From Bagni di Lucca to Auschwitz

Today, as you’ll most probably know, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Bagni di Lucca was not exempted from the worst horrors of the last war. Although it narrowly avoided being bombed to smithereens, a fate that Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, further up the Serchio valley, had to suffer (see my post on that at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/vecchio-castel-nuovo-and-the-fury-of-war/ ), it became one of two ‘collecting centres’ (the other being at Socciglia where a memorial stone marks the place) for undesirable members of the human race which 99% of the time meant those of Jewish descent.

(The memorial at Socciglia yesterday)

(Trans: “This place knew the inhuman suffering of patriots and the incarceration of civilians waiting to be deported to Germany and a more tragic fate. We entrust the memory to future generations so that they may travel more decisively on the paths of peace”).

Under the abomination of the racial laws promulgated by Mussolini in 1938, largely a propaganda gambit to please his new ‘pact of steel’ ally Herr Hitler, Jews were marginalised by Italian society into what became ghettos. The irony is that the word ‘ghetto’ originates from a district in Venice, Italy largely inhabited by Jewish people.

The ‘Regio Decreto 17 Novembre 1938 Nr. 1728’  minimized civil rights for Jews, excluded them from schools, forbade them to hold any public office, greatly limited their travel, stripped them of their property and assets. Eventually, at the height of the Italian civil war of 1943-45 (when the partisans and allied forces fought against the puppet ‘social republic’ of Salò set up by Hitler under the pretended governorship of Mussolini, ‘rescued’ from imprisonment at the Gran Sasso rifugio), people of Jewish origin were rounded up and incarcerated in local concentration camps to await their transportation to the death factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen and Belzec.

To the honour of the vast majority of  the Italian people the laws were unpopular and even prominent fascists like hero Italo Balbo opposed them. Italy’s Jewish population had lived in the country for centuries and were fully integrated in the life of the community. Merely thinking at random of some great Jewish Italians one recalls the names of Rita Levi-Montalcini, Italo Svevo, Lorenzo da Ponte, Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman and Castelnuovo-Tedesco to be fully aware of the incredibly high contribution this community has made to the enrichment of Italian life and culture.

By 1943, however, Italy was in the grip of teutonic brutality and effectively in the hands of field marshal Kesselring. Having had to abandon the Gustav line between Rome and Naples Kesselring set all his hopes on the Gothic line stretching from Viareggio to Rimini and crossing the spine of the Apennines among which Bagni di Lucca is situated. (For more on the Gothic line see some of my posts on it at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/secret-mission-across-the-gothic-line-a-success/ ,

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/olive-oil-persian-cats-and-the-gothic-line/ ,

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/war-and-peace/ ,

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/il-castellaccio/.

)

The concentration camp for Bagni di Lucca was situated in the now derelict and crumbling walls of the old Hotel delle Terme behind the church of San Martino, above the present Hotel delle Terme. Three children, Luciana, Paolo and Liliana, with an added-up age of less than three years were the first to be killed with another thirty children and teenagers when they arrived at Auschwitz. They died in front of their parents, their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. In all, the total number at Bagni di Lucca taken to the extermination factories was one hundred and twelve. Only five managed to return to Italy alive. The Bagni di Lucca Konzentrationslager contained not just people from Bagni di Lucca but also from many other parts of Italy. The prisoners stayed there for six months without proper food, no heating and few clothes and passed what was one of the hardest winters the area has ever suffered.

I took these photographs of the derelict hotel yesterday and had to be very careful to avoid things falling on top of me. If you ever go there do wear a hard hat (I really should have worn my crash helmet).and watch out for the trapdoors leading to the cellars and hidden under the foliage. They are rotten through and you might have a long way down to fall. I wonder with a history like that would anyone want to buy it up and restore it? Perhaps it should be left as it is as a memorial to some very dark years at Bagni di Lucca:

 

Throughout my hour there tangible feelings of a terrible evil and of a great sadness almost overpowered me.

The prisoners from the ex-albergo were transported by train to Lucca and thence to Florence. From Florence they went to Milan where they were housed in that city’s notorious San Vittore prison near Piazza Aquileia.

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They were then taken to Milan central station where they left for the gas chambers from the infamous ‘Binario 21’ (platform 21), still there to this day and now turned into a monument to the victims of the Shoah. It was utilised for mail trains before being used for its sinister purpose between 1943 and 1945. It’s below the main station platforms and can be entered from a side door. (Binario 21 is visitable as I did some years ago. The web site is at http://www.memorialeshoah.it/italiano/adv.html ).

(Platform 21 at Milan Stazione Centrale)

There’s a word now inscribed in concrete on one wall which sums it all up:

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I don’t need to translate that…

Figures show that 7,680 Jewish people were deported to the death camps, representing over 17 per cent of the total Italian Jewish population – a relatively low (!) percentage when one considers that 85 per cent of the Jewish population in Lithuania were exterminated.

To return to Bagni di Lucca: some of those deported died on the train journey to Auschwitz. Crammed like sardines into cattle trucks, Angela Ferrari, for example died aged just 26.

Was there anyone brave enough to stop this happening to them? Yes. The number would have been much higher had it not been for Don Arturo Paoli who only died last July aged 102 and who is on that great list of ‘the just of all nations’.

Arturo_Paoli

It is my eternal regret that I only found out recently about this man from Lucca who collaborated bravely with DELASEM, the Jewish resistance movement, to save over eight hundred Jews in this part of Italy from entering the extermination camps. At least, however, we know a close relative of Giorgio Nissim, the organiser of DELASEM, from Pisa.

Who were the five from Bagni di Lucca who survived? Among them was Leo Urbach, Liliana’s father who had to suffer the killing of his wife and two children Liliana, aged less than two and his son aged five before Auschwitz was liberated by Russian troops on January 27th 1945. (That’s why we have International Holocaust Remembrance Day on that day).

Liliana was born in Bagni di Lucca on 19th October 1942. She was taken from there on 23rd January 1943 to Milan.  On 30th January she left Binario 21 at Milan station, reached  Auschwitz-Birkenau on February 7th 1943 with her family and died on 19th  February 1944. There was one witness to their leaving Bagni di Lucca: a little girl who later recollected:” I just remember that it was cold and they had few clothes on, all in dark colours. But it wasn’t us who’d taken their clothes. The soldiers had taken them and they were now leading the children, dragging them by holding their little hands.”

What memorials are there to the Shoah as experienced by Bagni di Lucca? In Fornoli there’s the peace park with this memorial to little Liliana, inaugurated in 1999.

It’s next to the primary school where in all probability Liliana would have gone had she lived.

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In the park there was this graffiti scrawled over a water pump box:

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Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all)

Behind it was the old Ponte delle Catene over the Lima. Built by the great Nottolini in the nineteenth century it seemed to me that both it and the graffiti had a message to say about loving each other and building bridges.

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And yet the killing, worse, the genocide, still goes on: by fanatics just across the sea from us and by the sea itself. Since last year over 3,000 people, including a shamefully large number of children, have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats handled by unscrupulous people-smugglers .

Meanwhile, the sinister and decrepit façade of the old Hotel delle Terme has nothing to show on it that this was the last sight many people would have had of their beloved families and their beautiful country.

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This, in my opinion, is a scandal that must be rectified as soon as possible. Here is a building that, more than any other in this area, witnessed man’s brutality to man and people pass by it without realizing what purpose it was used for. A memorial plaque should be placed on it now because if we don’t remember……..

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Ash pond reflects clouds

silence by the little wood

a stork takes to flight.

 

Twisted iron bars

concrete minds

rusty furnaces:

 

Resurrection’s castle

is a heap of crumbling concrete

 

 

(Written when I motorbiked to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001)

 

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5 thoughts on “From Bagni di Lucca to Auschwitz

  1. Yes we must remember and remind ourselves lest we forget of such atrocities that have happened and are happening still in different ways in our beautiful world still today how dreadful that this as Shakespeare wrote Mans inhumanity to man? I suppose that it is the sense of power of godlessness of misdirection ultimately of insanity that such actions can be imposed on our fellow human beings. To think that in Germany it is only recently that this section of history has been introduced in the history of the country curriculum in schools prior to which all was hush hush never even talked about. Francis well Have been lucky enough to have had the privilege to meet three of those people you mention by name Anna Magnani when she came to London to play in La Lupa , Natalia Ginzberg I met and knew well as she was the wife of Gabriele Baldini Director of the Italian Institute and Vittorio Gassman I met in Islington as I worked in a film as an extra. You mention Giorgio Nissim well Piero Nissim has just finished writing a book about this period in history and which I believe the launch of his book is today. I feel great sadness that we never managed to know about Don Arturo Pauli before now I would have loved to have met him imagine 102 what a wonderful age and what a great person. Strangely as you know I have mentioned to you many times the bad vibrations that I have felt around the area when we first came here to the point that I had an outcry of the word assassins and not without reason as now your blog explains it all and no wonder that Hotel has been left in that dreadful state it must be so very haunted by those poor souls that had been kept there so this is the dark side sinister gothic untold story of Bagni di Lucca which is redeemed by the occasional happiness that cheers the area with colourful feste.

  2. Hi, my husband and I bought a place in Bagni di Lucca last October and as a Jewish couple we have found this blog really interesting (no one in the village really knew too much about this when we asked a while ago). Could you possibly email me please? Would like to ask some questions 🙂 Thanks, Anna

  3. We have so many artists living here. Maybe they can make a nice monument of some sort to put up there or somewhere else to remember those who lost their lives?

    • There are monuments at the peace park and in the parish church and also on the old hotel at Ponte a Serraglio. Perhaps there could certainly be room for something more, especially in the ruined hotel where the internees were kept.. There is, of course a very fine chapel to the resistance at Croce Stazzana above Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.

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