An Italian family arrives in Auschwitz

The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.
The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.

Italy had a long established Jewish community that was almost completely integrated into society. It was not until late in the Mussolini’s regime that he passed anti-semitic laws. It was only after September 1943, when the Nazis effectively took control of the country, that real persecution began.

The Sonnino family from Genoa managed to evade the arrests and deportations for just over a year. When they were eventually discovered in October 1944 they were almost immediately put on a transport bound directly for Auschwitz.

Piera Sonnino was twenty-two years old when she arrived in Auschwitz with the seven other members of her family:

Night and cold, enter through the window slit of the boxcar when the train stops yet again. We are sunk in a somnolence that has possessed us for hours — as if consciousness had been reduced to the point of forgetting oneself. This stop is lasting a long time, but we aren’t paying attention.

Suddenly an inferno of shouts and whistles explodes outside. It’s as if a thousand dogs were barking in a battle. The doors of the cars are jerked open violently. Beams of light blind us. Soldiers in black and gray uniforms shout incomprehensible words at us. We jump to our feet, terrified. A big truck is maneuvering to approach the freight car. When it stops, the untranslatable orders multiply. A wooden plank is thrown down between the door of the car and the truck.

A soldier orders a woman to move. The plank is a narrow, quivering bridge, but we must cross it. I am among the first, in the group of young women. The old women have withdrawn to the back of the car; one of them has fainted. I have time to glance at the place we’re in while I struggle, with my injured ankle, to get across the plank before the tent roof of the truck onto which we are being loaded is lowered.

Images that last fractions of a second. Images of eternity. In the distance, a long line of little lights, and in the fog immense pylons, like skeletons. A sea of mud, a plain of mud. A freezing, dark, muddy madness. I feel as if I had entered a dimension where nothing is human, that is utterly hostile to everything human, a dimension that has absorbed even its own creators, becoming a cold machine, muddy and dark, fatal and inexorable, topped by a small flame that I see for an instant as in the distance it breaks the darkness, as if the sky were burning: I don’t yet know what it is.

The truck transports us to a large shed. We get out. We wait for the others. We wait for our brothers. Signora Saralvo asks us: “Do you think they will bring the men here, too?” The pregnant woman has her hands on her stomach as if she wished to protect what is in it. Gradually the shed grows crowded.

We are at the center of the nightmare that ten years earlier had sent us its messengers. All Europe is in its power, even if by now its days are numbered.

The hours pass slowly in the shed. A jolt of horror when the door opens and a skeleton enters, eyes bright, wearing a striped uniform that hangs loosely on his incredibly thin body. The men crowd around. The skeleton is holding a bucket. He stops for a few moments, then with slow steps crosses the shed and disappears. Others follow. They are assigned to the camps latrines. Night shift.

One of them stops in front of me. He points to my bandaged ankle and makes a sign to take off the bandage right away. I hesitate because I don’t understand. The word “selection” strikes me among others. The skeleton turns to the men and speaks agitatedly. He speaks in German.

Someone translates. We must immediately remove any sign that might reveal physical impairment. Wounds or illnesses. The selections are becoming more and more severe. The gas chambers and the ovens are functioning non-stop. Anyone who is unable to work is eliminated. I immediately take off the thin paper bandage that binds my ankle. The words seem to come not from the mouth of a man but from the night.

We beg Papa to do the same with his cast. Papa shakes his head. He doesn’t seem to understand what we’re saying. He sinks down among us and remains motionless, eyes closed. Mamma takes his hand and grips it. Roberto, Paolo, Maria Luisa, Bice, and I gather around our parents and Giorgio. We spend the rest of the night like that, and whatever I could say of that time, it wouldn’t make sense translated into words; it would be a thin shadow of that reality. I would be stealing it from myself, from what is mine, desperately mine alone.

Gray fingers at the windows of the shed signaled that dawn had come when the SS burst in. Machine guns raised, they array themselves around us, enclosing us in a circle. Three officers, one of whom wears the insignia of a doctor, order us to stand and line up. As each of us is called, he takes a step forward, and the doctor inspects, examines, tests the arm muscles.

We are divided into three groups: the old, the young men, and the young women. Everything happens rapidly. We don’t even have time to exchange farewells: the group of young women is the first to leave the shed amid a storm of orders shouted in a loud voice.

Not even once can we turn, not a single time, to see Mamma and Papa and our brothers again. We are shoved brutally outside, into the mud that sticks to our shoes, into the freezing air. Signora Saralvo isn’t with us: weeping, she told the doctor she was sick. She was added to the group of the old and the infirm.

It is October 28, 1944.

See Piera Sonnino: This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz. Piera Sonnino was the only survivor from her family. She wrote her memoir for her daughters and it was only published after her death in 1999.

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