FOR THE GUILT OF BEING BORN
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She was 8 years old when she was expelled from the primary school. She’d always been a good pupil, but she had a guilt: she belonged to a Jewish family.
It was autumn 1938. The Italian government was beginning to issue the racial laws that excluded Jews people from the social life of the country. It was the prelude to the deportations towards Nazi extermination camps: from October 1943 to February 1945, over seven thousand Italian Jews were crammed inside the convoys mostly towards Auschwitz camp. Only 837 survived and came back. Liliana Segre was between them.
Today she’s 82 and always strong, and in this moment she’s preparing to receive the certificate of primary school (symbolic, since after the war she continued her studies) from the institution that had expelled her in 1938. It’s the Ruffini school in Milan, in Ruffini street.
It will happen on Monday, January 21, at 7.30 pm. After the symbolic graduation, Liliana Segre will tell about herself when she was a child in Auschwitz, as she told me a few years ago. And I’ll be there at the school because I’m not been listening to Liliana for long, and listening to her is always a relief. For the strength that she communicates and her inner freedom. For the spiritual balance she achieved and maintained. For her measured way of speaking, flawless and never tempted to self-pity
Here are some pages from my book I survived Auschwitz (Paoline publisher, just released in a new edition and on sale in these days with the magazine Famiglia Cristiana), where Liliana relives the first time she felt different from the others.
“I was a little girl Milan like many others in Milan, of a Jewish family who was not religious at all. I hadn’t received any religious education at home. In September 1938 I had finished the second grade at primary school and led a peaceful and happy life in my family microcosm.
I lived in Milan, 55 Magenta Avenue, with my dad and my grandparents Olga and Pippo: they were so sweet, so beloved. My mom had died when I was not yet a year old, and my dad - who was 30 in 1938 - had returned to live in the parental home.
I had never heard about Judaism when, a late summer evening, I was told by my family that I could no longer go to school. I remember we were sitting at the table. I remember their faces, anxious and affectionate together, and their eyes staring at me while communicating a news that sounded incredible to me. I was attending a public school, I was a good pupil, I could not see any reason to be expelled.
“Why? What did I do wrong?” I asked, and I felt guilty, guilty of a crime that was unknown to me.
Only through the years I realized it was the guilt of being born Jewish: a guilt that does not exist, an artificial paradox that had become frighteningly real.
My dad tried to explain that the new racial laws had expelled all Jewish students from the primary schools to universities, and so were the teachers, professors, employees of public offices, judges, officers. Even professionals, lawyers and doctors, were allowed to work only with Jewish clients.
It was too hard for me to understand such an event. "But why?" I could only say.
Meanwhile I had become a different, a sort of alien. I was part of that minority: the Italian Jewish who had suddenly turned into second-class citizens, separated by civil society and excluded from everyday life at evry level. It was as if my feet were on the edge of a ravine, which in later years would be expanded into a deep and dangerous chasm, that permanently would hide to me any gleam of light.
Suddenly I was no longer the same as before. One of the most degrading humiliations was listening to the speeches of my family: they made the list of their old friends who still greeted them on the street, and they counted the rare expressions of solidarity they had received.
We had been thrown all of a sudden into the gray zone of the indifference: a mist, a cotton wool that surrounds you softly at first, but then paralyze you inside its invincible bite. An indifference that is more violent than any violence because it’s mysterious, ambiguous, never declared: it’s an enemy that hits you while you are never able to see it clearly.
The students I meet in the schools today sometimes ask me how many Jews there were in Italy at the time, and often I raise the question: "How many do you think they were?".
No one has an idea.
We were an absolute minority: about forty thousand people then, roughly the same number today. Italian government began a persecution against a tiny portion of the population that for centuries was inserted in the Italian context. There were even Jewish in the Fascist party, and the Jewish community of Rome had been living there even before Christ. It was a profound violation against a group of Italian citizens who had fought for the country in World War I, as my father and my uncle: for no reason, all of a sudden they were set aside and marked on finger.
One of my clearest memories is precisely to be marked finger. When I went to my new private school, the only one I was allowed to attend, I used to cross the street of the old school. And I used to see the former companions of first and second-grade, the children I had used to play with, to laugh and joke, now pointing their finger to me and saying the oes to the others: “That girl is Liliana Segre. She can no longer come to our school because she’s a Jewish”. Naughty giggles, phrases of girls of that age, who do not really know the meaning of what they said, just as I did not know too.
Day after day I began to understand it, and my daily torment became trying to hide myself in my new school, not to speak, not to show me up. A hard thing, since I had always been so open, so friendly, so lively. I shut up, I did not want to tell what was going on in my house, a quiet house, a house like all the others...
It was a feeling I had never experienced. And it was a reality that I had to accept: I could not go to school in Ruffini street because I was Jewish, though I had never heard of Judaism at home. This lack of identity that my family had transfered to me was a serious lack: if I had had a sense of my Jewish membership, perhaps I could have beared certain events, in that moment and later too, with a different spirit, with greater awareness. Instead I felt only the rawness and the sadness of words that you’re not able to understand when you’r only 8: "She’s different, because she’s Jewish.”