Italy’s Death Camp

Yet again, and just within the space of a couple of weeks, we wake up to the news of another terror attack in the UK. Six innocent people are dead, many are injured and three suspects are shot dead by the police. The area of London Bridge and Borough market is well known to both my wife and I. We’d both worked in the area in the past and enjoyed our leisure hours experiencing this lively and historic area of London, famous not only for the glorious gothic of Southwark cathedral but for being the capital’s original theatre land where Shakespeare ‘s ‘Hamlet’, for example, was first performed in 1609.

My thoughts clearly go out to the victims and their families in this utterly pointless act of horror. Italy has luckily been free of Islamist terrorism. But, as we all know it’s had dark periods in its history, largely involving extreme right and left wing fanatics. Only yesterday we hear on the news of seven assassinations in ten days of camorra-members, some killed in front of their own children.

The 1970s for this country was an especially violent era. Italians refer to that period as ‘gli anni di piombo’ (the lead – bullet – years).  ‘Strage’ is a common enough Italian word: it simply means massacre.  The Bologna station strage of 1980 killed 85. The strage of the 904 train in 1984 killed 16 including a 9 year old girl. I’ve mentioned this strage in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/about-guardian-angels/  . This is because we had to alight at the station at the entrance of the tunnel where the massacre occurred in order to attend to our wrecked car also done in within a tunnel last month – an incident which almost involved us in our own mini-strage. …

The list of stragi goes on and on. There’s a full list of the major post-war Italian ones at

https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categoria:Stragi_commesse_in_Italia

Ironically, it seems that Italy is pretty good at massacring its own people without needing help from foreign sources.

When it comes to stragi committed during the Second World War the list is too horrific to contemplate. For Lucca Province and just for the years 1943-45 there’s the following list of ‘stragi’:

  1. Valpromaro, 30 giugno 1944, 12 victims
  2. Bagni di Lucca, 18 July 1944, 13 victims
  3. Monte S. Quirico (Lucca) – Montemagno, 27 July 1944, 6 victims;
  4. Nocchi di Camaiore, 27 July 1944, 3 victims;
  5. Mulina di Stazzema, 8 August 1944, 12 victims;
  6. Balbano, 11 August 1944, 13 victims
  7. Nozzano (loc. La Sassaia), 11 August 1944, 7
  8. S. Anna di Stazzema, 12 August, about 400 victims;
  9. Capezzano, 12 August 1944, 6 victims
  10. Seravezza, 16 August 1944, 7 victims;
  11. S. Maria a Colle, 23 August 1944, 6 victims;
  12. S. Lorenzo a Vaccoli, 24 August 1944, 5 victims;
  13. Camaiore (loc.- Matanna), 25 August 1944, 7 victims;
  14. Orto di Donna (Castelnuovo Garfagnana), 25 August 1944, 7 victims;
  15. Balbano-Compignano, 2 September 1944, 12 victims
  16. Massaciuccoli (Molinaccio), 11 victims;
  17. Certosa di Farneta, 2 -10 September 1944, 40 victims,
  18. Pieve di Camaiore, 4 September 1944, 10 victims
  19. Pioppeti (Camaiore) 35 victims
  20. Massarosa, 12 September 1944, 5 victims;
  21. Viareggio, 14-15 September, 6 victims;
  22. Pietrasanta, 15-16 September, 15 victims;
  23. Castelnuovo Garfagnana, 23 September 1944, 13 victims
  24. Seravezza, loc. Ranocchiaio, 27 September 1944, 5 victims;
  25. Seravezza, loc. La Cappella, 18 October 1944, 4 men 1 child
  26. Piazza al Serchio, 1 February 1945, 6 victims

Bagni di Lucca suffered thirteen executions during the guerrilla warfare between partisans and Nazi-fascist forces but this number pales before the horror of the four hundred victims of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, all women and children killed in cold blood by Nazi-fascists. (I’ve described this strage, one of the worst in the whole Italian civil war, in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/despair-and-hope/ )

My family also suffered a strage. My mother, of Italian origin, had her cousin and her newly-wed husband on her mother’s side slaughtered by Nazi-fascists in Piedmont in 1944.

I’d visited the Nazi concentration and death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau earlier this century and thought that they were all located in the territory controlled by the Third Reich. It came, therefore, as a hideous surprise that Italy too had its large-scale concentration camps. I was aware of collection centres for what in Nazi ideology were known as ‘untermenschen’ – sub-humans (i.e. Jews, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses, and LGBTs). There’s one centre commemorated by a memorial quite near Bagni di Lucca at Socciglia and one even nearer at Bagni’s terme. (See my post for those at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/from-bagni-di-lucca-to-auschwitz/ ).

Italy had eight concentration camps .These were at

With the exception of the last all the camps were centres of deportation to the Reich’s killing centres at such locations as Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka and Birkenau.

The Risiera di San Sabba, located in the industrial quarter of Trieste, was Italy’s only death camp where the detained were shot, hanged or gassed. After the 1943 Cassibile armistice, which theoretically ended the war between Italy and the allies, the country was divided into three parts.

The first, southern, part came increasingly under allied control as the Eighth army (in which my father was a tank driver) advanced like a red-hot rake up the Italian peninsula. The second part became the puppet republic of Salò under the restored dictatorship of Mussolini. The third part, which included the provinces of  Pordenone, Udine, Trieste, Gorizia, Pola, Fiume and Lubiana  (the last three now part of Slovenia and Croatia) became the  Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland, otherwise known as OZAK, under the direct control of the Führer himself.

‘Risiera’ means a rice husking mill and, like so many things associated with Italy, and particularly with Trieste, its transformation from a factory into a death camp remained unmentioned until the truth came out in the 1960’s when the Risiera was declared a national monument to the memory of those killed by extremist ideologies.

I took the no 10 bus from Trieste’s Piazza Goldoni, alighting at Lidl, and walked to this gloomy place as I too wanted to pay homage to the victims of this saddest part of Trieste’s history.

The entrance to the death camp was nightmarish. I’ve never had such a feeling of inevitability and imprisonment. Here was the entrance to the abandonment of all hope for Trieste’s Jewish population, its political opponents, its Romanies, in other words its ‘untermenschen’.

I entered the death cell.

I also saw these specially built cells where up to half a dozen prisoners were crammed in each one awaiting their fate which, although it could be forced labour, always ended up in assassination in the Risiera or transportation to a more efficiently provided extermination camp like Treblinka with its more advanced extermination technology.

Other prisoners were kept in the block called the house of the crosses. It originally had three floors but the planking dividing the floors has been removed creating a poignantly stunning effect.

In the centre of the Risiera is a large courtyard where the furnaces used to stand. The retreating Germans blew them up at the end of April 1945 in an attempt to leave no trace of their holocaustic activities (just like they attempted to do at Birkenau II where the crematoria I saw there had collapsed but still discernible in their concrete rubble.

Execution was by three main methods,

  1. Firing squad.
  2. A blow on the head with this mace (only rediscovered during excavations in 1975)

  1. Gassing, largely by placing the victims in a sealed hut which was then fed by a tube connected to a lorry’s exhaust. Zyklon-B may have also been used.

Not all detainees were killed here, however. Trains using the excellent Hapsburg railway system transported the prisoners, mainly to Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Chelmno.

In place of the blown-up crematoria there is a symbolic sculpture by Frattini.

In place of the gassing chamber there is a large metal-floored square with a memorial, always full of flowers.

In another detention building there’s a museum which has been very well re-presented recently and displays the history of one of Italy’s most horrific places together with relics and witness statements.

There’s also a film of Mussolini inaugurating the promulgation of his ‘leggi razziali’ (racial laws) to keep up with his mate Adolf. Unbelievably, Benito declared this edict of shame from the balcony of Trieste’s own town hall in 1938. Trieste of all places! Trieste, cosmopolitan, welcoming, with a place of worship for every community that had settled in it: Armenians, Russian Orthodox, Valdensian, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Anglicans, Catholics… Trieste where so many different communities lived in harmony.  And all this happened in the same year that the mayor of Trieste was Paolo Emilio Salem, a Jew!

The commander of the Risiera  was SS officer Odilo Globocnik, born in Trieste, who worked in close collaboration with chief co-ordinator Reinhardt Heydrich who formulated the ‘final solution’ at the infamous Wahnsee conference of 1942. (‘Operation Reinhardt’ exterminated around 1.2 million Jews).

(Globocnik)

Globocnik avoided capture and trial at the end of the war by swallowing a cyanide pill. Bastard!

I thought of the once-multicultural Syria, now a daily blood-bath, and my thought swam down into the maelstrom of the darkest dejection. And today I find that, yet again, another multicultural, multi-ethnic city – a city I was born and bred in, a city which gave me my education, helped me gain my daily bread, provided me with my beautiful wife, a city which still remains so essentially in my heart, is being newly threatened by tenebrous, evil forces.

Why? Why? Why?

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