In a haunting memoir called This has happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz, Italian Holocaust survivor, Piera Sonnino, has narrated her devastating experience as a twenty-two year old Jewish woman in the largest concentration camp of the Nazi regime. She lost her parents and three brothers in Auschwitz in 1944, and is the only holocaust survivor in her family.
Her memoir provides a moving account of the unspeakable evils of Nazism. It all started in 1938 when the Italian government promulgated racial laws against Italian Jews and other minority native inhabitants of the Italian colonies. The discriminatory laws prohibited Jews from schools, universities and having any professional positions.
Italian Jews were also banned from working in the armed forces and civil services. The laws also banned marriages and sexual relations between Italian, Jews and Africans. And of course, Jews were rounded up and deported. The community had lived in Italy for more than two thousand years and was well-integrated within Italian culture and life. But the Nazis and fascists were responsible for brainwashing common Italians against them.
The peaceful character of neighbourhoods started changing. Jewish shops and homes were attacked and burnt down. The killers were not unknown faces, but neighbours and armed police. The people who lived together for centuries with peace and harmony turned into Nazi vultures and fascist death squads.
The courageous Sonnino outlined her personal experiences in two sentences while reflecting on the last night of her family together. She wrote:
“whatever I could say that time, it would not make sense translated into words; it would be a thin shadow of that reality. I would be stealing it from myself, from what is mine, desperately mine alone”.
This personal memory reflects the collective pain of Jewish communities across Europe. Such a vile transformation was not a surprise. It did not happen overnight, accidentally or naturally. The majoritarian silence and disbelief of the minority communities allowed the twin evils of fascism and Nazism, which engulfed Italian society and other parts of Europe within couple of years, to flourish.
Also read ‘Anti-Fascisting’
This does not reflect the success of Nazis and fascists, but rather, the silence of the majority. Silence was not the best choice, but the majority of people silently accepted and consumed the government’s institutionalised bigotry against Jews and other minorities.
The official optimism of the evil regime did everything to hide the prevailing economic catastrophe. It diverted people’s attention from critical issues to constructed narratives against Jewish communities. The displacement, disintegration and deaths of the Jewish communities were the net outcomes of the Nazi regime.
The migration of Jewish communities to different part of Europe did not save their lives. Only a small number of Jews, like Sonnino, survived to share the horror of Nazism and fascism in which mere Jewish existence was a crime punishable by death.
Prisons became home to humanism, reason, rationality, ethics and the people, who fought for the rights of the Jewish people. The anti-fascist partisans perished in prison alongside their Jewish compatriots. In fact, the communists and socialists were at the forefront of defence of the Jewish people, and in the battle against Nazism and fascism.
Sonnino’s autobiography is not only a chilling history of a persecuted Jewish family in Italy, but also a warning sign for the present generation to be vigilant about the rise of fascism. Mass genocide, absolute devastation, disappearances and mass imprisonments are the human costs of silence in the face of fascism.
As poet and Professor Michael Rosen warns us in his poem Fascism: I Sometimes Fear…:
I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.
Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…
It doesn’t walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
Sonnino’s devastating autobiography and Rosen’s poem are daily reminders for us to be vigilant of rising fascist tendencies across the world. Silence is not an option. As authoritarian regimes continue to grow with the help of religious right-wing forces and free market fundamentalists, we must raise our voice against these forces before they consolidate their power and positions.
Majoritarian silence is not fear, but betrayal of their own existence. Active resistance is the only form of solidarity that the time demands. It is our duty to provide unwavering support to all persecuted religious minorities and stand in solidarity with the struggles of working-class people across the globe. This is the only way towards peace, prosperity and the survival of a secular, multicultural and democratic world.
The united struggle against fascism is the only alternative for human survival.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image: Young survivors of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland, as filmed by Red Army soldiers | USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography, Wikimedia Commons