Holocaust Survivor Is Swept Up in Italy’s Storm of Vitriol
ROME — In a recent lecture at a Milan university, Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor honored as a senator for life, told students that “haters are people we should feel sorry for.”
These are sorry days for Italy, then.
Ms. Segre, who at 13 was deported to Auschwitz, where Nazis killed much of her family, received a police escort this week after the Milan police determined that anti-Semitic messages and language — much of it online and some of it expressing outrage at her creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate hate and racism — constituted a threat.
“She is not afraid,” said Luciano Belli Paci, Ms. Segre’s 61-year-old son, who said his mother declined to comment because she felt exhausted by the immense pressure and sudden political spotlight. “She is shocked by these tensions and by this entire situation.”
In recent weeks, a dark cloud of racist and hateful language has hovered over Italy, from its soccer stadiums to its web.
Last week, Mario Balotelli, an Italian soccer star who is black and was raised by adoptive Jewish parents in a suburb of Brescia, was targeted by racist chants and monkey sounds from the infamously extremist “ultra” fans of the Hellas Verona team. The right-wing mayor of Verona then defended the fans, whose leader, Luca Castellini, has argued that seemingly anti-Semitic jeers were in fact not, because “Hitler chants are just kidding around.”
Over the weekend, a mother watching a soccer game between 10-year-olds called a black child on the opposing team a racial slur. (The Italian word “negri” is still often overheard in casual conversation.)
In a “gesture of solidarity” with the boy, the management of his league said older boys would play their next game “with their faces painted black.” The idea was ultimately ditched, said the club manager, Alessandro Crisafulli, “because we received emails telling us it could be perceived as offensive in some cultures, for instance in America.”
In September, activists attending a rally of the antimigrant League party in Pontida shouted at Gad Lerner, a prominent Jewish journalist, telling him, “You’re not Italian, you are Jewish, go home!”
Noemi Di Segni, the president of the Union of the Italian Jewish Community, Italy’s largest Jewish organization, said the country was experiencing a “rise in anti-Semitism, which manifests itself in many ways.”
She said an increased tolerance for Mussolini and Fascist nostalgia was troubling and “creating an uncomfortable climate for Jews.” The police protection of Ms. Segre, she said, was not only to protect the senator, “it’s about protecting Italy.”
Politicians and Jewish groups have organized rallies in Milan and Rome to show solidarity with Ms. Segre. She has received calls of support, her son said, from Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella.
In 2018, Mr. Mattarella made Ms. Segre, who had never worked in politics, a senator for life, in part because of her years giving students a firsthand account of the Holocaust. She said at the time she felt it her obligation to “pass on the memory.”
But around that time Mr. Belli Paci said he and his brother noticed a spike in anti-Semitic insults, some wishing their mother death, on the web. While they did not inform their mother, they reported the messages to the counterterrorism police, he said.
That vitriol is not unique to Ms. Segre.
While speaking at a conference three weeks ago in Milan, Betti Guetta, an anti-Semitism researcher at the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, said that her group had noticed that general anti-Semitic offenses, mostly online, had increased in recent years. They had reached the clip of nearly 200 a day, she said, later calling the statistic an estimate.
At the conference, she said, she also noted that even Ms. Segre was a frequent target of attacks.
The figure of 200 daily attacks was subsequently misinterpreted as referring to aggression specific to Ms. Segre. Then, on Tuesday, Forza Nuova, a neo-Fascist political party, raised a banner against anti-Fascists near a theater where Ms. Segre was scheduled to speak.
On Wednesday, Renato Saccone, the prefect of Milan, dispatched two paramilitary Carabinieri officers to guard Ms. Segre at public events.
He declined to comment on why he ordered the security detail.
Mr. Belli Paci called the escort “light,” and clarified that while neither his mother nor her family had requested it, “we are more assured knowing that she is protected.”
He said that while he doubted that vitriol on the web would actually manifest in violence, he worried that a “general climate of excessive tension” had taken over Italy. He worried that racists now felt liberated in a political atmosphere marked by anti-immigrant and nationalist language.
“People who were once forced to feel ashamed of these views now express them with pride,” he said, noting that when people pointed out that remarks are offensive to blacks or Jews, those making them respond that they are simply “joking around.”
Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party and has spearheaded a surge of nationalism in Italy, at times echoing Mussolini and posting derogatory videos about migrants on social media, condemned the threats made against Ms. Segre.
“Threats on the web, which I receive every day, are very worrying,” Mr. Salvini said. “Threats against Segre, against Salvini, against whomever, they are very worrying.”
While Mussolini passed racial laws against the Jews in 1938, Italy has largely avoided a historical reckoning for its persecution of Jews and its role in the Holocaust.
The Nazis, once they occupied much of Italy, deported 7,172 Jews, the vast majority of whom were killed in Auschwitz, according to the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan. Of the 733 Italian children sent to Auschwitz, only 121 survived.
Ms. Segre was one of them.
At age 13, she and her father fled Italy to Switzerland, where they were denied refuge in December 1943. They were rejected, Mr. Belli Paci said, and arrested by Italian border guards in Varese, who handed them over to the Nazis.
The Germans moved them to a jail in Milan and Ms. Segre and her father were deported in January 1944 to Auschwitz, the Nazi camp in Poland where she was immediately separated from her father.
He died there weeks later. Her paternal grandparents were arrested in a town near Como and also sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
Ms. Segre survived Auschwitz. She was moved to Ravensbrück in Germany and survived that, too. She was moved again and finally rescued by the Soviet Red Army.
For more than a half-century she remained quiet about her tragedy, but in the 1990s she began speaking up and visiting classrooms, becoming Italy’s living memory of the horrors.
Last month, to counteract what increasingly feels like a political time marked by ethnic scapegoating and nationalist invective, Ms. Segre called for the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate hate, racism and social media.
But the League Party, led by Mr. Salvini, the post-fascist Brothers of Italy and the center-right Forza Italia led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi all opposed the commission.
They abstained from the vote, seeing it as a political trap by their enemies to make them look extremist and as a first step toward censorship.
Mr. Salvini said that while anti-Semitism was always out of bounds, he worried that such a committee could deem him racist for wanting to curb migrant boat landings or could censure a mayor from his party for saying “he wants to assign housing projects to Italians first.”
The motion passed without the conservative votes.
Ms. Segre expressed bewilderment at the abstentions, saying they made her feel “like a Martian in the Senate.” She told Italian reporters: “I thought a committee against hatred, as a matter of principle, should be accepted by everyone. I thought it was almost banal.”
Mr. Belli Paci said his mother had been taken back by the “barbarization” of the country. Nevertheless, he said, she planned to continue reaching out to students and telling the story of what happened here not so long ago.
Anna Momigliano contributed reporting from Rome.
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