Ferramonti was a Fascist internment camp in Tarsia in Calabria which operated from 1940 to 1943. Some 5,000 people went through it with an average population around 2,000 at a time. The majority were foreign Jews interned at the beginning of the war – not all were “enemy aliens” as some still had their German or Austrian citizenship but the law was bent in order to intern them “if their own country has racial legislation”. There were some Greeks after the Italian invasion of Greece and some Hongkong Chinese and Nigerian sailors from British ships caught in the wrong place at the outbreak of war. In September 1943, it was the first Fascist concentration camp in continental Europe to be liberated. After the war its very existence was forgotten.
In the ‘80s a young pediatrician working in Cosenza, Spartaco Capogreco came across stories about the camp from older people from Tarsia and became curious about it. So much so that in 1987 he published the first account of Ferramonti and the following year set up a Foundation to look after the memory of the camp and the very little physical remains that were left. Wednesday’s conference was a celebration of the 70 years since Ferramonti’s liberation in September 1943 and of the 25 years of the Foundation.
The conference coincided with the 25 April holiday celebrating the Liberation of Italy in 1945, a holiday which for more than 20 years has been a spur to debate Italy’s memory and vision of itself. Until the early ‘90s almost all of Italy paid lip service to an antifascist ideal and the 25 April was a moment to reaffirm those values. Since then, there has been a slow erosion of Italy’s core antifascist values and a revision of the memory of Mussolini and the 20 years of fascism.
So Capogreco and the Foundation’s patient historical work is an antidote to the attempts at wilful amnesia.
It is memory and the consciousness of the past both individual and social that distinguish us from other species. Only humans can bridge the gaps of generations by leaving written records and unwritten remains that can be interpreted but often that interpretation provokes argument and debate. Orwell addressed the question of state-sponsored amnesia as a fundamental element of 1984. This is underlined when O’Brien proposes a toast to Winston:“’What shall it be this time?’ he said, still with the same faint suggestion of irony. ‘To the confusion of the Thought Police? To the death of Big Brother? To humanity? To the future?’ ‘To the past,’ said Winston. ‘The past is more import¬ant,’ agreed O’Brien gravely .
Today, it is the Chinese who are working hard to forget. As Yan Lianke wrote recently in the New York Times:
In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and to¬day are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace. … In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.
Archæologists quip that “only the future is unchangeable”. For them and for historians, the past is constantly re-interpreted. It is also learnt or re-learnt through work in archives and the spreading of that knowledge to specialists and then to schools and a broader public.
When I did some work on Ferramonti and the other Fascist camps in the ‘90s, I asked one American class what they knew of the internment of Japanese American after Pearl Harbour. All were from the east coast and of European origin so had no family reasons to know about the internment but all of them did, one had even done a high school project on it. The sample had no scientific validity but I would guess that any reasonably well-educated American, an undergraduate not necessarily in history, knows about that not very positive moment of recent American history. Their Italian peers have no such general knowledge of the Italian concentration camps, hence the importance of Capogreco’s work.
Elie Wiesel wrote in Night “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” And after a more recent genocide, Simon Norfolk, a photographer working in Ruanda wrote ‘Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide.’
The Italian camps were not a genocide even if Fascist Italy was for the most part a willing partner in the Nazi plan. Some, like Ferramonti, actually saved Jews from deportation and likely death in the German camps. Survivors mostly remember Ferramonti as a haven of tranquillity and security where internees suffered the same heat and cold and malaria as the local population. There was barbed wire, to be sure, and most of them arrived with the regulation chains on their legs and manacles, but inside the camp there were schools and synagogues, a Jewish artist painted an altarpiece for a nearby church, an eye surgeon performed operations which had never been possible before in an isolated part of Calabria.
Capogreco and colleagues have recounted the story of this and other camps in Italy. Something similar to the story of Ferramonti happened in the Italian camp for Jews on the Adriatic island of Rab while a few miles away, in another Italian camp, Yugoslav internees were dying in thousands. They were not being exterminated as in Treblinka, for example, but the lack of food and water, shelter, clothing and medical facilities meant an appalling death rate. On the mainland at Gonars in Friuli, conditions were similar.
But none of this is part of mainstream knowledge here. Official Italy, including the educational system, has an excellent memory of the torts committed by Yugoslav partisans at the end of the war who summarily executed real and imagined opposition in carsic caves called foibe and encouraged or forced up to 300,000 Italian speakers to leave Istria. But there is amnesia about the torts committed by Italians before and during the war in the concentration camps, reprisal killings and forced “Italianisation”.
At the Italian commemoration of the foibe and the exodus from Istria this year, ambassadors from Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro did not attend and the Slovenian ambassador, Iztok Mirosic wrote to Foreign Minister Terzi asking that the results of a bilateral commission be published in Italian. The Italo-Slovenian commission’s report on historical relations has been published in Slovenian and is part of the school curriculum in Slovenia but not in Italy. This, again, is where history and historians can make an important contribution.
Two recent events give cause for just a little optimism. The Mausoleum for war criminal Rodolfo Graziani in the Latial town of Affile was financed with public funds from the Latium regional government. Last week the newly elected president of the region, Nicola Zingaretti suspended the second tranche of funds on both moral grounds and because of the irregularity in the application for funds for the monument (the funds had been allocated for a monument to the Unknown Soldier – Graziani is all too well known). Yesterday, Zingaretti took the opportunity of 25 April to write a letter to the people of Affile explaining the decision. The newly elected deputy Cécile Kyenge has already tabled a motion for the Graziani monument to be re-dedicated to "those killed by Fascism in Africa". She took part in another Ferramonti conference pushing for historical respect.
In Brescia, where the local council would like to re-install a statue entitled “Era Fascista”, protests have forced them to delay the work at least until after the upcoming local elections.
For all these reasons, Capogreco and the Ferramonti Foundation have an essential role in illuminating the past in order to improve the present and the American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Racism and Migration in Italy looks forward to working with them. We started the Center to analyse racism in 1938 and 2008 and continue in the hope of contributing to the policy debate as well as doing research.