|Outline of the destroyed crematorium at Risiera san Sabba|
on the other side of that wall was the kitchen
Today I visited Risiera San Sabba, a former rice husking factory that was taken over by the Nazis and used as a concentration camp in 1943. It is one of the few death camps in Italy, in prime location to put a stop to the resisters and political dissenters from Slovenia and Croatia as well as Italian soldiers and Jews. The haunting turn of the century red-brick building was taken over by the Nazis as a facility for detaining and killing political prisoners—predominantly Italian soldiers and members of the resistance—a transit camp for Jews before they were sent off to Auschwitz, and a store house for confiscated goods. Even in spite of the fact that it sits in the centre of a residential area, at the time little was known of the operations taking place inside the former factory.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the complex is the outline left on the side of a wall by a crematorium that the Nazis ignited before they evacuated so as to erase all trace of their hideous crimes. I can’t think of another example of attempted erasure in a death camp that speaks as loudly of the presence of crimes committed therein. It is even more frightening to experience the proximity of the extermination facility in the courtyard just meters away from where prisoners were held in detention. A display in the museum established on the other side of the wall that would have abutted the crematorium tells of how the captors turned the music up so loud that the local people didn’t hear the screams of the victims as they were sent to their death. Today, it’s unimaginable that the people in the surrounding town would not have known what was going on inside the former factory. However, in between the testimonies and documents on display there is a strong sense of choosing not to know. The reasons for turning a blind eye were complex and ranged from a form of denial as self-protection and to silent complicity.
Italy’s own fascist dictatorship in power at the time is hardly mentioned in the museum displays, and it’s a silence that can't be overlooked. There was no doubt in my mind that the politics of Italy must have contributed both to success of the facility and to the fact that it took over 30 years before the process of reparation for the crimes was begun. And then, even in 1976 when the trials were staged, the results were highly unsatisfactory with the precise number of deaths never acknowledged, and only one person apparent guilty of thousands of deaths. This was thanks to the fact that the perpetrators were German being judged in Italy and the messiness of the legislation in the region that was the jurisdiction of the Reich in 1943-45.
On a cold and dark late afternoon in winter, as I wandered through the cells, a building without air and light where up six prisoners were packed into a space 1.20m long and 2m high with only a couple of wooden planks for beds, it was like stepping into 1940s. In the bitterly cold space—in every sense of the word—I felt surrounded by the insanity of Nazi’s thinking and the brutality of their actions. A single rose attached to one of the wooden pylons expressed the sadness of what words can’t articulate. In an ante-room for the crematorium, known as the death room, were bodies were dumped before being incinerated the texture of the walls and the stones underfoot have been left as they were found. The rough cold to the touch surfaces give way to profound memory of the crimes they have witnessed. At various points along the walls, small displays of possessions such as glasses with broken frames, a silver fob watch with no face, and a comb with most of its teeth missing, and identity papers of the dead were heartbreaking.
|Commemoration sculpture by Marcello Mascherini, 1958|