Dawn Came Upon






Dawn Came Upon Us Like a Betrayer: Jews in the Camp of Fossoli 1943-1944

This article is based on the introduction to Liliana Picciotto’s book: L’alba ci colse come un tradimento. Gli ebrei nel campo di Fossoli 1943-1944, Mondadori, Milano 2011

Liliana Picciotto

Between 1942 and 1944, probably due to their central location and proximity to the Verona railway junction, the arable fields of Fossoli, near Carpi (Modena) became a fenced-in compound where enemy soldiers and civilians, people arrested during police raids, Jewish citizens and individuals accused of political crimes, were interned by the Italian authorities.

Because of the diversity of its inmates, the camp evolved into a complex institution over time and, commendably, the Fossoli Foundation has chosen to shed light on all aspects of the camp, entrusting each specific area of research to a different historian. I’ve been asked to look into the camp’s role in the persecution of Jews between 1943 and 1944.

Any analysis is impossible without first noting that Fossoli was in fact a number of different camps operating on the same terrain. During the years of the Fascist regime it served various ends: as a detention center for prisoners of war – administered by the military authorities – and civilians, including political dissenters destined for deportation; but also as an assembly and transit point – for individuals rounded up for hard labor and, most importantly, for all Jewish persons destined for deportation to the Nazi extermination camps. This last function of the camp is vital to any genuine understanding of Italian history and its history of Jewish persecution.

Few places in Italy played such a key role in the Italian Shoah as Fossoli of Carpi did. This simple fact is not widely known since, as yet, there has been no in-depth study made of the camp there.

2,845 Jews passed through here en route to deportation following arrest on the unwarranted orders of the Italian government.

In this volume I will explore the camp’s role as the principal site for the execution of the Italian Social Republic’s plans for the persecution of Italian Jews – plans facilitated by the full support and cooperation of the police and administrative infrastructure of its Nazi occupiers.

While it is true that the deportation from Italy of Jews to the death camps was carried out by the army of occupation, there is evidence in Fossoli that the first bricks of that paved road to Auschwitz were laid by the Italian authorities.

We will discover that between mid-September and late November of 1943 the German authorities (both allied and occupying) extended their policy of Jewish extermination to Italy – carrying out raids and mass murders (including the massacre at Meina) and dispatching the innocent to the death camps at Auschwitz in Upper Silesia.

It will also be shown that, as of November 30, 1943, the house-to-house searches of Jewish homes – and the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of their occupants in the large concentration camp at Fossoli – all took place under Italian supervision; and that, ultimately, the occupying forces organized the dispatch of those prisoners from Fossoli to Auschwitz and other camps – prisoners readily delivered to them on a silver platter, without the remotest sign of protest, by the Italian regime.

The creation of the Jewish concentration camp in Fossoli was the immediate consequence of a general order – issued by Chief of Police Tullio Tamburini on November 30, 1943 – calling for the arrest of all Italian Jews, at a moment when Italian Jews were still reeling from the shock of the German raids on Jews in all major Italian cities. At dawn on December 1, Italian police began executing the order in cities and small towns across the country.

While it’s true that some policemen generously – and sometimes even successfully – tried to warn their intended victims, this does not redeem in any way, I believe, the actions of the Italian bureaucratic and administrative apparatus as a whole, nor limit their accountability in what followed.

Deportations began at the end of January 1944 at a pace largely contingent on conditions at the time: the numbers of people interned in Fossoli, its maximum capacity, the condition of local roads and railways and, not least, the physical capacity for genocide of those camps that were to be the final destination of the deportees.

Together with the Germans, the Italian authorities also bear full responsibility for the frantic escape attempts of entire families forced to leave behind at home or hospital elderly family members too old or infirm to deal with the demands of life as an itinerant refugee.

For most Jews in those years, it was not only virtually impossible to survive, but even to die under one’s own name. And then there were the children: constantly shifted from one lodging to another, their mothers driven nearly mad with fear that their hiding place might at any moment be discovered; the humiliation and anxiety of having to switch identities and carry forged papers, and the added strain for young children trying to remember their assumed names – frequently names they’d never even heard before (“…from now on, your name is no longer Nathan Levi, do you understand? Your name is now Nando Lubatti.

Repeat after me: “My name Lubatti Nando, Nando, Lubatti …”); the torment of silenced games, in hiding places where no one could laugh or cry (“…do not make noise, do not jump, do not flush the toilet, do not cry, do not cough…”); the desperate search for food – as the absence of ration cards would immediately give away their fugitive status; – and the agonizing decision to try to reach Switzerland through the mountains, always knowing that even there lay the risk of rejection at the border and exposure to immediate and mortal peril.

The situation frequently grew so desperate that some mothers voluntarily turned themselves in to the Italian authorities with their children, hoping for a glimmer of humanity. And here is one of the more disturbing aspects of this tragic narrative: that, in truth, neither the carabinieri nor the police were inhumane, and prison guards did indeed share cigarettes and conversation with the prisoners, sometimes even removed the handcuffs from “detainees” en route to Fossoli. For, in the end, ‘they were just following orders.’ Orders they had received, and orders they executed. And cruelty was not part of the job required of them.

We can not define these people as brava gente. Brava gente were those individuals who knowingly risked their own lives to rescue Jews in danger. There were many of them and there is an ongoing research project by the Foundation of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation to draw attention to their generosity and contribution to the civil growth of Italy. This project is called Memory of Rescue.

At the same time we must not overlook the behavior of members of Fossoli’s local populace – many of whom happily exploited each convoy’s departure, bartering razor blades for watches, blankets for precious shoes; and offering cans of chicken and such at substantially inflated prices. And then there was the boost to Fossoli’s economy as local merchants profited handsomely from the sale and transport of essential food supplies to the camp.

With all the activity generated by the camp, how is it possible that no one ever asked who those people were – those civilians and their families whose arrival was continuous yet intermittent? What were they doing there? Why did they depart in groups? What were those train cars in Carpi with straw on the floor and a waste bin in the corner for, exactly? Why did these civilians depart packed like cattle, bolted in from the outside? Where were they going? Can it be possible that the presence of so many young children and elderly people never challenged the comfortable illusion that they were Jews on their way to work in Germany?

This volume raises another point that bears consideration. That among all the many invoices and receipts for food supplies to the camp – all still perfectly preserved, complete with official stamps and appropriate signatures – there are some  that specifically relate to the departure of groups of Jews to concentration camps. Those bills are heart-wrenching – if one can use such a term about items in an accounting ledger.

Here, listed neatly, are the rations distributed to the prisoners before their deportation – bread, cheese and jam (jam – for days and days of travel in sealed wagons, with thirst looming?). In addition to bread – and regularly cited as “non-refundable” – are the sacks the bread was wrapped in. These invoices were submitted to the City of Carpi and the City duly turned them over to the Prefecture for payment. Everything in order, as though they were merely supplies for another protectorate or outpost, a summer camp or some other outlying community. The “public expenditure” for the payment of food rations for the deportees would be paid by Italian taxpayers.

If low-level officials failed to express surprise or even curiosity at what was happening, we know for certain that there was no reaction from either the Chief of Police or the Prefect of Modena, who had to have known something terrible lay in store for the Jews after the order of arrest in November, 1943.

And after the actions of those first days of December they would certainly have known – as would all those in the higher reaches of the administration, including every local Mayor and Questura (Police HQ) – that these arrests were a prelude to deportation.

Though the formal document noting the agreement between the Italian government and German diplomatic corps has not yet been found, it is clear from any analysis of the operation that it was the Italians who were in charge of the searches, arrests, and assembly of any Jews found; while the Germans took care of their ultimate deportation to the Nazi extermination camps.

By 1946, two of the transports that arrived in Auschwitz from Fossoli –  June 5 and August 1, 1944 – were known to scholars. In his seminal book This was Oswiecim(1946), historian Philip Friedman reported how the prisoner-clerk of the quarantine barracks, an Austrian physician named Otto Wolken – whose duty was to document with serial numbers each new arrival in that part of Auschwitz-Birkenau, did something heroic. He managed – at great risk – to secretly copy the records of all train arrivals there from occupied Europe between October 21, 1943 and October 30, 1944.
Further details concerning the fate of the arrivals at Birkenau can be found in Danuta Czech’s study conducted on behalf of the State Museum of Oswiecim (Auschwitz).  On the basis of surviving documents – those not burned by the Nazis in retreat – Czech has reconstructed a record of events that occurred within the camp. It is a kind of diary of horror, where every day the arrival of each train – and they frequently came hourly – is documented along with the serial numbers assigned to those who survived the subsequent selection and transfer of slave labor to and from other camps.

For this volume, we’ve used those survivors’ stories that are collected in the archives of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan, testimony and statements made during the main trials of Nazi war criminals active in Italy; and the painstakingly researched study by Danuta Czech.

For assistance in the gathering of documentary material, we are deeply indebted to Coronel Adolfo Massimo Vitale, president of the Research Committee of Deported Jews who was active in Rome from the summer of 1944 until 1948.

It was Vitale’s investigation of the victims as missing persons that really started research into the German raids and arrests of Jews by the Italian police. In fact, at the time of the liberation of Rome (June 4, 1944) no one knew about the organized murder of Jews in Auschwitz. People only knew that Jews had vanished into thin air, but nothing of their annihilation.

The enormous obstacles to obtaining accurate information were further exacerbated by the fact that Northern Italy was still under the Nazis. So even as the first tentative studies of the victims were beginning in Rome, trains full of deportees were still departing for the German camps from the transit camp at Bolzano, – which in August  1944 had replaced Fossoli as principal assembly and transportation point.

Vitale was able to find partial lists of the transportations to Fossoli from the police headquarters of various cities as well as 4 of the lists of deportees dispatched from Fossoli to concentration camps.

He also conducted research in Carpi with the help of Don Venturelli, archpriest of Fossoli, and sent his lieutenants to Florence and Tuscany on a mission to the recently liberated Northern regions.

His efforts were not in vain. Although he would not find any of the missing persons – the main goal of his research – he gathered an extraordinary quantity of invaluable documentary material which has facilitated the compilation of The Book of Memory (Mursia, 1991) and Dawn Came Upon Us Like a Betrayer, The Jews in the Camp of Fossoli (Mondadori, 2010), Primo Levi’s cry before his departure for Auschwitz, for which this book is named.

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