The Italian Jews deported from Milan's hidden platform

By Mark Duff
BBC News, Milan

Image caption,
Under today's bustling concourse is an abandoned station used for the deportations

More than 300,000 people a day pass through Milan's main railway station - the Stazione Centrale. Few are here for the history.

In the past, poor Italians arrived from the south, immigrants in their own land searching for a better life in the dank northern city. Today's arrivals are more likely to be tourists looking for a taste of Italian fashion and culture, or commuters from Milan's hinterland.

The current station was completed in 1931 during the heyday of Italian Fascism. A ceramic mural over the former royal waiting room features victorious Italian troops saluting their king. They're giving the straight-armed Fascist salute.

At some point, someone has taken the trouble, very carefully, to chop out the eyes of their leader. But he is still, quite clearly, Italy's wartime leader, Benito Mussolini.

Cattle trucks

Unseen, unimagined, beneath the feet of today's travellers lies a more troubling reminder of the price paid by many during Italy's Fascist era, a vast abandoned station for the city's goods and mail trains.

It is dark, damp and cavernous. It was here that Liliana Segre and her father, Alberto, were brought on a bitterly cold morning at the end of January 1944. They were packed into cattle trucks for a week-long journey to Auschwitz. Liliana was 13. She was one of 605 people who left on that train. Twenty returned: Alberto was not among them.

Liliana today is a sprightly 80-year-old. Bright-eyed and quick to smile, she still finds it hard to visit the caverns beneath Centrale. The rumble of trains above doesn't help.

"We were afraid," she says of that morning. "We had never been in this underground before. And it was so quick, everything; with dogs, with lights - in the eyes - and very, very bad behaviour of the soldiers - of the Italians too, the Fascists, not just the Germans.

"And it was a few minutes; from the street to the train was maybe three minutes, not more. And then we realised that in these three minutes our lives had changed forever."

Image caption,
Although Liliana Segre survived Auschwitz, her father never returned

She lives now for her grandchildren - and for the children and young adults she meets to tell her tale: an old lady on a mission.

"My message is always about life and not death; about hope and not vengeance and not bad thoughts," she says. "Because I think that life is beautiful - and as a granny I speak always about life, about love."

She has come to support efforts to transform the subterranean station into a memorial and visitor centre commemorating about 8,000 Italian Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The number may be smaller than the loss suffered by other countries, other communities. But that poses its own challenges.

Too often, critics say, Italians have made the most of being the junior partner in the alliance with Hitler's Germany. Few have felt the need to grapple with the questions of truth and reconciliation; many have argued that most did their best to protect their Jewish compatriots.

Liliana is not so sure. She does not ask today's Italians to blame themselves for the sins of their fathers. But she does wish they would at least cast a cold eye on their history. It is impossible to think of the future, she says, citing Cicero, if you do not understand the past.

Roberto Jarach agrees. He's president of Milan's Jewish community, and vice-president of the campaign to create Milan's Holocaust memorial. He argues that it is time to challenge the myth of universal Italian benevolence. Otherwise, he fears, Italy will never grow up: in a year when it marks its 150th anniversary.

"We always say that Italians were good and that nothing bad happened in Italy," he says, "and that all Italians were good and they all saved Jews. It's not true. The Jews left Italy and went to Germany and went into the camps. And there were extermination camps in Italy too. There were places where the Italians were not good."

Image caption,
The recession has hit the campaign to transform the underground station into a memorial centre

The site of the memorial already houses a number of the wagons used to transport men, women and children to their deaths. It will also include a wall bearing the names of everyone who left Centrale for Auschwitz and the other death camps; there will be a library and research centre and an area for quiet reflection.

But Roberto Jarach's fund-raising efforts have been hit hard by the recession. Work has been suspended and for now the memorial remains unfinished - although it is no less evocative for that, a skeletal reminder of Italian ambivalence.

Up in the main station concourse, a small plaque reminds anyone who cares to look of the cruelty committed here.

Easy to miss in the rush-hour bustle, it bears a line from another Italian Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi: an appeal to a fragile shared humanity that extends beyond time and place.

Bearing witness matters, it reads, since everyone's anguish is our own.

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