What follows is the address by the President of the Jewish Community of Venice, Dario Calimani, on the occasion of the Citywide Ceremony for the 2023 Day of Remembrance, which took place on Sunday, 22 January in a crowded Teatro La Fenice. Participating were the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, the Superintendent of the Fondazione Teatro La Fenice, Fortunato Ortombina, and the President of the Jewish Community of Venice, Dario Calimani.
The event was organized by the City of Venice, presidency of the City Council, in collaboration with Teatro La Fenice and the committee “The Day of Remembrance. 27 January”.
Remembering is not only bowing in silence before history and cannot be an empty ritual. Nor can we expect memory to be the obscene display of others’ pain.
To stick to the bare facts would require us to focus on the well-known perverse themes that gave life, over the centuries and up to the present day, to antisemitism and its fatal consequences: the diffusion of prejudice, the myth of the global Jewish lobby and finance, theories of racial purity, and the practices of isolation and marginalization, which reached the point of identifying a hostile, enemy race conspiring against Western civilization, forming a fifth column to work against the interests of the nation. And then the racial laws, excluding people from society and the civil assembly, and turn them into unworthy outcasts, depriving them of social recognition and of any means of sustenance amidst a general indifference, and ending up with the hunt for the Jew, the tip-off for a few lire, deportation, the gas chambers and the crematorium ovens. Then the return of the few survivors, once again amidst the indifference of everyone, strangers and relatives, and everyone’s disbelief. And then, finally, ritual commemorations.
Year after year, we ask ourselves what is the use of recalling and reiterating pain and suffering to ourselves and to others, if memory is only a still image and can’t give it some value for the present. The obscenity of pain indeed.
Unfortunately, the memory of antisemitism is the memory of the present. Widespread on social media, in every arena, in the cultured halls of the universities in ambiguous forms of pro-Palestinian protest, and among parties and movements of the extreme right and the extreme left, while official politics willingly stands by and watches. Antisemitism uses the usual arguments as its pretext: Jewish finance, the Jewish lobby, media power, and increasingly often, more or less speciously, Israel and its questionable politics.
From time to time, the inevitable and very belated pang of conscience proposes plaques in recognition of the injustices of the past. Plaques about the racial laws, which in truth were racist laws. Plaques that don’t repair anything, because the evil has been done and cannot be remedied: people and families were expelled from society like a foreign body, humiliated, marginalized, sent to ruin while everyone around remained unperturbed, and under the illusion they could be spared, they converted (like in the time of the Spanish Inquisition), or, betrayed by their own country, they emigrated for good in despair, or found their ultimate solution in suicide. Plaques don’t repair anything, if not the silence of these last 85 years, spent with the nation’s eyes closed in the face of a catastrophe which, undisturbed, exterminated a whole people. An extermination planned throughout Europe, and not over contested territory, ethnic vendettas or local political clashes.
But the silence endures, even when we finally give voice to recognizing the injustice and the sentiment of pity. We write and talk about the racial laws of 1938, condemning them and citing names. What is missing in these belated acts of recognition, from the plaques as well as from our statesmen’s speeches, is, alongside the names of those who suffered the evil, the name of those who inflicted the evil upon them. What is missing is the name “fascism”. There is a reluctance, a prudishness in recognizing the evil and its perpetrators that grows with the passage of time. It is as if the racial/racist laws had been provoked by an unexpected change of climate, rather than by a well thought out policy, by the regime’s precise and criminal design, by a pre-meditated strategy of hate training. The racist laws are presented as though they were an accident along the path of an otherwise enlightened politics, rather than an act consistent with the policy of dictatorial oppression that, from truncheons and castor oil, from the confinement of political adversaries, and on through political crimes (Matteotti, Rosselli), led to war alongside Hitler, to deportations and gas chambers for Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and opponents.
It is obviously easier to concede a belated judgement on the infamy of the racial laws – we say this to those who govern us – rather than recall the extermination of the Shoah and all the responsibilities, the collusions, the silences, and the millions of dead. If thanks to a brief moral condemnation of the racial laws, maybe without even naming fascism, one manages to absolve the fascist regime from everything else it was responsible for, one is then free to reclaim its beautiful and glorious legacy.
It is worth recalling that Italy, after the war, has drawn an ignoble veil over the truth. In the name of a supposed national reconciliation, we have pretended that nothing had happened. The fascists changed their outfits while continuing to live in tranquility, without anyone holding them to account for the crimes they committed, protected by the principle that in complying with a state policy, the policy of the regime, they were merely obeying their ideals, as if those ideals were no less valid than our ideal of freedom. In this spirit, Gaetano Azzariti, President of the Race Tribunal during fascism, was appointed President of the Constitutional Court of the Italian Republic after the war. An utmost cause for shame, and anything but an example of discontinuity.
The subtle absolution of fascism has gradually taken place through silence. Then, some partisan crimes, or a series of shameful personal vendettas – situations much different from the criminal ideology of a regime –are dusted off and used to equate the acts of the dictatorship with those who participated in the Liberation. This is what allows representatives of the state today, those who represent the institutions of the Republic that arose from the Liberation, to demand equal consideration, and to desert April 25 to go instead to Predappio to celebrate the glories of the regime, while singing Faccetta Nera with their arm raised in the Roman salute.
A failure to reflect and a lack of legal judgement on the criminality of the fascist regime allows officers of the state – save for a condemnation of the racial laws – to now declare with proud impudence their nostalgia for the good times past and their passion for Mussolini’s busts.
Our institutional present is recovering its pride for a past of shame. Our Constitution, which is the bulwark of our freedoms and the guarantee of our rights and our obligations, our Constitution, fortunately, speaks clearly about fascism, but the deeds, behaviors and the political protection of violent and racist extremist movements say even more.
A failure to reflect on the history of the twenty years of fascist rule in Italy creates the belief that our country was a victim. On the contrary, ours is a history of butchers alongside butchers. We have colonized and massacred, we have used chemical weapons, we sent people to the gas chambers. The alleged reclamation of the Pontine Marshes or the building of roads in Ethiopia are of course no compensation for the history of a persecutorial and catastrophic regime. But there are some, even among those who lead our institutions, whose ideas are still rather foggy, or who have not studied the history of the fascist period well, and are working to rehabilitate the regime.
In recent days the court of Forlì has acquitted the woman who wore a tee-shirt with the writing Auschwitzland at Predappio. The Mancino law, a state law, is being shamefully disregarded. It is legitimate to wonder if the judiciary is adapting to a new political climate. The Shoah is derided, trivialized by blasphemous comparisons, as if it should no longer be considered the inhumane tragedy that it was. On the other hand, in several cities the words “Jews to the ovens” have appeared in various places.
Something is changing in our country. And I, as an Italian Jew and President of an Italian Jewish Community, with 246 Venetian Jews gassed at Auschwitz, I cannot be asked to not be concerned, or to ultimately adhere to a shared memory. My memory can only be the unreconciled memory of those who were exterminated, without our being able to understand why, even to this day.
Mine is clearly a political worry, but it is, even before that and even more than that, the fear of the possible decay of the spirit of coexistence and humanity in the country in which I have lived for over five hundred years, and which, I claim with all my strength, is my country. The history of my family and of my people does not allow me to underestimate the signals. We already did that in the past and we paid dearly for it.
When the nationalistic spirit is accentuated against any spirit of cohesion and concertation between states, there is room for the fear that the spirit of solidarity may disappear. That spirit alone is what can hold together a Europe whose founding principles are now essential. There is room for the fear that the nationalistic spirit and love of country can once again be used for conflicts and bigotry that give rise to new intolerance, new prejudices, new hatred; that once again there is need for an enemy, a scapegoat upon which to dump responsibility and blame. All of this was real, all this happened and bore its vile fruits. We cannot fool ourselves that we are all immune to new epidemics of inhumanity. We ask of the responsible institutions that they do not underestimate episodes and acts of intolerance and the spread of hatred, towards anyone, and that they don’t minimize the signs of the new fascism, no matter what political side they come from, because fascism is not necessarily a party, as imagined by the Constitution, but it is the mental habit itself of oppression and prevarication.
Today we are engaging in an act of memorial. Remembering makes sense if it is done with the goal of a just society which sees value in diversity, a united society that cares for the weak and does not abandon them, whatever the costs.Remembering makes sense, we keep repeating it, if we make use of the past to recognize the mistakes of our history and avoid repeating them. But for this to happen, we must look the past in the face with a spirit of truth and without pretense.
Translated by Paul M. Rosenberg