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Holocaust Memorial Day: Testimony of a survivor

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A Holocaust survivor spoke at the presentation of a book concerning the reasons why Auschwitz was not bombed by the allies. Given the increasingly rare occasions to hear about history from those who have lived it, we have reproduced parts of his speech, translated from Italian.

Pietro Terracina is a man well into his 80s. He is an Italian Jew. He is also a Holocaust survivor. For those like him it’s Remembrance Day every day, every night, every time they catch a glimpse of their tattoos. Pietro Terracina was 15 years old when he was deported, first to Birkenau and then to Auschwitz. His number was A5506, which he writes down next to his autograph when signing books.

His testimony was powerful, his voice sometimes cracking under the weight of the injustices described: “I am a victim of this tragedy, the tragedy of the Jewish people.” He said to introduce himself. “I am always wary of telling all that happened in those camps, as it could create horror… it could also induce disbelief. If I were to tell the tale in all its details, certainly someone would say no, this is not possible.”

“The title of this book, Bombing Auschwitz, almost sounds like an order, albeit an order that was never given. I wish it had been.”

“I was deported to Auschwitz towards the end of the war, on April 7th, 1944, with all my family. When I came back, I was alone.”

“We were arrested by the German SS, who were accompanied by Italian fascists. Italy was fascist at the time, and fascist by a large majority. We had been Italian citizen, present on the territory for over two centuries.”

“I will now tell you of the journey to Auschwitz. There is this word, cavalry, but I don’t think this word is sufficient to describe it. Try to imagine it: a journey in train wagons hermetically closed from the outside. Inside, sixty-four people, with a thirst that made you go crazy, as there was not enough water. The first to suffer were the small children. At every station where we stopped we were begging for water, water, water… but nobody did anything. Perhaps, if there has been animals, like cows, or sheeps, or horses, perhaps someone would have denounced it: ‘They are dying of thirst!’ But nobody did anything.”

“We travelled like this for over two days. We stopped at a station near Bolzano and they finally opened the wagons. We were all made to get off the train and they told us to do our business there, on the track. We were in 600. Imagine the awful sight, 600 people who all have to unzip at the same time. My grandfather was 84, he had difficulties undressing himself. They call this public indecency, but who truly committed the indecency? Indecency was done by those who gave those orders.”

“After two more days of travels we arrived at the station of East Munich, and the same thing happened. There was the German Red Cross there… the Red Cross! Shouldn’t the International Red Cross, based in Geneva have done something? There were trains crossing the whole of Europe, from North to South, from East to West… everyone could see it! How many thousands of people they met… They all knew! But nobody could do anything.”

“So the German Red Cross made us get off the trains, and do our business on an empty track. They brought us some warm soup and then they brought water pumps to clear not just the track, but luckily the wagon, too. Imagine, we had travelled for four days and four nights in our own dirt. Imagine, what kind of sufferance this must have been. I do not think there is a bigger suffering than that of a father or a mother who, on top of their sufferings, cannot help those of their children. There is no bigger pain.”

“Two more days of travel, we had lost track of what part of the world we were in. On the afternoon of May 23rd we entered Birkenau. It was one of those camps that were called Vernichtungslager. I did not know German at the time. Vernichtung means extermination. Lager means camp. Vernichtungslager means extermination camp, and we were there, we were inside it.”

“We all saw the chimneys pouring smoke and flames. Those sparks that came out of the chimneys, that fell from the chimneys, that fell in thousands and thousands… falling like many shooting stars. Those sparks were our relatives. Those sparks were the Jewish people that was burning.”

“Amongst a terrible confusion, began the massacre. They made up two lines, one of men and one of women, and only about 20% passed the inspection at arrival. All the others, the same night, were nothing but dust and smoke.”

“Life in Auschwitz wasn’t life. It was more death than life. More than 80% of those entering the lager were directly sent to death via gas and cremation. To talk about life there, means talking about horror. I won’t tell you about it. I will only tell you that it was all violence and death. Death was always between us. Often, coming back from work, forced labour, coming back to the camp we often had to carry the bodies of our fellow prisoners, who did not make it. It was only violence and death.”

“I did survive. To me, it was chance. It was not fate. If I were to think that some Supreme Being wanted to save me and make me survive, I’d be saying something sacrilegious, because surely many of those who did not make it deserved to survive more than I did. Chance instead wanted that on January 27th, when the Soviet Army arrived, I was in Auschwitz. There was no sign of joy, just silence. I remember the Soviet Army’s cameramen who told us to go and show our joyfulness, but very few did. No one was able to rejoice any longer.”

The audience applauds him twice throughout the speech. When asked what he wishes people to remember from his testimony, his answer is immediate: “The values of civilisation. On the first place, I’d put friendship. Then I put love. Then I’d say solidarity. And yes, also freedom. These are values of civilisation we should all be honouring and respecting. And dignity. Human dignity. If we respected them, if we showed more solidarity to those who suffered… I think we’d all be better off.”

Text and Translation: Sofia Lotto Persio

Image: Rob Warde/Flickr, through Creative Commons.

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