Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Brief History Lesson

 the barracks at Fossoli

The danger of travelling as a tourist is to visit a place to say you have been there without having an intention for your experience.  It is just as foolish to travel and deny that you are merely a visitor.  I have been lucky in my both of my stays in Italy that I have had professors, American and Italian, who want us to understand what we are seeing, who give historical and social context to what we see.  We have readings and discussions about our subjects in a classroom, but they are preparation for the incredible field studies we experience. 

Equally important is having an enthusiastic tour guide.

A few days before the National Celebration for the Day of Liberation in Italy, my history class visited the town of Carpi, a museum and monument to the plight of Jews during the Holocaust and to the concentration camp at Fossoli.   A student from another class asked me, “Italy had concentration camps?”  Our knowledge of history is often diluted to the basic facts of winner and loser, good and bad.  Italy had been Fascist.  But what happened after Mussolini had been unclear to me.  But there were camps in Italy, prison camps and centers for the collection and transporting of Jews from 1943-45.  From these camps in northern Italy, they went to Auschwitz.  

Over and over, our tour guide, Maria, showed us how we can remember things in certain ways as to remove blame.  Americans learn about the awfulness of Nazis and to fear Stalin’s communism, but we rarely and briefly talk about the internment camps in the U.S. for Japanese Americans.   Maria told us that Italians also “forget” about the camps in Italy, and blame the Germans.  But she says they must remember, must accept responsibility, or the same thing can happen again.  

The camp at Fossoli was established first by Italians for British prisoners of war and then for the interment of Jews.  In March 1944 it was taken over by the Germans, but until then it was under the control of Italian Fascists.  Now the camp is a place for people to come and learn about what happened here.  Maria tells us about its history, and daily life.  It was difficult, but not as bad as the camps in Germany and Poland.  She says that here, in Fossoli, there was still hope, still a chance to talk with family outside, to receive food.  She told us that the food here was prepared by others being held in the camp and so it was made with care.  Prisoners remember the food being good, but it was not from ingredients or seasonings but because here, people still could take care of each other.   Jews and political prisoners were held here, in separate barracks.  She spoke about Odorao Focherini, who helped provide false identity cards for Italian Jews so they might escape to Switzerland.  He was captured and sent to Fossoli in 1944, eventually dying of a leg wound in Hesbruek.  Only after telling his story did she tell us that he was her grandfather.  

names of victims of the Holocaust
at a Synagogue in Prague
a similar monument exists for Italians
at the museum in Carpi

  The museum in the center of Carpi is a solemn building made mostly of symbols.  The architect was a survivor of a concentration camp.  Though many believe there is little you can do to relay the experience there, there are objects and words to invoke how one might have felt, and to understand the process through which the Nazis dehumanized the Jews, removing their individual identities and creating an efficient method for dealing with thousands of people by turning them into one faceless mass.  There are words carved into the walls from Jews who were captured, some who survived, and from many who were killed in camps.  

 looking out from the camp

Throughout this our guide remained energetic, posing questions to us to have us consider the psychological methods of the Nazis, their reasoning and the disturbingly efficient system they created.  More than a demonstration of right and wrong, Maria’s talk offered us ways to understand why and how this happened.  So that maybe we would be able to prevent this from ever happening again.  By considering process and not simply labeling Nazis as evil monsters, the story becomes more complicated but also closer to us. 

At the end of the day, a student asked our guide how she remained positive.  She seems to have such love and joy, and energy, even though the stories she tells of the camp are terrible and sad.  She says that she sees the good that people tried to do to help others, like her grandfather did, that there can still be good things done even against the worst imaginable.  That is what she wants us to remember.