Luciano Segre: "When my cousin Primo Levi returned from Auschwitz"
On Memorial Day, we collected a testimony of one of the 46,000 Italian Jews who escaped the Shoah. A favorite cousin of the author of If This is a Man, Luciano was saved by becoming a partisan at the age of 14. And at the age of 92, he still remembers everything with absolute clarity.
Elisabetta Burba - interviewer
English translation by Julian Goldhill and Emanuele Levi
The original interview (in Italian) is available on Panorama.it
There were approximately 46,000 Italian Jews saved from the Holocaust during the Second World War, according to the calculations of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center in Milan. Luciano Segre, born in 1929, a Jew from Turin and Primo Levi's favorite cousin. At the age of 14, Segre climbed the mountains with the partisans of Justice and Freedom. At the age of 19 he was one of the very few Italians to fight for the newborn State of Israel, and at 25 he won a professorship at the prestigious Humboldt, the historic university in Berlin. And now that he is 92 years old, he is still very lucid. On Remembrance Day, he agreed to share with us his personal memory of the Shoah.
Professor Segre, can you tell us how you came to know about the extermination camps?
"We learned that there were concentration camps after September 8, 1943".
Didn’t you receive any information beforehand?
"Not before that. There were racial laws, but no one was arresting anyone."
But you didn't have news from Germany?
"No. Some people knew, but we didn't. We all thought, 'We’ll get arrested, we’ll end up in some camp somewhere, and then at the end of the war we’ll go home.' Nobody knew it was going to be elimination camps or anything like that."
What changed in your understanding after September 8th?
"It changed. Since Italy was occupied by the Germans, we knew we would be arrested and put in some camp. So many Jews took refuge in places far from their homes. Some of them managed to go to Switzerland, even if the Swiss at first turned them away and they were then arrested by the Nazis... But no one believed that there were extermination camps where were gassed.
We ourselves did not think so. I know of a lady from Turin whose daughter was arrested in November 1943. She had gone to the German Command and said: "But why hasn’t my daughter come home? There is no reason for you to detain her". And they replied, "So, you're the mother?" And they took her, too."
"Whereupon we left immediately. My grandmother and an uncle of mine were there with his family, his wife and a girl, but there were too many of us and we scattered to different places. Among other things, my grandmother was very old, so we carried her on a cart. There was no other way. After that we went to the Asti area, near San Damiano d'Asti, still in the countryside, where after a month of being there, three fascists from the Black Brigades came to arrest us: someone had denounced us.
My mother, after negotiations that lasted almost all day, gave them all the money we had and then they left, saying, "Don't move from here because we'll be back tomorrow. Of course as soon as they left, we left again. And we went to the hill in Turin, where we knew a lady named Zolla.
She kept us in her cellar for two or three days, and in the meantime I went to Alpignano, a town above Turin, where there was a cousin of mine who was the district doctor. He, who was not Jewish (he had married a cousin of mine), told me: "I will take you to Val della Torre, in the Turin Prealps, near the Susa Valley. It's a partisan area. I have already made arrangements with my friend, the local doctor, Dr. Pecetto. He accompanied us to a cabin in the mountains, where we stayed and participated in the resistance with the local partisans".
You and your brother were little more than children.
"I was 14, my brother was 12. My mom was with us, though. We were together with the partisans of the valley, a column of Justice and Freedom. In order to help us, the mayor of Val della Torre, Vanfrido Olivotto, even issued a false identity card to my mother".
How many partisans were there?
"We were 150 Giellists and as many Garibaldians. When there were Nazi raids and you could see trucks and even tanks arriving from the bottom of the valley, Dr. Pecetto's wife would spread a sheet on her terrace at home. All over the valley the partisans knew that there was an emergency and they dispersed. In the winter of 1944 many Nazis came; thousands according to our calculations. We were only 300. So we dispersed to the mountains. Among the partisans there were many Italian soldiers who had come with us at the dissolution of the Italian Army. We dispersed to places on the mountain, hiding behind big boulders or something like that. But after a few days after the occupation of the country by the Nazis, it started to snow and get very cold. And a lot of these comrades of ours from the South, not used to low temperatures, died of cold in the snow."
"Yes, yes: frozen deaths. It was only later that I learned of a very bad episode involving a boy from the village. He was the son of a shopkeeper. In exchange for the promise of who knows what, he had acted as a spy, accompanying the Nazis in all the houses of the village and even in some cabin. The Germans had then killed all the animals, but also some people, and burned many houses and huts. After a few days the boy had returned to the village. He would have been 14 years old and the partisans had set themselves the problem of what to do with him. They couldn't keep him prisoner, nor could they let him go free, because he was dangerous. I was not there, but I know that he was shot by the partisans. His father himself had said, in dialect: "kill him,kill him!"
"Yes, because he had spied for the Nazis. I learned about it later, luckily I wasn't there. There were tragic episodes for everyone."
Who was part of the partisan formation?
"Not only Italians; there were also some Englishmen, imprisoned by the Germans and then escaped. I remember one of them, a very nice one, who always came to my mom and asked: ‘Please, can you iron my pants and give me a nice line?’ Because the British always wanted to be impeccable, even as partisans in the mud and snow. They were very nice and very kind."
Did the British stay with you the whole time?
"No. They were accompanied to Switzerland by another group. And from Switzerland they went back to England."
"We stayed with the partisans of the valley, in spite of the big roundups, until the liberation of Turin. We went to liberate Turin as well."
And during this time you had no inkling of the death camps?
"While we were in the mountains, we received a letter from a cousin of mine. She informed us that her mother and another uncle of mine from Sanremo with their respective little girl, Anna Luciana Norzi, had been arrested and taken away by the Nazis. Then later we learned what had happened: right after September 8, 1943, this aunt of mine, with my other uncle and his little girl (the mother had died a year before of cancer), had taken refuge in a cabin in the mountains above Sanremo. Then, since nothing special was happening and it was very cold in the mountains, towards the end of November they returned home. Instead, one night the Nazis arrived, having in their hands the list of all the Jews (for every municipality, following the racial laws) they took all the Jews of Sanremo.*
They realized, however, that some children were missing from the list; others had also been saved. So they put up posters, in which they said that the children who wanted to "greet their departing parents", could present themselves in a square at a certain day and at a certain time. This woman fell into the trap and took Anna Luciana to "say goodbye" to her daddy and aunt. Of course they also took
the little girl, who was about 11 years old. The lady has never forgiven herself for falling into the trap. Then she had a little girl and named her Anna Luciana."
A chilling sadism, that of the Nazis.
"Yes, but also of an Italian police commissioner. Normally one would have expected that, not having found the children, they would have left them alone. But no: the Nazis wanted to go all the way in order to deport everyone, including the children".
And she learned this from her cousin.
"Yes, Betty Foa. She was my aunt's daughter, the one arrested in San Remo. Because the Nazis had gone to arrest them at night, her mother had managed to hide her behind a curtain. Since it was dark, she was not seen. And in this way she was saved. She later became a partisan as well".
All the others ended up in Auschwitz?
"Yes, first they were taken to Genoa, then to a concentration camp in Fossoli, near Carpi (Modena) and from there to Auschwitz, where my cousin, Primo Levi, was also there. Upon his return, I asked Primo what could have happened to my aunt and uncle and my cousin. He replied that old people, as my uncles were, and children were gassed immediately".
Speaking of Primo Levi, when was he arrested?
"Right away, in October 1943. He was in a nascent partisan group, in Val d'Aosta, at Col de Joux. They had almost no weapons, they were not experts. Someone reported them and the fascists went up at night to get them, taking them to Fossoli and then to Auschwitz.
When did you learn that Primo was in Auschwitz?
"Before the end of the war, from his sister and his mother who had taken refuge in a place near Ivrea, Torrazzo. Obviously, we couldn't receive mail. This cousin of mine, a doctor from Alpignano, acted as an intermediary. His friend, a bricklayer who went in and out of the Auschwitz concentration camp, was the one who sent word to him.
Lorenzo Perrone, the Piedmontese bricklayer, worked on the expansion of the camp and brought him a bowl of soup every day. In this way, he saved his life. In his tribute, Primo named his son Renzo, who is now a professor at the University of Turin, and his daughter Lisa Lorenza. Lorenzo Perrone was very poor. After the war Primo tried in every way to help him, but he always refused because he found it normal to behave that way.
A true righteous among the nations.
"Absolutely! But also my grandmother and my uncle, with their wife and two children, after we had been denounced in the Langhe, took refuge in Santena, near Turin. There were many displaced people there because of the bombing in Turin. They tried to blend in with them. At a certain point, a gentleman passed by who understood that they were not like the others. He asked, "Are you looking
for a house?" They trusted him and said yes. They risked it, because he could have been a spy. Instead it was the doctor from Santena, Dr. Scamuzzi, who kept all five of them for over a year in a room in his house. He was also declared a Righteous among the Nations".
But when did you learn about the gas chambers?
"Very, very late. Practically after the Liberation.
Tell us about Primo's return.
"Sure. After the Liberation, we had borrowed a house from friends in Turin and I went around with a bicycle with a sort of cart attached, which we used to carry things, to look for food in the countryside... When I got the news that Primo was back, I was so happy that I started pedaling like crazy and ended up on the ground. After that we didn't go up to Primo's house right away: he had just come back, we wanted to leave him with his mom and sister. We went the next day and it was extremely moving."
And what was his condition? He must have been skeletal…
"No, no. In all his wanderings in Russia they had fed him. In fact, he was very bloated. At first glance, I had thought he was fat. Instead, it was all liquid. It took him a while to get back to normal. He had arrived home because he had managed to take a train from Munich to the Brenner Passand then to Verona and from there to Turin, where he arrived dressed as he was before, as a former deportee.
One of the things he said to me as soon as he got back was, 'One very important thing is to have good shoes, because they saved our lives.' We would spend days and days together."
But did he tell willingly? It must have been very difficult
"He would tell with great effort. He wrote instead. He found a job in Avigliana, at the beginning of the Susa Valley, where there was a branch of Montecatini Duco, a chemical company making paints. He stayed there all week, renting a small room. He worked on these paints as a chemist, and at the same time he would write If This is a Man in his notebook . We would see him at the weekend. Those are years I'll never forget."
And what happened to the other members of your family?
After the occupation, we went to the area where we lived. My mother said, "We have to eat something." We went to an ice cream man who knew us. This one didn't open his mouth: he immediately brought us two fried eggs and some hot milk. He had it all figured out. He never wanted to be paid, not even after the war."
So you also found someone to help you?
"Yes. There were spies, but the vast majority of the population as soon as they could gave us a hand. Farmers in the mountains, who didn't even know Jews existed, were immediately ready to help us. We ate almost exclusively polenta* and apples as partisans for almost two years".
The staple of those people
"Sure. Then every now and then, when someone brought us a calf, we ate a little meat. There was a girl from the village who, every two or three days, would bring us some food with her basket."
Almost 80 years later, have you been able to understand how an atrocity like the Shoah was possible?
"Since then, we have been asking ourselves how it was possible in a country that was among the most cultured and civilized in Europe, the country of Beethoven and Goethe.... Primo Levi was asked if what happened could have been repeated. And he answered, ‘Yes, under certain conditions.’
So he thought that there were conditions in which such an event was possible.
By the way, when I went to teach at the Humboldt University in East Berlin, I went to him first. And I asked him, ‘I would have this professorship in Berlin, but I have a lot of qualms about going there. What do you say?’ And he, who had often been to Germany after the war,replied, ‘Go there now. The Nazi regime lasted 12 years, while German culture is part of the history of civilization.'”