After Italy’s disastrous experience of fascist rule, it has never managed to entirely rid itself of that ideology but, as if to compensate, it has acquired an established anti-fascist culture – as so admirably on display at Como’s Villa Olmo on Tuesday 29th January this year. For the annual Holocaust Memorial Day celebrations, the trades union CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana di Lavoro), with the support of the city’s local government, organised a presentation that included the testimony of Ines Figini (born 1922). Ines was a young worker at Como’s largest textile mill (later known as Ticosa) in 1944 when she was deported to Germany as a slave labourer alongside the organisers of a strike at the factory. She addressed a packed assembly with standing room only and a lot of young people present. Speaking with a strong clear voice full of conviction, she described her time in the Nazi extermination and labour camps of Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbruck.
Ines was twenty one years old when, out of conviction, generosity and maybe a touch of youthful naivety, she stood up for the organisers of the strike at Ticosa in March 1944 – a strike directed at improving working conditions but also part of a wave of resistance in Northern Italy to the Nazi-fascist state. She paid dearly for pointing out to the authorities that they should either arrest all or none of the strikers since they were all in it together. She was arrested that same night, imprisoned locally, and then transported from Bergamo to Vienna and on to Mauthausen. She did not return home until 25th October, 1945.
Since then she has dedicated her time talking to schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Hers is a story of survival – in the camps, on the death march as war ended and then through severe sickness. She also tells of how she came to deal with the mental impact of witnessing and experiencing so much horror, as, for example, when she came to realise that the young children she saw being marched past her hut clutching soft toys, were being sent to the gas chambers. The only way she managed to live with these memories was by confronting them by repeated return visits to Birkenau and also by finding a way to forgive those responsible. Go to ‘Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day’ for a more complete account of her story.
Optimism and Despair
Ines survived – to this day her firm, clear voice recounting her experience in straightforward unequivocal phrases, reveals her inner strength and her overall sense of hope and optimism of a brighter future. Her testimony is well suited to the young who have the future ahead of them which we hope will never descend into the barbarity witnessed by Ines and so many others of her generation. However there was no hope for the millions of victims of the Shoah nor for many others who lived through it. Also at Villa Olmo last Tuesday was Alessandro Sander Lukacs, Hungarian by birth in the same year as Ines, Italian by adoption – and another long-term resident of Como. Alessandro is also a survivor from the Nazi lagers who emigrated to Italy after the war, taking up his medical profession in Milan and later moving on firstly as a consultant doctor and later as the director of Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital.
He is also a writer and a poet – but a writer of fiction since this is the way he prefers to recall the Holocaust. For him the process of testifying and remembrance is acutely painful. As he has said ‘It takes decades to learn to recount what you wanted to forget.’ His three novels are only available in Italian as far as I can establish. Alessandro’s protagonist in his latest novel, ‘The Talmudista’, longs for liberty but he has gone beyond the hope of experiencing a living freedom. For him, liberty is the annulment of the present – he can only hope for death. Alessandro’s testimony was brief but very different from Ines’s, not so immediate in its impact but profound in its attempt to convey a reality beyond our capacity to imagine. He recounted the brutality of the prison camp regime and how he only learnt the meaning of what the guards shouted at him in their foreign language by the degree of accompanying violence.
Cernobbio’s Remembrance Park
Just behind the town hall of Cernobbio, just down the road from Como, is a small area amongst sombre cypress trees dedicated to victims of the Shoah and of other atrocities. The central plaque is ringed by others citing individual acts of bravery or self sacrifice performed by some of those people with links to Como or Cernobbio who have stood up to oppression and inhumanity.
The central plaque is dedicated to ‘Ignoti Scomparsi del Pizzo’ – those anonymous victims killed during and just after the war either by the fascist authorities or the partisans seeking retribution. Pizzo is the small headland jutting out just beyond the Hotel Villa D’Este. It was a favoured spot for assassination since bodies were easily toppled over the railing into the waters below where the peculiarities of the current would then carry the victims out into the middle of the lake for their bodies never to be recovered. The memorial is to all those whose life was ended at that spot no matter what their political affiliation or, for that matter, what inhumane acts they themselves may have been responsible. It is hard to reconcile the beauty of a spot like Pizzo (where, by the way, there is a glorious villa much used as a romantic wedding venue) with the tragedy and inhumanity it has witnessed. In this instance, the motive for remembrance is to restore a bit of dignity to those killed there.
The plaque dedicated to Narciso Riet (originally a German citizen who had however settled in Cernobbio but was arrested, transported to Dachau and subsequently executed) serves as a reminder that enemies of the Reich included groups like Jehovah Witnesses who were forced to wear a purple triangle badge similar to the yellow one or blue and white armband forced on Jews. Narciso was a Jehovah Witness who died for his faith.
The other plaques in the circle include one to Antonio Farinatti, a marshall in the Guardia di Finanza who was executed in Croatia when Italy signed its armistice in September 1943 whilst trying to save fellow nationals caught up in the wave of ethnic cleansing directed against the Italian resident population. Two partisan members are cited, one being Enrico Caronti, battlename ‘Romolo’, captured, tortured and then shot outside the cemetery in Menaggio in 1944. The other is Ettore Fumagalli, the only partisan from Cernobbio who was killed during the war. Two citations are for people who aided Jews, anti-fascists and allied prisoners of war escape into neutral Switzerland. The first is Bruno Bossuto, from Cernobbio, who was caught, deported and died in Mauthausen on 28th July 1944. The other is Cernobbio’s local priest, Don Umberto Marmori who was imprisoned in Milan in 1944 for helping Jews and others escape. He was released in January 1945 but died shortly after due to the harsh treatment during his incarceration. There are two more general monuments to unnamed victims in addition to that for the victims of ‘Pizzo’. One is in memory of the victims of the Twin Towers outrage in New York on September 11th 2001 and the other is to the so-called ‘’Schiavi di Hitler’ (Hitler’s slaves) – the 700,000 Italian soldiers deported to Germany after the September 43 armistice as slave workers. 40,000 died in Germany as a result of hunger, illness, bombing or violence.
The plaque to Giampiero Civati honours a young corporal in the local Morbengo regiment of the Alpini who, when ordered to take his place in a firing squad to execute recently captured partisans, refused to do so stating he did not see how an Italian army could be shooting fellow Italians. His platoon commander summarily shot him on the spot.
It is however with particular pride that a plaque commemorates the exploits of Giorgio Perlasca, Italy’s own Schindler. Perlasca was directly responsible for saving the lives of five thousand Jews whilst living in Budapest in 1944. He later saved many others from death in the Jewish ghetto there.
One of the plaques in his honour includes a quote from Simon Wiesenthal which states ‘Every man who has saved innocent lives or has sacrificed his own life, merits being honoured.’ Perlasca, born in Como, actually started off a committed fascist fighting for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. However he was deeply opposed to the Racial Laws passed in Italy in 1938 which discriminated directly against Jews, and led inexorably to fascist compliance with Nazi insistence on deportation to the labour and extermination camps. When in Budapest, he took advantage of a Spanish passport granted to him during the Civil War to pose as a Spanish diplomat and issue ‘letters of protection’ that ensured safe passage for the 5000 he saved.
Cernobbio’s small remembrance garden sets out to achieve many aspects of remembrance from seeking to restore dignity to unnamed victims, to honouring those who, through small or more extensive gestures, have sought to challenge the forces of oppression for which they have often paid the highest price. Ines Figini too paid a very high price for standing up for her worker colleagues. Before too long, we will not have the voices of survivors to remind us of how humanity can, if led in a certain way, reduce the most sophisticated and cultured societies to commit the worst excesses of barbarity. The danger is that the reality of the suffering and inhumanity of the extermination camps will all become a little unbelievable in our modern world without the tattooed arm of a living survivor before us as live testimony to the truth. But the most profound way to honour the victims of the holocaust is to ensure their sacrifice prevents any similar recurrences. If we can do that, then we will be able to link remembrance to hope of a humane future, to poetry and to Ines’s spirit of optimism.