At the publication of the “racial laws” in 1938, 9170 Jewish foreign nationals stayed with permit in Italy. Many of them had lived there for decades, while others fled there after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, for total deprivation of rights – including the deprivation of nationality – and the persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime. Then, in 1938 the period of rambling started for them in Italy as well. Its route mostly crossed Genoa. Many of them were students, from the best schools in Eastern Europe, who wanted to start and, hopefully, finish their studies in Italy. Their personal files can be still found at the universities of Genoa and other Italian cities, including their registry data as well as the information on their studies, the exams passed, grades, theses, addresses in their homeland and in Italy. At the upper edge of many files a stamp shows the student’s belonging to the Jewish race. The wandering from university to university, in the hope of completing their studies, made a “wandering Jewish student” of all of them.
Their wandering ended in 1940, when all of them were interned in the concentration camps for foreign Jews coming from Eastern European countries. One of these was set up next to Ferramonti di Tarsia in Calabria, Southern Italy. The camp was established in a marshy region, as an extension of the barracks set up for the workers of the Parrini company performing the drainage. Although the territory did not meet the requirements of the Ministry of the Interior, Parrini managed, via his connections, to obtain a concession to the expansion of the camp, and to register the first Jewish internees as its workers. In addition, he managed to obtain the corresponding food supply to the internees.
Ferramonti was rather a village than a concentration camp, and for more than one reason. Some of the camp directors were extremely humane persons, such as the first commander, Paolo Salvatore. The prisoners themselves, who were mostly highly skilled professionals, always behaved in an intelligent and cooperative manner. The generous and receiving behavior of the local population greatly contributed to it, just as well as the monk sent from the Vatican, who primarily provided not spiritual, but practical tasks.
Due to the mild treatment of camp commander Paolo Salvatore, life went on in the most tolerable way in the camp. If it was necessary, he never denied an exit permit. People could take photos, and listen to the radio. They set up a primary school, and Salvatore himself regularly took the children on his car to the village for an ice cream, or drove them on his motorcycle around the camp.
The camp had its own library, where a little local newspaper was printed. They had their own bakery, where they also baked ritual matzah, as well as a tailor’s shop, where the prisoners’ dress was tailored by size.
The camp had its own parliament, into which each barrack delegated one representative. The representatives then elected the “supreme leader”, who negotiated with the commanders about the camp’s affairs.
The families were not segregated, and they also held weddings. Twenty-one children were born in Ferramonti.
Since they were all Jews, in Ferramonti there were as many as three synagogues. An Orthodox, a Reform Synagogue, and a third one for the Zionist Betar organization.
Culture and sport helped to connect such diverse groups. Concerts, theater performances, readings, poetry competitions were organized. Many of the prisoners were artists, for whom a separate barrack was kept as a studio. Here worked, for example, Michel Fingenstein, a renowned painter and ex libris artist. European football championships were also held. Of the Yugoslav-Polish match we have the full written chronicle.
Nevertheless, hunger and insects were also common in Ferramonti, together with the sense that something terrible is happening out there in the world.
The interned included Jews from Rome, Germany, Austria and Poland, the exiles of Eastern Europe, Jews from Libya, Lyublyana and Serbia, as well as the passengers of Pentcho. The latter river steamer sailed from the port of Bratislava in the hope of reaching Palestine, but it ran aground next to the island of Rhodes, which at that time belonged to Italy.
The inhabitants of the camp also included Yugoslav, Greek and Chinese partisans.
In 1943, when the German army in Italy began to retreat, most of the internees, especially the youngest ones were hidden by the neighboring peasants in the forests and in their homes. The monk managed to convince the Germans that a cholera epidemic was raging in the camp, thus preventing their intrusion. The camp was liberated in September 1943 by the British, who at the same time banned the emigration to Palestine. A lot of people stayed there until the end of the war, before they decided where to start a new life.
Many of them became famous as artists, writers, scholars or athletes. The Berlin physician and psychiatrist Ernst Bernhard became an outstanding student of Carl Gustav Jung in Zurich. Richard Dattner from Poland emigrated to the United States, where he became a renowned architect. Oscar Klein from Austria became one of the world’s most famous jazz trumpet players. Imi Lichtenfeld, born in Budapest, became one of the most outstanding martial artists of the century, a founder of the Krav Maga self-defense sport, and of the Israeli army. The Yugoslavian doctor David Melt was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the vaccine against dysentery. Alfred Weisner was the discoverer of the Algida ice cream-making process, and founder of the company of the same name.
And how did I find this story? Through the documentary Ferramonti, il campo ʻsospeso’ (Ferramonti, the “suspended” camp), directed by Christian Calabretta, and presented by Rai Storia on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to dig better into it, so I wrote to Mario Rende, the author of the essay Ferramonti di Tarsia, published at Mursia. Through him I got to know better the group of the “Genoa Jews”. I spent two days in the archive of the University of Genoa, where I studied the personal files of the students, especially of the medical students.
A complete list of the internees with birth data and the conditions of internment was compiled by Anna Pizzuti, and it is now fully searchable on the web: Ebrei stranieri internati in Italia durante il periodo bellico.
We even know the faces of many of them, thanks to the documentation made available on the net by the University of Bologna and the Local Government of Ferramonti. I also publish some of them, but I’m sure that many more pictures can be found in the family albums dispersed in Europe and all over the world. The captions of the photos include the name of the persons, their father and mother’s name, place and date of birth.
On request of Yolanda Bentham, the daughter of David Ropschitz who was born in Lemberg in 1913 and graduated in Genoa, with several months of research work I managed to find out the identity of one of her father’s fellow students, later his fellow prisoner and dear friend.
It was not easy, because Isacco’s history is very different from that of the other students. He was born in 1914 in Brody. He arrived in Italy in 1921, when his father, Leone, who had been captured during the First World War, let his wife and son come after him. In the Genoese fortress of Forte Begato, where he spent his captivity, he found a friendly environment, where he could continue his work. Brody was one of the most important Jewish centers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was often called “the Austrian Jerusalem”, as well as a strategical location of the Russian-Austrian trade. Before the war, tailors were one of the most important industry, with 139 workshops and small factories, all in Jewish hands. The tailors’ guild belonged to the most influential corporations, and had their own rabbi, who was highly respected within the local Jewish community.
Leone’s decision saved the lives of his wife Sara, and of the little Isacco. During the Nazi occupation, all the Jewish inhabitants of Brody, including Isacco’s sixteen relatives, were killed: the majority on the spot, and the rest in the concentration camps.
Sara undertook the great journey across Europe. For a while she was forced to stay in Prague, because the little Isacco got typhoid. When the family united again, a new boom dawned for the Friedmanns.
From left to right, Isacco (Iso), his mother Sara, his little brothers Giuseppe and Sigismondo (Gigi), who were already born in Italy, and behind them the father, Leone
Isacco studied in Liceo Cassiniben. On 11 July 1939 he graduated from the medical faculty, and thus lived a very different life than his Jewish fellow students, who had been forced to leave behind their families and their homeland because of the racial laws. His carefree life ended in 1940 with the internment in Ferramonti.
Isacco arrived in Ferramonti with the first group, which made the camp habitable for the later arrivals. He won the confidence of camp commander Salvatore, who moved him to the nearby Lungro, practically in free conditions. However, when he offered his medical services free of charge and with success to the locals, the local doctor reported him, and they were forced to take him back to the camp. He stayed there until 30 July 1942. Then he was commanded to Santo Stefano D’Aveto near Genoa, where he stayed until 12 November 1943. Then, to avoid being arrested, he withdrew to the mountains, and spent there – as he recalled – the worst years of his life. After the war he had a successful medical career, got married and had a son, and today, at the age of 102 he is still a brilliant, educated and charming gentleman, as I experienced when we met in person. In August of this year they shared with Yolanda, who came from England, their photos, incredible stories, and not always pleasant memories, which bear exceptional witness to what happened in Ferramonti.
Upon request, I gladly send copies of the personal files of the Genoese university students. Herewith I want to thank for the opportunity to Roberta Rabboni, head of the secretariat of the medical and pharmaceutical faculty, without whose helpfulness I would not hae had access to this material. And of course I welcome any recollections or photos, which I will share with the researchers of the museum in Ferramonti. Everyone can contribute to the reconstruction of this story, who was witness to all this violence and suffering, but also carried the hope of a better future. And who still remembers that Ferramonti was basically a history of salvation.