An Italian senator who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and this year found herself witnessing a far-right government take power again in Rome has said her “personal nightmare” is that the Holocaust will all but vanish from history books.
Liliana Segre, 92, was the only one of her relatives to survive the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews as part of Nazi Germany’s second world war campaign to obliterate the Jewish population in Europe.
“That the Holocaust could end up turning into just one line in the history books is my personal nightmare,” Segre said in an interview with the Guardian. “It is not pessimism, but the fruit of observation. I look at certain facts with the spirit of the scientist – the experiment is tattooed on my skin. Something went wrong, and much remains to be done.”
Born in Milan, Segre was expelled from school in 1938 after Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator and Adolf Hitler ally, enacted anti-Jewish racial laws. Segre was 13 when, on 30 January 1944, she was arrested by Mussolini’s fascist police and deported, along with several other family members, to Auschwitz from Milan’s central train station.
She was separated from her father, who was killed the next day. Her mother had died when she was a baby. Only 25 of the 776 Italian children sent to the concentration camp survived.
Segre lived with her maternal grandparents in the Marche region after returning to Italy. She went public about her experience in Auschwitz only in the 1990s and since then has devoted much of her time to visiting schools and universities to teach students about the Holocaust.
“We survivors … have the duty of testimony,” she said. “History and memory go hand-in-hand and are the common heritage of humanity. If memory evaporates like the fog, the world will be condemned, like Dante’s circle [of hell], to perpetuate horror.”
Segre was made a life senator by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, on 18 January 2018 – the 80th anniversary of the enactment of Mussolini’s racial laws. Thrust into the spotlight, she became a target of death threats and since 2019 has been obliged to have a police escort. In one incident, a teacher from the Veneto region wrote on Facebook that Segre “would do well in a nice little incinerator”.
The threats against her escalated after she was made president of a parliamentary commission, formed later in 2019, to combat racism, antisemitism and incitement to hatred.
Segre recently received death threats from anti-vaxxers due to her support of the Covid-19 vaccine. She is the oldest person in Europe to have a police escort.
“Living under a police escort at the age of 92 is unbelievable,” Segre said. “I have been subjected to racist attacks, unbelievable things. It’s never face-to-face; everything is consumed and amplified online – a closed place where keyboard haters unleash the worst of human instincts with authentic brutality, with their faces covered and identities disguised as pet names. I’m afraid there are no effective cures for racism and intolerance. They have to be fought against. It is a war, as Primo Levi always said.” Levi was a writer who was also among the few Italian Jews to survive Auschwitz and his book If This is a Man is one of the most respected first-person accounts of the Holocaust.
As a life senator, Segre presided over the reopening of parliament in October after the late September general elections that saw prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist roots, clinch power in coalition with Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
During the election campaign, Segre had urged Meloni to remove the neofascist tricolour flame from her party’s official logo, but was ignored.
Segre gave a powerful speech at the opening of the lower house of parliament, during which she recalled the effects that fascism had on her youth as well as noting the fact that the new government was taking power in a month that marked the centenary of Mussolini’s march on Rome, the event that ushered in Italy’s fascism era.
Segre later shook hands with and received flowers from Ignazio Benito Maria La Russa, the newly elected house speaker who collects fascist memorabilia. La Russa came under fire on Monday after celebrating the 76th anniversary since the creation of the defunct Italian Social Movement, a neofascist party of which his father was a co-founder.
“The speech was written from the heart knowing that the new parliamentary majority is inspired by the ideals of the right with some nostalgic inspiration,” she said.
Fascism and the recreation of fascist parties are banned under the Italian constitution. “Our constitution is anti-fascist, something that is a star shield. Respecting and applying this is a duty, the elixir of democratic life,” said Segre, adding that she is “proud” of her role as life senator. “Me, a survivor of the killing fields, unexpectedly became a member of parliament at this time in my life. My hope for the future is that memory triumphs.”