BookTrends: It Happened in Italy
By: Elizabeth Bettina|Published: January 27, 2010 2:00 PM
Meeting Walter Wolff was a bit of a miracle, for many reasons. First, he is a Holocaust survivor, and anyone who survived the Holocaust is, by definition, a miracle.
Second, he was in Dachau and was released when virtually no other prisoners were. Finally, meeting Walter was a miracle because I actually opened my mail in a timely fashion! (I have been known to let what I call “extra mail” pile up on my desk.)
In this particular extra mail pile, there was an announcement from Queens College, which is located not too far from my home. A man who survived the Holocaust in southern Italy was going to speak at the college about his experience. Perhaps, I thought, he might know something about Campagna—or know someone who was in the town. Looking at the date, I was relieved. Good. It was the next week! I hadn’t missed it.
Accompanied by Aunt Ida, Nanny’s youngest sister, off I went to Queens College. Walter began his talk by describing his life in Germany before the war. At the time of his presentation, he was a very energetic, eighty-eight-year-old man, with twinkling eyes and a mustache, who reminded me a bit of my great-grandfather—but without the shotgun! Somehow, he had managed to save many personal documents and photographs from the war, and he showed a number of them in his slideshow.
His early life in Frankfurt, Germany, was one of solid middle class that included Walter, his brother Bruno, and his mother. Sadly, Walter’s father had died of natural causes when Walter was a young boy. Life wasn’t easy, but the little family managed, especially with the help of his grandparents. Walter attended a high school called Reform Real Gymnasium Philanthropins in Frankfurt and received an excellent education. It was a school that I would hear more about over the next few years. Walter was also a very good soccer player and loved music, and both helped him survive during the war. As he recounted his life story, the life so cruelly taken away from him by his fellow German citizens, he showed us pictures of the way things were.
For most Holocaust survivors, their pre-war lives are just a faded memory, but if they are lucky, as in Walter’s case, they may have a photograph to remind them of what once was. It proved they didn’t just invent a former life—a life I call “BH.” Before Hitler.
Walter explained that he lived through ever-increasing anti-Semitism, and through Kristallnacht (kris'täl-näkht), the night of crystal. In German history, the night of November 9, 1938, was a night of violence against Jews and of destruction of businesses and other property belonging to them. The name is a reference to the huge amounts of broken glass that resulted from the destruction. That night, Storm Troopers, the SS, and the Hitler Youth killed ninety-one Jewish people and injured hundreds more. They destroyed at least seventy-five hundred businesses and hundreds of synagogues—burned them completely to the ground. The event marked the start of the deportation of Jews to German concentration camps and is considered the beginning of the Holocaust. Walter was arrested by the Germans and sent to Dachau on November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. His brother, Bruno, was sent to Buchenwald. Their crime: being Jewish.
In 1938, Germany appeared to be focused on having Jews leave the country rather than eliminating them completely. It did not matter where the Jewish people went, as long as they left Germany. Sounds simple, right? In reality, it was not. Without a visa, you could not enter another country, and during this time, almost every country in the world turned its back on the Jews.
Walter and Bruno should have been able to enter the United States on student visas, because they had been accepted to the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. Walter’s mother had the letters to prove it. She apparently was quite a lady with an enormous amount of chutzpah, and the letters she wrote to German officials on her sons’ behalf must have been incredibly powerful. She asked that they be released from the camps because after their studies in Chicago, they would not return to Germany. She was successful in her quest, and her sons were released under the condition that they leave Germany within six months.
All they had to do was apply for visas at the United States Consulate in Germany. They did, but were rejected. The consulate believed that once Walter and Bruno were in the United States, there was no assurance they would leave after the three years of study—even though Walter explained they would then go to Palestine. “No” remained the answer. The United States did not offer assistance even when presented with legitimate documents.
Walter and Bruno faced a dilemma. They had been freed from Dachau but had no place to go. Italy was the only country allowing Jews to enter without visas, so naturally, with that six-month time clock ticking, Italy was where they went, with the thought to continue on to Shanghai, a city where many Jews found refuge during the war. They hoped to take a steamer for China from Genoa, but once in Italy decided to remain. Walter realized that learning to speak Italian was imperative to survival in Italy, as it would enable him to secure a job. Plus, it did not behoove a person to speak German in those days if he were trying to hide from German soldiers.
Then in June 1940, Walter was arrested in Genoa. His crime: being Jewish. It seemed as if the safe haven that Italy appeared to be was safe no longer. After all, Mussolini was Hitler’s ally at the time, and now he was having Jews arrested and taken away, just as the Nazis did to Jews in Germany. Walter was terrified. He could not believe that he had been released from Dachau, only to be sent to another camp—this time in Italy.
“Wonderful—I exchanged one camp for another,” Walter said more than sixty-five years later. “Now I was back in the same boat, except the Italian camps were nothing like German camps. In comparison, it was like going to a hotel. There was no forced labor in the Italian camps. We could do whatever we wanted during the day, as long as we obeyed the simple rules of being present for roll call in the morning when the doors to the camp were opened, and in the evening when the doors to the camp were closed. The carabinieri (police officers) treated us well. In order to pass time, we played cards, took walks around the little village, read books, or played soccer at a field just outside town. We even had our own orchestra and performed for the local residents.”
No one in the room could believe this. It certainly did not sound like any concentration camp we had heard of.
Walter then said, “Obviously this camp was not Dachau. It was in a small town, south of Naples—Campagna.”
Campagna appeared on the screen! I couldn’t believe Walter Wolff was in Campagna! Aunt Ida grasped my hand, and we looked at each other in disbelief. I had tears in my eyes, and my throat tightened. I had hoped that this man would have some information about Campagna, but I never dreamed he had been in Campagna.
I raised my hand. “Excuse me, Mr. Wolff, which camp were you in, the old Convent of San Bartolomeo or the old military barrack?”
Walter, in turn, could not believe that someone in the audience knew of Campagna, or that I knew there were two camps at the time. “I was in San Bartolomeo,” he said. “How do you know there were two camps?”
I told him my family was from Campagna, that, in fact, my great-grandparents’ house is only a few feet away from the old convent and my grandparents were married at the church attached to the convent. Everyone in the room was stunned. What were the chances?
Walter continued his lecture and said several times that if it were not for the Italians who helped him and his family along the way, he would not be here today. In addition to treating the Jewish internees with decency, Italy had a policy of trying to keep families together during their internment. Walter explained that he spent about a year in Campagna and then was transferred to Ferramonti, the camp where his brother Bruno had been sent. Walter’s mother was in the small town of Brienza, near Potenza, about an hour southeast of Campagna. She was also sent to Ferramonti, where the family was reunited.
Ferramonti is located near the town of Tarsia in the region of Calabria, the southernmost region of Italy before the island of Sicily. It was also the largest internment camp in Italy and was a true camp with barracks, housing anywhere from two to three thousand people during the 1940s. But the barrack-style housing was the only aspect of Ferramonti that was similar to a German camp. Like Giovanni Palatucci, Ferramonti appears numerous times in this story.
After the Wolffs were reunited in Ferramonti, they had the opportunity to be transferred to their choice of one of several towns. This was called internato libero, or internment that was free, meaning they could live in a town amongst the Italians. They only had to stay in the town, sign in at the police office daily, and seek permission from the carabinieri, the police, if they wanted to leave for the day. Walter and his family received a list of various approved places to live and—because it had an active Jewish community and a beautiful synagogue—they chose a small town in northern Italy called Casale Monferrato, near Torino and Milano.
My first question was why Walter went to northern Italy, toward Germany, during the war—closer to the enemy? Walter’s answer: being Jewish in Italy before September 8, 1943, was not a safety concern. Only after September 8th, when northern Italy was under German occupation, did he fear for his safety.
Walter knew that if he was able to obtain false documents, he had a better chance of surviving, so he asked a priest in the town of San Giorgio Monferrato for help. This priest arranged for Walter to receive fake documents from a man who worked in Comune named Giuseppe. Just mentioning the priest’s name was all Walter had to do. Giuseppe in Comune knew exactly what it was about. He issued Walter Wolff a series of papers that renamed him Valter Monti from the Province of Cosenza in southern Italy. (Note: Southern Italy was under Allied control by that time, and town records would be difficult to verify.)
“Even though Giuseppe and I encountered one another only twice in my lifetime, I owe him an immense debt of gratitude for risking his position as well as his life for providing me with the false identification papers,” said Walter. “I also owe the priest. Without his word—well, nothing would have happened.” Those documents helped save Walter’s life because they said he was Italian. This was the first time I had heard of documents being issued in Italy—but certainly not the last.
After his presentation, I met with Walter and his friend Gerda Mammon. Gerda is also Jewish, from Germany, and as a young girl during the war escaped with her family to Holland, where she was part of the Dutch underground. Neither could believe someone in the audience actually knew of Campagna. Walter said he had told his story for almost twelve years all over the country, and this was the first time someone in the audience was familiar with Campagna. Aunt Ida and I were amazed that Walter had spent time a stone’s throw away from where she grew up. Who would think that they would meet so many years later in New York?
While chatting with Walter and Gerda, my mouth got ahead of me—as it sometimes does. Walter said that it was a dream of his to return to Italy one of these days. One of these days, I thought. Walter was eighty-eight years old when I met him, and “one of these days” was not an option as far as I was concerned. It had to occur—now. And if Walter returned to Italy, I believed he needed to go as an honored guest. Anyone can buy an airline ticket, book a few hotel rooms, and show up, but that was not the way this visit was going to be. I would make sure that Walter was honored by Campagna and the people in Italy for his work in teaching others that even during bad times, there can be good people. That’s the title of a book he wrote: Bad Times, Good People. It tells Walter’s story in detail and includes copies of photos and documents that depict his experiences during that time.
I found myself telling these two lovely people that if they really wanted to go back to Italy, I would arrange it, and they would go back the way they should—honored. I had no idea exactly how I would accomplish this, but I knew that was the way it was going to happen.
The next day I called Rosario Mariani, a senior executive at Eurofly, a European-based airline, and asked if Eurofly would sponsor tickets for this historic event that I was planning.
“Just let me know the dates,” he said.
The Italian Tourism Board contacted a hotel in Rome, the Atlante Star, located near the Vatican. Thus began a lifelong friendship with the Mencucci family, who own this unique jewel of a hotel.
I now knew I could take Walter Wolff back to Italy.
What I did not know was that this trip would be the first of many in which other Holocaust survivors returned to Italy where they had once escaped the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
This excerpt from It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Holocaust by Elizabeth Bettina is used with permission of Thomas Nelson. Copyright 2009. Elizabeth Bettina’s website is elizabethbettina.com/the-book.
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