It strikes me as incredible that Levi or anyone else came out the other side. There weren’t many survivors, mind you. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his convoy, Levi was one of twenty that came out alive. The follow up memoir, The Truce, in which Levi relates the return journey, is less bleak but maintains the quality of description and depth of character. It has a picaresque quality to it.
Italy may not be the first place that springs to mind with regard to the holocaust, but of course Jews were rounded up all over German-occupied Europe. A concentration camp had been set up by the Nazis at Fossili, on the outskirts of Carpi where I’m spending a few months.
I decided to pay a visit, cycling through flat countryside lined with vineyards. I hadn’t thought much about the timing, but aptly, it was Italian Liberation Day, celebrating the events in 1945 that led to the end of 20 years of Fascist dictatorship. The former camp was busy with visitors and tour parties enjoying the pleasant late April weather, with temperatures in the low to mid-twenties.
Visitors unaware of the story will need to use a great deal of imagination, since the Fossoli camp today is a combination of crumbling old ruins in the lush greenery of Emilia Romagna and newer stone buildings, used for other purposes after the war. There is a small exhibition inside one of the buildings, with some information and photos about Fossoli and some of Europe’s most notorious camps.
The presence of a couple of Amnesty International members, seated outside at a desk in the sun at Fossoli was a reminder that the human capacity for authoritarian cruelty and indifference to the suffering of others has not gone away, no matter how often we hear people ask, “How can this be happening in this day and age?”.
I’d also recommend the Deportees Museum in Carpi itself. Six metre high stone monoliths bearing menacing names like Auschwitz, Mathausen and Belsen, loomed in front of me. This permanent exhibition contains artefacts of Italian victims of the Nazi atrocities: uniforms, personal possessions such as cutlery, pieces of barbed wire from Auschwitz. There are murals depicting life in the camps, stone memorials and a wall detailing the names of about 15,000 deported Italian citizens. All of this really brings home the grim reality of the period.
Carpi is a small city just outside Modena on the trainline to Verona. At the beginning of the book, Primo Levi tells how the train left Carpi station en route for Auschwitz. I use the trains here regularly and it’s a sobering thought to consider the manner in which some unfortunate passengers left town, putting my frustration at the unpredictability of the Italian railway network in perspective.