In a haunting memoir, Piera Sonnino has narrated her devastating experience as a twenty-two-year Italian Jewish woman. She lost her parents and three brothers in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. She is the only holocaust survivor in her family. Her memoir, ‘This has happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz’ provides a moving account of unspeakable evils of Nazism.
The horror started in 1938, when the Italian government promulgated the racial laws against Italian Jews and other minority native inhabitants of the Italian colonies. The discriminatory laws prohibited Jews from schools, universities and having any professional positions. The Italian Jews were banned from working in the armed forces and civil services too. It also banned marriages and sexual relations between Italian, Jews and Africans. Jews were rounded up and deported.
The Jewish community had lived in Italy for more than two thousand years and well-integrated within Italian culture and life. But the Nazis and fascists were responsible for brainwashing common Italians against Jews. The peaceful character of neighbourhoods started changing. The Jewish shops and homes were attacked and burnt down. The killers were not unknown faces but the neighbours and armed police. The people who lived together for centuries with peace and harmony have become Nazi vultures and fascist death squads.
The courageous Piera Sonnino has outlined her personal experiences in two sentences while reflecting on the last night of her family together. She writes “whatever I could say that time, it would not make sense translated into words; it would be a thin shadow of that reality. I would be stealing it from myself, from what is mine, desperately mine alone”.
This personal memory reflects the collective pain of Jewish communities across Europe. Such a vile transformation was not a surprise. It did not happen overnight, accidentally or naturally. The majoritarian silence and disbelief of the minority communities have allowed the twin evils of fascism and Nazism, which engulfed Italian society and other parts of Europe within couple of years. It does not reflect the success of Nazis and fascists. It reflects the silence of the majority. Silence was not the best choice but the majority of people had silently accepted the government’s official bigoted propaganda against the Jews.
The official optimisms of the evil regime did everything to hide the prevailing economic catastrophe, it diverted people’s attention to constructed narratives against Jewish communities. The displacement, disintegration and deaths of the Jewish communities were the net outcomes of evil regime. The migration of Jewish communities to different part of Europe did not save their lives. Only few people like Piera Sonnino survived to share the horror of Nazism and fascism in which mere Jewish existence is a crime punishable by death. And prison become home to humanism, reason, rationality, ethics and the people, who fought for the rights of the Jewish people. The partisans were perished in prison and bullets along with their Jewish compatriots. The communists and socialists were in the forefront in defence of Jewish people, and in the battle against Nazism and fascism.
Piera Sonnino’s autobiography is not only a chilling history of a Jewish family in Italy but also a warning sign for the present generation to be vigilant about the rise of fascism of our times. Mass genocide, absolute devastation, disappearances and mass imprisonments are the human costs of silence in the face of fascism.
As poet Professor Michael Rosen warns us in his poem in the following words;
Fascism: I sometimes fear…
I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.
Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…
It doesn’t walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
Piera Sonnino’s devastating autobiography and Michael Rosen’s poem is a daily reminder for all of us to be alert and fightback fascism in all its forms. Silence is not an option. As authoritarian regimes continue to grow with the help of religious right-wing forces and free market fundamentalists, it is time to raise our voice against these forces before they consolidate their power and positions. Majoritarian silence is not fear but betrayal of their own existence. Active resistance is the only form of solidarity that the time demands from every patriotic Indians. It is the duty to provide unwavering support to all persecuted religious minorities and stand in solidarity with all struggles of working-class people across the globe. This is the only way towards peace, prosperity and survival of a secular, multicultural and democratic world. The united struggle against fascism is the only alternative for the human survival.
*Bhabani Shankar Nayak, Coventry University, UK