In the US, the Day of Remembrance is in April or May, depending on the date of Yom Hashoah on the Hebrew calendar. In Italy, the Day of Memory falls on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated. Today, my memory goes to a place Ugo and I happened upon a couple years ago: the internment camp at Ferramonti di Tarsia in southern Italy. The southernmost and largest of fifteen internment camps in Italy.
Ugo and I had driven about an hour and a half from our farm in Calabria to a town near Tarsia, to pick up a motor for the power washer. While driving toward the freeway, we passed a billboard and peripherally I read “campo di concentramento.” I asked Ugo to pull over and back up. The billboard indicated the Campo di Ferramonti di Tarsia, turn left in 500 meters. We drove slowly forward, and a sign indicated a left-hand turn down an asphalted road barely wide enough for two cars. We turned left, passing a café on the right and 50 yards later saw the barracks through the iron fence. A cell phone number hung on the locked gate. We called and the number rang without answer. We tried again after a few minutes, and still nothing, so we walked back to the café we’d passed.
Café is misleading. It was more like walking into someone’s kitchen. A plate of leftover spaghetti and some risky-looking lunchmeat gleamed in the display case, clearly the health department inspector didn’t pass this way often – or maybe he doesn’t know the place exists. We ordered two espressos from the man behind the counter and asked about the camp. We were possibly his only customers of the day, and as happens in small towns, he had time and willingness to tell us what he knew.
The site had recently changed from private to public management so we would need to call the mayor to find out who could open the gate for us. The café owner, of course, had the mayor’s cell phone number. We called, and he explained that we would have to schedule an appointment with the guide for another day because no one was available that day.
The café owner began his story. His father had been a boy of 12 when the camp opened in 1940 and remembered playing ball with the children interred in the camp. Calabria in the 1940s was still agricultural and farmland surrounded the camp, while many of the prisoners were educated professionals, teachers, lawyers, accountants, artists. The owner’s father received math lessons from one of the male prisoners who was a professor. The farmers would barter food for services from barbers or doctors. In the early days of the camp, the prisoners could leave during the day and were accepted as part of the community.
I have a hard time believing the prisoners felt part of the community. Nothing can soften the atrocity of being imprisoned for one’s ethnicity. From 1940 to 1943, over 3,800 people — mostly foreign-born Jews — were imprisoned at Ferramonti. While prisoners were not killed at Ferramonti nor forced to work, it was a prison with barbed-wire on the fence and limited rations; prisoners were held against their will. Historical accounts do tell of weddings and even a birth within the camp, a rarity in the network of prison camps during World War II.
Ugo and I returned to Ferramonti one drizzly August day, having made an appointment with the guide. The reconstruction of the camp has been criticized for not reflecting the conditions of the original camp. A road divides the area the camp occupied, and the only remaining building barely stands on the other side of the road outside the fenced-in didactic area. The other buildings had collapsed with age and abandonment so the barracks are newly constructed representations that house an example of sleeping quarters, a conference center, a theater, and a museum with photos, letters, and documents.
Criticism aside, it’s important to remember how men have hurt each other and equally important to recognize how they have helped each other. At a time when most commanders “just followed orders,” at Ferramonti, the commanders often did something for which Italians have a particular talent: bent the rules.
Ferramonti’s commanders tried to maintain a level of humanity and dignity. As witnessed by the café owner’s father, there was interaction between the locals and the prisoners. As described by him, they were prisoners — unjustifiably — yet treated as humans. When an inspection by a German official brought his leniency to light, the first commander was transferred to another position. His replacement, having learned from his predecessor, was sly in his permissiveness.
One letter recounts an episode where someone saw a prisoner outside the camp after dark in a rainstorm. When questioned about the episode, the commander responded that surely the witness was mistaken, his vision impaired by the lightning and rain, all the prisoners had been inside during that storm; in reality, the prisoner had been returning to the camp after dark in the storm.
When the end of the war was imminent, the Nazi military began rounding up prisoners from internment and work camps and shipping them to death camps, wanting to exterminate as many prisoners as possible before losing the war. When word came that they were approaching Ferramonti, the commander let the prisoners escape into the surrounding fields, and the locals hid them in their homes. The commander sent the local priest to the camp’s entrance with a yellow flag, signifying a cholera epidemic inside the camp. The Nazi officials continued without entering for fear of contracting cholera. That effort alone saved several thousand lives.
When I read about the war, I ask myself what I would have done. Would I have hidden people, would I have been part of the Resistance, would I have been a partisan? I like to think so but without having faced the situation, I honestly don’t know. I hope I never have to find out.
The day we visited, I did not take photos or notes. My brief description here relies on my memory. For more information, you can visit http://www.ferramontidoc.org/index.php/en/ to see a trailer of a documentary about Ferramonti.
A film was made about Ferramonti, entitled “18,000 Giorni” and is available (in Italian) on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tMAc3H5Zuk