“Don’t die. The war is almost over…”

This is this last part of Liliana Segre’s story. We have travelled along this unimaginable path with her. And, if we have a conscience, we should keep these memories close to our hearts, #lestweforget.

Part 6

Non morite, la guerra sta per finire

Arrivammo poi in altri Lager: il Ravensbruck, lo Jugendlager. Furono esperienze tutte diverse, tutte tragiche. Si perdevano anche quei pochissimi contatti con le prigioniere di Auschwitz, si riduceva sempre di più il numero delle superstiti, di quelle che erano scese dal treno l’anno prima.

E fu poi l’ultimo campo in cui vissi nella primavera del 1945: Manschow, era nel nord della Germania, un piccolo campo di cui si vedevano i confini. Era una visione strana, perché ad Auschwitz e anche a Ravensbruck, finito un lager, ne cominciava un altro, c’era quindi una visione praticamente infinita di prigionia. Mentre a Manschow la sensazione era incredibile: mentre noi eravamo dentro c’era un fuori. Dentro il lager, fuori i prati. Vedevo i prati, perché anche lì era arrivata la primavera, questo miracolo della natura che si ripete ogni anno, ma che io ho notato solo in quell’occasione con lo stupore che merita: perché un filo d’erba diventava speciale, era una creatura libera, su cui nessun uomo poteva comandare, nasceva liberamente, perché era la primavera che era arrivata anche lì…

Noi da dentro, dal grigiore assoluto del lager, da quell’appiattimento psicofisico che aveva colpito tutto e tutti, vedevamo l’erba, vedevamo gli alberi con le prime foglie.

Nelle prime ore del pomeriggio in quest’ultimo lager non si lavorava, c’era il permesso di uscire dietro la baracca, chi stava ancora in piedi – io stranamente, con poche altre, anche se ormai ridotte a fantasmi senza sesso e senza età – usciva in quel primo tiepido sole.

Guardavamo la natura, fuori, libera, mentre noi eravamo prigioniere. Sognavamo di cogliere quell’erba, di metterci in bocca una foglia, di camminare sul prato, sognavamo che avrebbero aperto quel cancello e che noi saremmo uscite e avremmo camminato ancora come una volta.

Improvvisamente, un giorno, vedemmo passare in fondo al campo dei prigionieri, ragazzi, che non indossavano né divisa dei lager, né stracci. Erano prigionieri, però, sorvegliati da guardie, erano ragazzi francesi, soldati. Essendo stati presi come prigionieri di guerra, lavoravano nelle cascine, nelle fattorie tedesche, in un momento in cui gli uomini erano tutti in guerra, era necessaria manovalanza nelle campagne. Passavano un giorno dopo l’altro e si incuriosirono guardandoci, noi ectoplasmi, figure orrende dei lager. Ci urlavano ogni giorno: «Mais qui êtes-vous?». Mi ricordo che, in coro, perché non avevamo più voce, rispondevamo: «Siamo ragazze ebree». Ragazze? Eravamo personaggi di cui non si capiva né età né sesso… Ma quando quei soldati capirono che eravamo veramente ragazze, perché ognuna gridava: «Io ho 20 anni». «Io ho 25 anni». «Io ho 15 anni». «Io ho 18 anni», ebbero pietà di noi.

Dopo i prigionieri detenuti di San Vittore furono i primi ad avere pietà di noi.

Furono fratelli al di là del filo spinato e ci rassicurarono: «Non morite, abbiate speranza, la guerra sta per finire!».

Noi non avevamo mai più avuto notizie, né letto un giornale, né sentito la radio, spesso ci eravamo chieste fra noi: «Ma quanto andrà avanti? Stiamo veramente per morire?» E la morte era sempre in agguato con tutte le malattie del lager: la dissenteria, gli ascessi, le febbri non dal termometro, ma talmente forti da togliere quel filo di forza che ancora teneva in vita. «La guerra sta per finire». «I Tedeschi stanno perdendo su due fronti». Era quasi impossibile da credere una notizia così bella, quasi impossibile da sopportare, il cuore faceva male, eravamo troppo deboli per crederci. I francesi ogni giorno ci davano il bollettino: «Gli Americani sono a trenta chilometri». «I Russi sono a venti chilometri». Rientravamo nella baracca e lo riferivamo a quelle che non si alzavano più: «Non morite, non morite. Ci dicono di non morire, teneteviforte». Alcune ragazze morirono nei giorni seguenti la liberazione, perché eravamo veramente arrivate alla soglia della morte…

In quei giorni cambiò qualcosa nella gestione del campo che era sempre stata segnata dalla disciplina, da un ordine quasi maniacale: i nostri persecutori innervositi, caricavano scrivanie, dossier, documenti, macchine da scrivere su camion, camioncini, le famose motociclette col side-car. E portavano via, mentre noi ci chiedevamo: «E di noi che cosa sarà? Ci ammazzeranno tutte, perché adesso non vogliono certo farci trovare in questo stato». Non fecero in tempo. I fronti si avvicinavano con una velocità enorme, le armate naziste erano in rotta su due fronti, come ci raccontavano tutti i giorni i ragazzi francesi, rasserenandoci: «No, non vi ammazzeranno, abbiate fiducia!» Fu così infatti. Aprirono quel cancello che avevamo sperato tante volte di vedere aperto e ci fecero uscire. Uscimmo tutte: quelle che stavano ancora in piedi, e anche quelle che da giorni non stavano più in piedi, si rialzarono… è l’enorme forza che c’è in ognuno di noi, quando pensiamo di non farcela più, se vogliamo, siamo forti, fortissimi, dobbiamo crederlo per costruire la vita.

Non ho raccolto quella pistola

Eravamo le larve di quello che eravamo state, eravamo ancora prigioniere su quella strada, ma fummo testimoni del mondo che cambiava. Fummo testimoni di qualcosa di incredibile: nelle ore che seguirono vedemmo aprirsi le case, fuggivano i Tedeschi, quei civili che non avevano mai aperto le loro porte e i loro cuori ai prigionieri se non rarissimi casi, veramente eroici, fuggivano anche loro, volevano andare nella zona americana perché sapevano che a Est stavano per arrivare i Russi. Si univano a noi, si mescolavano a noi prigionieri, civili e guardie, terrorizzati, si mettevano in mutande vicino a noi…

Esterrefatti li guardavamo buttare la divisa nel fosso che seguiva la strada, allontanavano il cane, che era il distintivo delle SS, quel povero cane che sarebbe stato buono per natura se il suo padrone non lo avesse addestrato in modo crudele. In quel momento erano loro ad avere paura e si mettevano in borghese, tornavano alle loro famiglie, tornavano a essere padri affettuosi e avrebbero raccontato che la Shoah non era accaduta. Nella nostra debolezza estrema, come ubriachi, su quella strada, vedevamo il mondo cambiare davanti ai nostri occhi.

Io avevo odiato, per tutto il tempo della mia prigionia, i miei persecutori, li avevo odiati con una forza enorme e in quel momento, quando vidi il comandante di quell’ultimo campo vicino a me spogliarsi e buttare divisa e rivoltella, ai miei piedi pensai: «Adesso, con grande fatica, vista la mia debolezza, mi chino, prendo la pistola e lo uccido».

Mi sembrava il giusto finale per quello che avevo visto e sofferto, per quello che avevo visto soffrire e morire intorno a me. Un attimo. Una tentazione fortissima. Ma, in quell’attimo stesso in cui ebbi la tentazione di uccidere, capii che io ero diversa dal mio assassino, che io non avrei mai potuto uccidere nessuno per nessun motivo. Se avevo scelto la vita, non potevo mettermi sullo stesso piano di chi aveva nutrito a tal punto di odio la cultura del proprio Paese da collocare nei luoghi del potere simboli di morte come le tibie incrociate e il teschio.

Io avevo scelto la vita quindi non avrei mai potuto uccidere nessuno. Non ho raccolto quella pistola e da quel momento non solo sono stata libera ma sono diventata donna di pace. Appartengo a una specie in via di estinzione: i sopravvissuti della Shoah, sono nata nel 1930, sono oggi una delle più giovani di quei 90 sopravvissuti che vivono in Italia che possono dire come me: «Io c’ero». Quando vado a parlare nelle scuole, nelle università, nei circoli, nelle parrocchie, ovunque mi invitino, vorrei prendere per mano quelli che mi ascoltano, visto che la mia testimonianza non è né un’elaborazione né uno studio teologico, critico, filosofico, storico, psicanalitico, ma una storia personale. Vorrei prendere per mano le persone e invitarle, mentre racconto, a non perdere nella vita nessun momento di amore verso coloro che ci vogliono bene… Sono momenti preziosi, che caricano per tutta la vita.

Part 6

Don’t die, the war is almost over

We arrived in other prison camps: Ravensbruck, Judenlager. Every experience was different, all were tragic. We lost even that little communication we had with the prisoners from Auschwitz. The number of survivors dwindled. The number of those who had come off that train the year before diminished.

And there was the last camp I lived in in the spring of 1945: Manschow. It was in the north of Germany. It was a small camp and we could see the limits. It was a strange sight, because in Auschwitz, and in Ravensbruck too, when one camp ended another one started. So the vision we had of our imprisonment was infinite. While in Manschow the feeling we got was incredible: we were inside, but there was also an outside. Inside was the camp; and outside was a meadow. I could see the meadows because, there too, spring had arrived, that miracle of nature that comes every year, but which only in that occasion I observed in all its well-deserved wonder: because every blade of grass had become special. It was like a creature that was free, and over which man could never rule, because spring had arrived there too…

From inside, from the greyness of the camp, from the psychophysical flattening that had afflicted every single one of us, we could see the grass, and we could see the trees with their first leaves.

In that camp, in the early hours of the afternoon, we did not work. We were allowed to go behind the buildings, and those of us who could still stand—I, strangely enough, and only a few others, even though we were mere ghosts with no sex and no age—wandered into that first tepid sun.

I would observe nature, which was outside and free, while we were prisoners. We would dream of picking the grass, of putting a leaf in our mouths, of walking on the meadow; we would dream that they would open the gate, and that we would leave, and that we would walk again like we had once.

And suddenly, one day, we saw people passing, beyond the camp, young men who were neither wearing uniforms nor rags. They were prisoners, however, followed by guards: they were French soldiers. As prisoners of war, they worked on farm estates, on German farms while their men were at war. Those prisoners were needed to work the land. They kept passing by, and would look at us wonderingly: we were ectoplasm, horrid figures in the camp. Every day they would shout: “Mais chi êtes vous?” I remember how, in chorus, because we could barely speak, we answered: “We are Jewish girls.” Girls? We were creatures whose age and sex was impossible to understand…But when those soldiers understood that we really were girls, because each of us yelled out our age, “I’m 20.” “I’m 25.” “I’m fifteen.” I’m 18,” they took pity on us.

After the prisoners in San Vittore, these men were the first to take pity on us.

They were brothers beyond the barbed wire, and they encouraged us: “Don’t die. Have hope. The war is about to end!”

We had not received any more news, hadn’t read a newspaper, listened to a radio, and we often asked each other: “How long with this go on? Are we really about to die?” And death was always on our doorstep given all the diseases in the camp: dysentery, abscess, fevers that were not measured in degrees but that were so strong they could take every bit of strength we had left away. “The war is about to end.” “The Germans are losing on two fronts.” It was almost impossible to believe such wonderful news, almost impossible to bear. Our hearts hurt. We were too weak to believe it. Every day that passed the French soldiers delivered news: “The Americans are just thirty kilometres away.” “The Russians are only twenty kilometres away.” We would go back inside the buildings and tell our companions who could no longer get up: “Don’t die. Don’t die. They are telling us to stay alive. Be strong.” Some of the girls died a few days after our liberation, because they had indeed reached death’s door…

Something in the management of the camp changed then. It had always been extremely well-organized, to an almost obsessive extent. Our persecutors, who were now apprehensive, loaded desks, papers, documents, and type-writers onto trucks, cars, and their famous motorcycles with side-cars. And as they took these things away we asked ourselves “And what about us? Will they kill us all because they don’t want anyone to find us in this terrible state?” But they didn’t have the time. The lines were closing in incredibly quickly. The Nazi forces were falling on both fronts, just as the French soldiers had said: “No, they won’t kill you. Have hope!” And it was true. They opened the gate we had so often dreamed would open, and they let us go. We all left: those of us who could still stand, and those who hadn’t been able to stand for days but did then…It was the enormous strength we have inside, all of us. We are strong, extremely strong, and we must believe so if we want to build a life.

I didn’t pick up that gun

We were the larvae of what we had once been. We were still prisoners on that road, but we had witnessed the changing of the world. We had witnessed something incredible: in the hours to follow, we saw doors opening. The Germans were fleeing: those civilians who had never opened their door or hearts—except in extremely rare, extremely heroic cases—were fleeing too, because they wanted to reach the American side, for they knew that the Russians were about to move in from the East. They joined us in our march. They mixed with the prisoners, civilians, and guards. Terrorized, they stripped down to their underwear and walked with us…

Incredulous, we watched them throw their uniforms in the ditches along the road, send away the dogs that identified them as SS—those poor dogs would have been kind by nature if they hadn’t been trained to be cruel. They were the ones who were afraid then, and they threw off their uniforms and put on everyday clothes; they went back to their families; they went back to being caring fathers; and they would say that the Holocaust never existed. In our weak, drunken state, along that road, we saw the world change before our eyes.

I had hated them. For the whole time I had been a prisoner, I had hated my persecutors. I hated them with all my might, and in that moment, the very moment I saw the commander of our last camp discard his uniform near me and throw his gun at my feet, I thought: “Now, with a great effort, because I am weak, I shall bend down, take that gun, and kill him.”

It felt like the right finale for what I had seen and suffered, for those I had seen suffer and die around me. One moment. The strongest of temptations. But, in the same moment I was overcome with the desire to kill, I understood that I was different from my assassins, that I could never kill another human being for any reason on earth. If I had chosen life, I could not sink to the level of those who had disseminated such hatred in their Nation that they could place symbols of death, like the skull and crossbones, in places of power.

I had chosen life, and that meant I could not take another’s life. I did not pick up that gun, and, from that moment on, I was not only free but I became a woman of peace. I belong to a species that is becoming extinct: I survived the Shoah. I was born in 1930, and today I am one of the youngest women of the 90 women living in Italy who survived and who can say, like me: “I was there.” When I talk in schools, in universities, in centres, in churches, or wherever else they invite me to go, I would like to take the people who are listening by the hand; because my memories are neither an elaboration, nor a theological, critical, philosophical, historical or psychoanalytical study, but they are my own personal story. I would like to take people by the hand and invite them, as I tell my story, to not lose a single moment of love in life, a single moment of love for those who love us…They are precious moments, moments which drive us on our entire lives.

 

Translation ©Matilda Colarossi 2019

The story of Liliana Segre’s experience is finished now. Some sentences were terribly difficult to translate. My eyes would get teary, and I would have to stop writing. In translating her words, I walked with Liliana Segre along a path that no man or woman should ever have to take. I wrote about her pain, and it became my pain. I wrote about her strength and it became my strength. I wrote about her will to live, and it became my will to live. Every story holds a life. In this life that Liliana Segre has so graciously shared, we see a horror—so carefully engineered and executed—unlike any other before in history. Rightly, she asks: who were the builders, the engineers, the electricians, the carpenters who prepared this horror and allowed it to happen? Whose fathers were they after they cast off their uniforms? Whose grandfathers were they? Whose neighbours were they? And where are the now? What stories did they tell?

I have translated six parts of this incredible journey through hell…for fear that we may one day forget.- M.C.

This article was first printed in Italian here: https://www.azionenonviolenta.it/ad-auschwitz-tredici-anni-racconto-liliana-segre/

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One thought on “Liliana Segre: da Ad Auschwitz a tredici anni/ In Auschwitz at thirteen – Part 6

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