distance: not necessarily in the same ways. The device of our era is the web, an immaterial infrastructure that has transformed all our behaviors. If social networks are the verbal firing range, one can and must become a digital sower of peace against all forms of hostility. The words of peace are compensation and denunciation of the limits of the web itself, because if there is any field in which wisdom and knowledge get lost, it’s the field of information. We must cultivate mildness, a virtue that unites us against all divisive passions.
Sadly, we have witnessed, for some time now, what you call the legitimization of behaviors, terms, and attitudes of frank intolerance and racial hatred. It almost seems that now we can once again be openly and publicly racist and antisemitic, without any shame or, at least, scruples. Where have we failed—as citizens or, simply, as human beings—from the end of Nazism and Fascism up to today? What could have been done that hasn’t been done?
The Europe we inhabit, a continent burned by Nazi-Fascist savagery, was born from the smoke in the winds over Auschwitz. Simone Veil, the first woman president of the European Parliament, a survivor of the death camps, spoke of Europe as the greatest project of the (last) century. What remains of that project? Very little. The emperor has no clothes; the democratic antibodies are beginning to show their first wrinkles. Fascism never died, and the failure of the ruling classes is out there for all to see. The aggressiveness of this phenomenon is taking a bad turn—so much that I, personally, have resorted, in my new role as Senator, to an innovative tool: a parliamentary committee on the phenomena of intolerance, racism, antisemitism, and incitement to hatred and violence, which could get going in a few weeks from now. The specter of hate speech from old Europe spans the planet, creating new digital monsters. Harnessing this phenomenon is the civil duty of all democratic countries.
Do you have a particular message for the American youth of today?
Your distinguished university, Columbia, organized a symposium back in April 1995 to celebrate the liberation of Europe. On that occasion Umberto Eco presented a paper entitled “Eternal Fascism,” published later in “The New York Review of Books,” which I would suggest your students go back to read.* I guarantee the relevance of these words, which I endorse here and now. It is war, always, because Fascism can still return, in the most innocent guise. The assault on Capitol Hill is nothing but a dress rehearsal. Reflect.
Read the original Italian text of Senator Segre's interview.
Read more about Track 21, the Shoah Memorial in Milan’s train station, where deportees were loaded onto livestock cars headed for the camps.
We are very grateful to Dr. Maria Paola Gargiulo, Head of Staff of Senator Liliana Segre.
Interview translated by Abigail Asher.
(Talks marked with an * appear in the Academy's 2016 book, Present and Future Memory: Holocaust Studies at the Italian Academy, 2008–2016)
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Department for Provenance Research, City of Düsseldorf
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Senior Provenance Specialist, The Museum of Modern Art
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