MILAN – For decades, Liliana Segre visited Italian classrooms to recount her expulsion from school under Italy's anti-Semitic racial laws. Benito Mussolini, his doomed attempt to flee Nazi-controlled Italy, his deportation from Milan train station to the Auschwitz death camps.
Her unvarnished testimony about the gas chambers, tattooed arms, casual 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 you wonder if everything has been in vain.
“Why did I suffer for 30 years to share intimate things about my family, my pain, my despair?
Segre, 93 years old, with cotton-white hair, a steel-cage memory and an official status as Senator for Lifehe said last week in his beautiful Milan apartment, where he sat next to a police escort.
Demonstration against anti-Semitism, organized by the Jewish community of Rome, in the city in December.
He wondered, not for the first time these days, if “I have lived in vain.”
Even as Segre accepted another honorary degree on Saturday to commemorate the Holocaust Memorial Daythe rise of anti-Semitism and what she considers a general climate of hate have put her in a pessimistic mood.
The massacre of Jews in Israel on October 7, led by Hamas, sickened her, she said, and Israel's reaction in the Gaza Strip It left her feeling “desperate,” as did what she saw as the exploitation of the conflict to spread anti-Semitism under the guise of a pro-Palestinian cause.
In Europe, Moscow's aggression in Ukraine led her to wonder about the Russian President Vladimir Putin:
“What is this, another Hitler?”, while the rise of the far right in France and Germany makes him nauseous.
In Italy, Segre is dismayed by a recent mass gathering of far-right extremists giving the fascist salute, by unpleasant language against immigrants whose plight reminds her of her own, and by a right-wing government led by Giorgia Meloniwho has condemned Italian racial laws and the horrors of the Holocaust, but who herself grew up in parties born from the ashes of fascism.
Reflecting on a cyclical view of history, Segre wondered if he had lived long enough to see history repeat itself.
“It's not new,” he said, making a circle with his hands.
And so, Segre has abandoned the comfort of his living room – with a “Reserved for Grandma” pillow on the couch, family photographs (“it's me and my father”), paintings, books and stacks of the opera CDs he adores – to remember again.
On television shows, at universities where he receives honorary degrees, and at the Holocaust memorial in Milan, he retells a story he hoped he would never have to tell again.
Segre and mayors from all over Italy in 2019 at a demonstration against racism in Milan.
Born in 1930 into a secular Milanese Jewish family, she lost her mother to a tumor in childhood. Her father, Alberto, who worked in the family textile business, raised her with the help of her parents. He was so cute, she says, that she stopped driving after accidentally hitting a beautiful bird on a mountain road.
An only child, she greatly appreciated her friends at school, where she excelled in reading but hated arithmetic.
At night, he would go to sleep listening to his father, always at home, in the next bedroom, turning the pages of his stamp collection.
When she was 8 years old, Italian racial laws came into effect and she was expelled from her public school.
All but three of her classmates ignored her on the street, listening to their mothers who told them that “it was useless” greet her
His uncle, a convinced fascist, became an enemy of the country.
His father's faith that Italy would protect the family was exhausted.
In 1943, he packed a portfolio of valuable stamps and stuffed a few diamonds into his belt to pay for a new life in Switzerland.
They crossed the mountains, but that December, a Swiss border guard turned them back.
Alberto Segre threw his stamps and diamonds into the mud to avoid handing them over to his captors.
The Italians detained them in Varese, not far from the border, and handed them over to the Nazis.
He realized that all was lost when they handcuffed him.
“My father had beautiful hands,” he says.
On January 30, 1944, after weeks in the Milanese prison of San Vittore, Liliana Segre, her father and more than 600 Jews were transferred under cover of darkness to underground track 21, intended for goods, at the central station of Milan.
Loaded amid barking dogs onto hay-strewn freight trains equipped with a single bucket, they rolled out of the city.
They arrived at Auschwitzin Poland, at the beginning of February.
Most Jews were sent to gas chambers and burned in ovens.
They put Liliana Segre's father in one row, she in another.
The Nazis tattooed the number 75190 on him.
During the day, she worked as a slave in a munitions factory.
At night, he fought for blankets.
As the Soviets approached in January 1945, the Nazis forced her, along with tens of thousands of prisoners, to march toward Germany along a road paved with dead.
As the Germans stripped off their military uniforms and tried to melt away, she saw a gun on the ground.
Her decision not to murder a guard, she said, was her birth as a “free woman” who was better than her captors.
“I was strong in my absolute weakness,” he said.
Although, he chuckled, “maybe I could have shot him in the foot.”
After his release and return to Italy, he desperately sought news of his father.
An uncle who had converted to Catholicism arranged a private audience with Pope Pius XII, where she asked for help in finding her father.
“My presence made him very uncomfortable,” she said, remembering that when she began to kneel, he stopped her and said:
“It is I who must kneel before you.”
Inquiries about his father were unsuccessful, and only years later, when he searched the Jewish documentation center in Milan, did he discover that he had died two months after arriving at Auschwitz.
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, he met Alfredo Belli Paci.
He noticed the tattoo on her 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 ten years older, 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 did well:
him with his studio and her with her family's textile business.
They had three children, but she rarely talked about her past.
Her husband told them that They won't ask.
But at the end of the seventies, her husband began to serve in the Italian Social Movement, the party of extreme right created by former fascists who sided with the Nazis. She expected him to be a passing flirtation, but when he ran for office, They quarreled bitterly.
“I fell into a depression,” he says, and days went by without him being able to get out of bed.
Finally he gave him an ultimatum and a minute to decide:
He chose her, and over the next decade, she felt a sense forming within her that she had an important story to tell.
When her first grandchild was born, she said, she felt like she had finally emerged from a long fog.
“I was 60 years old, on the threshold of old age, and I felt that I could not wait”.
He began telling his story in schools and continued to do so for 30 years.
In January 2018, on the 80th anniversary of the enactment of Mussolini's racial laws, Segre was shopping for a battery for his Swatch watch when he received a call from the office of the president of Italy.
Segre had been appointed Senator for Lifethe country's highest honor.
Segre has used his platform.
In 2018, when the leader of the far-right Liga party, Matteo Salvini, brandished rosaries at political rallies, said in Parliament that campaigning with Catholic icons seemed like a “dangerous revival” of “God is with us” slogans on Nazi uniforms. And in 2019, the year Italian authorities decided that online threats against her justified a full-time police escort, she proposed a Senate commission against incitement to hate.
Following Meloni's victory in the 2022 general election, Segre presided over the inaugural legislative session that would elect Ignazio La Russa – who long had a bust of Mussolini in his home – president of the Senate. Segre said his office made her rehearse his speech “because they didn't know how I would behave.”
In his speech, he recalled that 100 years had passed since the fascists marched on Rome.
“It is impossible for me not to feel a kind of vertigo,” she said, “when I remember that that same girl, who on this day in 1938, heartbroken and lost, was forced by racist laws to leave her elementary school bench empty. .
And that, by a strange fate, that same girl is today in the most prestigious bank, in the Senate.”
Last week, he accompanied La Russa, who has condemned the Holocaust as evil and is a supporter of Israel, officials and members of her commission to the Runway 21 Holocaust memorial, usually packed with schoolchildren learning about the Holocaust. place from which 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 a painting of stamps that her father had commissioned, and that her family discovered, and was forced to buy back, years after the war. “But she helped me because I felt the need to.”
“But it helped me because I felt the need to do it.”
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