Pietre d’Inciampo - Lest We Forget

As an act of homage, I’ve been photographing all the “pietre d’inciampo” or “Stolpersteine” – the stumbling blocks or tripping stones – that have been installed around Torino in recent years to commemorate some of the people who were arrested by the Fascist government or by the Germans from 1943 to 1945, deported, and nearly all killed in concentration camps.  They are the project of Gunter Demnig, a German artist who has, since 1992, made and installed the stones in cities all over Europe.  He installs them in the sidewalk in front of the houses where these people lived, or the schools where they studied.  The blocks are the same size as typical cobblestones, but are finished with brass on top, each one impressed with the person’s name, year of birth, dates of arrest and deportation, the camp each one was sent to, and (in nearly all cases) the date of extermination if known.  

Even this minimal data has chillingly specific implications.  Here, a family was arrested on December 7th, 1943, deported to Auschwitz on February 22nd, 1944, where the mother and two sons were exterminated four days after arrival – one was twelve, the other seven.  Only the father survived.  Every story has its own pathos.  The blocks memorialize just a fraction of all the people who were arrested and met such a terrible end.  “Born”.  “Arrested”.  “Deported”.  “Murdered”.  (Note that “assassinato” in Italian simply means murdered, not assassinated in the English sense.)  

Passersby will not actually stumble physically over the stones, but hopefully will stumble psychologically over the shameful past.  Since 1992 Demnig has placed (astonishingly) over 70,000 of these blocks in many European cities, with the cooperation of local authorities and associations.  He gets his names from surviving family members who wish to participate, and sometimes with the involvement of local schools whose students help, with their research (or with what they learn from their grandparents), to identify individuals for possible commemoration.  Otherwise he doesn’t impose himself in his wish to memorialize.  (Apart from being painfully reminded of what happened to their relatives, people might object to those relatives’ memorials being subjected to the indignities of the urban sidewalk.) 

Most of the stones in Torino are dedicated to Jews, but quite a few commemorate antifascists – resistance fighters, syndicalists, socialists, communists, and people who sheltered Jews (for example, a righteous Catholic priest).  The stones don’t specify Jewish or non-Jewish, but one can often infer this from the family names.  (There are not many Jewish families in all, and the same names tend to repeat.)  In some cases there are two, three, or four stones together at the entrance to a building where a whole family had lived.  (But probably not where they were arrested – rather than stay at home waiting for the knock at the door, most took refuge with relatives or friends in the small towns of the countryside, hoping to avoid the roundups.)  Besides close-ups of the blocks themselves, I photographed the entrances to the buildings.  

The entrance photographs are of little interest here.  They are generally of entrances typical of apartment buildings in Torino; many older, some more modern.  They only show the broad range of economic and social standing of the various victims of the Nazi-Fascist persecution – some of the professional classes, some merchants and manufacturers, artisans, and factory workers.  Some are in more or less the same condition as in the 1940s (lots of handsome woodwork and masonry, which will please the eye of any visitor even now).  A few are completely changed, where a new building replaced one that had been demolished, or even destroyed during the bombardments of the war.*

My personal connection to this (besides the merely human) is through my wife’s family.  She is Italian, Jewish on both sides.  Her parents and most of her relatives managed to escape to Switzerland when things started to get really dangerous.  But not everyone – my wife’s paternal grandfather was turned back at the Swiss border.  (It’s a sadly typical story; the Swiss police basically said, “That’s enough for today” after letting his wife enter, and sent him away.  Shortly thereafter he was found by a German patrol; he finished in Buna.)** 

The photographs are arranged according to no particular scheme.  The captions include name, address of each person, with occasional comments.  I regret that I can’t tell the stories of all these people, or give equal attention.  Every name, presented along with the barest facts, asks the question “what happened to this person?”, and it is tempting to investigate.  I have read numerous capsule biographies of these individuals, and several gripping stories, much more than I can provide here.  These are told very well at https://pietre.museodiffusotorino.it/, the site of the Museo Diffuso della Resistenza, which offers a comprehensive list of names.  (The museum itself is well worth a visit.)  Clicking on the name of any individual brings up a brief biography in easily translatable Italian.  

Another convenient source of this biographical information and other facts about the stones is https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietre_d%27inciampo_a_Torino.

Any of the photographs can be seen larger by clicking on the image.  (Some are very hard to read otherwise.)  The photo enlarged, the caption may also be read via the little text symbol (like the Chinese character Ch’ien, or the simple trigram of the I Ching’s three moving lines) at the bottom right.  I regret that what follows may suggest nothing so much as a brick wall made of brass blocks – but the subject itself is a blunt instrument.

Auschwitz.  Mauthausen.  Dachau.  Bergen-Belsen.  Hartheim.  Gusen.  Flossenbuerg.  Melk.  Zoeschen.  Ebensee.  Schwechat.  Kaufering IV.  Janinagrube.  Le Nuove.  Fossoli.  Schelkow.

Born in a given year.  Lived here.  Worked here.  Studied here.  Deported.  Murdered.  Died upon arrest.  Survived.  Liberated.

The stones can record only the barest facts.  The historical record sometimes offers little more, perhaps the general circumstances of a given person’s arrest, perhaps something about a person’s activities that may have brought on the arrest – that is, if just being a Jew was not enough.  Sometimes there is a record of a prisoner’s being on a given convoy to this camp or that.  Often prisoners’ tattoo numbers are given, and whether they were designated as Jews or as political undesirables.  With certain individuals, the date and cause of death are known – the gas chamber usually.  With others, only an approximation of the date is possible.  Many simply died of the physical rigors of camp life and forced labor with starvation rations.  These persons’ stones still say “murdered”, however – Demnig’s choice of word rightly affirms that, although they extended over the course of months, these were murders no less than the murders of those were gassed, or shot summarily over a pit and burned.

One especially excruciating story is that of Luigi Nada, who attempted to escape the camp, but was caught and brought back, where, before a great formation of fellow prisoners, he was drowned, held down by guards in a barrel of water, to make an example to the others.

Perhaps more tragic is the story of the brothers Corrado and Enzo Lolli.  Enzo was a writer and philosopher; Corrado, a year younger, was devoted to bookbinding.  He had had polio as a child, and as an adult still had tremors.  (He was also a member of the Italian Fascist Party from 1932 until 1938 – but he did not resign due to becoming disenchanted with Fascism.  Rather, his membership was revoked because he was a Jew.  He wrote a passionate, indignant note to Mussolini protesting his expulsion.***)  When the persecutions became very threatening,  the various parts of the family took what measures they could.  (Corrado and Enzo had two other brothers as well.  Corrado had no wife or children; Enzo had a wife and two children, whom he placed in the mountains with family friends or with nuns in a convent that was sheltering Jewish children.)  

Corrado was arrested first, on June 6, 1944.  It seems that his captors promised him freedom if he would give them money or jewelry.  Corrado took them to his brother Enzo’s hiding place, the office of Enzo’s loyal friend.  Enzo in fact kept money and jewels safe in this office.  It would appear that Corrado knew this, and was ready to sacrifice his brother’s treasure to save himself.  Most likely he was mortally frightened.  Possibly he did not know that his brother was there at the time.  Whatever the case, Corrado’s captors double-crossed him – they arrested Enzo as well, and stole Enzo’s treasure.  Both brothers were sent to Le Nuove, the grim old prison in Torino, and then to the prison in Milano.  Not long after, they were sent to Auschwitz, arriving on August 6th, 1944.  Both were killed on arrival.

One can only wonder about the state of things between the two brothers, forced together during those two horrific months, two men who perhaps already did not see eye to eye with each other.  A tragic story, theirs.  Primo Levi said that he and the other survivors never saw the worst terror, never knew the real hell of the camps.  This was experienced only by those who were utterly swallowed by death.

Allen Schill

Torino, May 2019

Notes

* What would be more interesting, suggestive, or provocative, as photojournalism, would be to photograph the various places where those arrested were held, some of them subject to interrogation and torture:  mostly headquarters of the various kinds of police in Italy.  Unfortunately it is quite forbidden to photograph a police station of any kind.  I have been warned twice about this law.  Once I was taking a photo of a mural on an external wall of a caserma, a station of the carabinieri; a rather paranoid agent rushed out to make me stop.  Another time I was photographing a police building - not even realizing what it was - for its unusual curved brick facade, when a patrol car pulled up.  Two officers told me courteously but in due seriousness that this was a no-no; they were especially concerned because a few nights before, someone had tossed a molotov cocktail into the courtyard/parking lot there.  And this was just a headquarters of the Polizia Stradale, the traffic cops - victims of a molotov, imagine.  But nothing political in this case.  (It goes to show that they have their enemies.  Some drivers will do terrible things when they get too many traffic fines.)  I begged their pardon and agreed completely with their position against the throwing of molotovs.

** There’s a section of a public park here in Torino that has been designated “Parco Caduti dei Lager Nazisti”, or Park of the Fallen of the Nazi Camps.  There are a couple of signs and a bronze plaque with the name.  This has always irritated me for its tendentiousness, implying that it was all the fault of a bunch of nasty Germans, and that good Italian folks had nothing to do with it.  In reality, informers and fascist sympathizers (all of them Italian) were indispensable to the roundups of Jews and other “enemies of the state”.  Political whitewashing as usual.

*** Corrado Lolli wrote, through his Federale (an official of the party):  ”Duce, following the deliberations of the Grand Council, I, a Jew (Aryan race)* am honored to tender my resignation from the Party, saying however that when I entered fascism, I did it out of pure faith, and notwithstanding the (racial) decrees, I am Italian (underlined in the text), and these faiths no one can take from me.  Respectfully yours, Corrado Lolli.  I beg you, Federale, to pass this on to il Duce.”  

His political persuasion I find incomprehensible, as the values of Fascism seem to me utterly incompatible with the humanism essential to the Jewish tradition.  But his pride as a Jew and an Italian deserves respect.  (What he means by a Jew of the Aryan race is a puzzle; certainly an eccentric notion.)

I must acknowledge the help of Chiara Cavallerin of the Museo Diffuso della Resistenza in clarifying a few questions I had.  I also want to give a tip of the hat to Emily Raboteau, whose article in the New York Review Daily about Justin Brice Guariglia’s eco-signs, situated at the furthest reaches of New York City, jogged me into finishing my own article, and to Mik Awake, Emily’s companion on their pilgrimage to visit all the signs (and the author of an excellent article of his own about the signs).  What we had in common, their project and mine, was this aspect of pilgrimage.  They were contemplating the future, and I the past, but of course (as when crossing the street) you’ve always got to look both ways.  We meet in the present and ask ourselves, “Now what?”

Emily Raboteau’s article, “Climate Signs”:

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/02/01/climate-signs/

And Mik Awake’s, “As We Approach the City”:

https://www.thecommononline.org/as-we-approach-the-city/


* Lolli’s own emphasis.

P.S.:  I haven’t had time to develop this idea, but it came to me (in connection with the pietre d’inciampo) that one might carry out similar projects to commemorate some of the many shameful episodes in American life which are insufficiently recognized by the public.  Think, above all, of the uncountable victims of lynching and other racially motivated violence - mainly African-Americans, but also Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Irish, Jews, and other despised minorities.  To say nothing of the death and destruction meted out overseas in pointless war, waged most often plainly for domination, and rarely for the sake of democracy or humanity or any virtue America supposedly stands for.  (Are these subjects covered by now in school history textbooks, hopefully much better than they were during my own public school days in the 1950s and ’60s?)  U.S. culture has whitewashed its own history:  a false, shallow, sentimental, provincial, and ignorant patriotism seems to be the default position of too many voters and too many politicians.  We need a more balanced and comprehensive notion of our past.  Perhaps a few memorials to shame would help remind us of our often grave faults, and teach us a genuine patriotism.


© Copyright Allen Schill

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