In this exhibition, we bring you the story of the many thousands of Holocaust survivors in the dozens of DP camps that operated in Italy after World War II. While these camps served as temporary transit stations for the survivors, it was there that they also started to cope with the enormity of their loss, at the same time preparing themselves for a new chapter in their lives with the help of Jewish soldiers in the Jewish Brigade and Allied forces, emissaries from Eretz Israel and aid organizations.
In July 1943 the Allies landed in Sicily; the invasion in mainland Italy began in September 1943. The Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies on September 8. As a result, Germany invaded Central and Northern Italy, where most Italian Jews resided, and started the deportations. Some 8,000 Jews were deported from Italy, mostly to Auschwitz. Most of the deportees did not survive.
Even before the end of World War II, while the deportations were taking place, Holocaust survivors encountered soldiers from Eretz Israel serving with the British Army - among them soldiers in the Jewish Brigade - in southern Italy which was under Allied control. Italy became a main way-station on the survivors’ journey to Eretz Israel.
At the end of April 1945 the German forces in Italy surrendered. Within three months, 13,000-15,000 Holocaust survivors – partisans and survivors of the ghettos and camps - had arrived in Italy, mainly from Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states.
After the Shoah, the Western Allies established DP camps in the areas of Germany, Austria and Italy where they were in control. Some 250,000 survivors of the concentration camps lived in these camps, as well as survivors who had fled eastward into the USSR and returned after the war.
In the DP camps, the survivors began the process of returning to life, while coping with the enormity of their loss. They were among the first to research the Holocaust and to commemorate its victims. They collected initial testimonies from survivors, gathered written documentation, and held memorial services for the dead. At the same time, they established theaters and orchestras, held sports events, and published more than 70 newspapers and articles in Yiddish. They studied, gained professions, raised families and prepared themselves for a new life.
Between the years 1945-1951, some 70,000 Jewish refugees and displaced persons lived on Italian soil. Approximately 50,000 of them went on to immigrate to Eretz Israel. During those years, there were some 35 DP camps in Italy. In some of the camps there were also non-Jewish refugees. Not all the camps operated over the entire period. There were small camps in which dozens of Jews lived, while others contained thousands of Jews. Yehuda Tobin, a soldier in the Jewish Brigade, wrote the following in June 1945, in a letter that he sent from Tarvisio, Italy:
Have you seen? … the faces of the survivors of the death camps? I have seen them with my own eyes… The hair of the young boys has started to grow; the heads full of stubble look so odd. The special look that I don’t have the power to describe, the facial expression. These boys… they were 10, 11, 12 when the war broke out. They “spent” most of the [last] 5-6 years in ghettos, concentration camps, forests, on the run… Fear grips me when I think about those young boys. What have they not endured? How did they manage to evade death? What kind of youth did they have?
Some 45 hachsharot (pioneer training collectives) and kibbutzim were in operation within and alongside the camps. Martin Hauser, a soldier from Eretz Israel serving in the British Army, who himself arrived there as a refugee from Germany, recalls “bringing” Eretz Israel to the survivors:
In each place, I didn’t only provide material help, I also spoke to the refugees, to the masses that I met in the camps. I told them where I come from – from Eretz Israel… I told them what the Yishuv was doing in Eretz Israel. I told them about building the land, about the kibbutzim and the colonies… that all this was waiting for them, so that they would realize that they had somewhere to go, that people were expecting them, and so that they should have the wherewithal to make the decision about their future - to come to Eretz Israel and live a free Jewish life together with us.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, liberated Italian Jews met soldiers from Eretz Israel serving in the British Army, and Jewish soldiers serving in the Allied armies, principally the US Army. The sight of a British soldier with a Star of David emblazoned on his sleeve evoked powerful emotions. Wherever the Jewish soldiers went, local Jews surrounded them, hugging and kissing them tearfully. On arrival, the soldiers immediately initiated spontaneous relief operations for Italian Jews, and in February 1944 they established The Diaspora Center.
In November 1944, Jewish Brigade soldiers arrived in Italy. When the battles were over, the Brigade was stationed in Tarvisio, close to the border with Yugoslavia and Austria. Delegations left from Tarvisio to Eastern Europe and to DP camps in Austria and Germany, and the Brigade soldiers quickly forged connections with Jewish adolescent survivors from all over Europe. In the short time that the Brigade soldiers operated (May-July 1945), some 15,000 Jews were smuggled out to Tarvisio, where the Brigade provided hospitalization and meals, and the British Army Jewish transport units ferried them to refugee centers in southern Italy.
Reflecting on the encounter with Brigade soldiers, Shmuel Shilo recalls:
We had no faith in adults, because the adults we knew either wanted to kill us, or were Jews who… looked after themselves and not after us. And here, suddenly, were adults, moreover soldiers and officers, who looked after me, and wanted me to live, to learn, to get dressed, who wanted me to eat, who wanted to bring me to Eretz Israel… I don't know if it would have been worthwhile staying alive, or whether I would have stayed alive - if Eretz Israel had not existed. If I hadn’t connected with the Jewish Brigade. Because my first encounter with Eretz Israel, with something totally different, was through the Brigade. I think Eretz Israel saved my life.
Recalling the journey from Austria to Italy, Mordehai Braun relates:
We were in Salzburg and the Jewish Brigade soldiers arrived with trucks to take whoever wanted to go to Palestine… They gathered us together on canvas-covered trucks… and we were on our way. Where were we going? We didn't know, but we drove… through the nights too. We were not allowed to talk. Every time we stopped they gave us coffee and tea to drink, and also something to eat. We stopped at some base and they disinfected us with all kinds of chemicals. We stayed the night, and then we continued… Eventually we reached Modena.
In July 1945, the Brigade soldiers were transferred to Belgium and Holland. Some 150 soldiers were sent to oversee the organizational and educational work in the DP camps, to organize escape stations in Austria and Germany and to help with the preparations for “Aliyah Bet”. Other soldiers focused on acquiring arms for the Hagganah organization. The Diaspora Center gradually transferred the intricate network of educational and relief organizations it had established to the Jewish Agency emissaries.
The Jewish Brigade soldiers left Italy at the end of July 1945. By the following summer the Eretz Israel units in the British Army had been disbanded. The soldiers were discharged from service and left Italy. The British Army ceased to serve as a source for supplies and the financing of activities, and was replaced by the Joint Distribution Committee, UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency), and the Jewish Agency.
Poverty and hunger prevailed in the DP camps, sanitation and medical conditions were poor, and work opportunities were scarce. Many were overcome with despair. The survivors found it hard to be in a "Lager" (camp) situation again. Among some of the camp survivors, work evoked associations of forced labor. The survivors had been stripped of their homeland, were grieving for the past, and lacked a foreseeable future. For many, Eretz Israel was a lifesaving anchor. Demonstrations against the British and hunger strikes were organized in demand for Aliyah to Eretz Israel.
Mordehai Braun recalls his first days in the Modena camp:
They housed us in a military academy in Modena. It was nice, I mean, it was not a hotel… there were all sorts of classrooms. We slept in hallways, in rooms. Somehow they gave out blankets, and that's what there was… Every day we heard yelling: Kapo! Kapo! They found some Jew who had been a Kapo in the camps and they lynched him with beatings. I started working in town and earned money, so I could buy all kinds of things that I wanted, and I could also go to the cinema.
The survivors assumed that Italy was just a way-station pending their emigration; in a survey carried out among more than 9,000 displaced persons in Italy and published in February 1946, almost all expressed the desire to go to Eretz Israel. Already in November of 1945 a conference of DP representatives from all over Italy took place in Rome, with emphasis being placed on survivor rehabilitation and immigration training, in cooperation with welfare and aid organizations. At the same time, a diverse cultural life flourished in the camps: classes for children's education opened, language courses and employment workshops for adults were instituted, as well as lectures and shows. Yiddish newspapers were published, the most important being Baderech (On the Way), the official newspaper of the Jewish refugees in Italy.
Mordehai Greenberg, who was 12 at the time, recalls life in the refugee camp near Rome:
We arrived in Rome, and were taken straight to Cinecittà (film studios in Rome constructed during the Fascist era). This was the city of movies. The entire right side belonged to refugees from Naples, from all sorts of places, from the shellings. The left side was for the more distinguished crowd, all with different nationalities, foreigners who had been thrown into the war. I had friends there from Yugoslavia, France, from many different places. We also studied there. Once, we performed in some Hanukah party that the scouts in Rome organized…We had a room, others lived in a recording studio, so they just put up dividing walls made out of cardboard… One day they took us to the Brigade's show in Rome. [Yossi] Yadin and Hannah Meron were there… 60-70 of us went there by truck. We hardly held onto the ladders. We traveled standing up.
As well as some 35 refugee and DP camps operating in Italy, there were also approximately 45 Hachsharot (Pioneer Training Collectives), where young Holocaust refugees were educated about work ethics and social solidarity, learned Hebrew, received agricultural training, learned about Eretz Israel, and made preparations for Aliyah. Men were trained in arms so that they would be able join the army on arrival in Eretz Israel.
Mordehai Braun recalls joining a kibbutz in Italy:
We drove with some group, they gave us a room inside a house and said that this would be Kibbutz Dror Habonim. I didn't know what a kibbutz was or what Dror Habonim meant, but I went there… They received us nicely. I drew pictures of Herzl and Bialik on the walls there... They were big pictures… Everything was communal, there was a communal kitchen… From there they moved us to Cesaria, where we got organized. There were weddings, and we also – my wife [Dolly] and I – got married in Kibbutz Dror.
For three years, soldiers from Eretz Israel ran a children’s home in northern Italy, near the village of Selvino. This was home for some 800 Jewish children and adolescents who had survived the war. They came from all over Europe: from the camps, the forests, and from the monasteries and other places where they had hidden. The building, known as ”Sciesopoli” had served as a recreational facility for Fascist Italian youths during the war.
Shmuel Shilo, who was a mature and serious 16-year-old when he arrived there, recalls his first days in Selvino:
After two weeks I also began to throw pillows, and I also started dancing with girls, and I also started playing football… It took two weeks, no longer, and we were restored to our original age. I think that one of the main things about Selvino… was that this house – for the time period that we were there, a little more than a year – gave us back our youth… Selvino was a colony of Eretz Israel. True, we spoke Polish, or Yiddish, or Hungarian, but cultural life was conducted in Hebrew.
The home was run by Moshe Zeiri, a member of the Shiller group. A soldier from Eretz Israel in the British Army, he served in the 745 military engineering company that earned the nickname Solel Boneh (Paving and Building) company. The children were aged 4 to 17, many of them orphans. The older children took care of the younger ones. In the first few months there was a food shortage, and supplements arrived from UNRRA, and from the rations of soldiers from the Eretz Israel units.
At the end of 1945 a group of 30 children arrived at Selvino. It was an Achva (brotherhood) group from Lodz, a disciplined group of Hebrew speakers, which had become more unified during the months together in Lodz and during their period of wandering until their arrival at Selvino. Rina Radocki (Nacht) arrived with members of this group and described the place:
He [Moshe Zeiri] received us nicely. He also started to organize a choir for us, and taught me solo songs. I sang “Galilee Night"… There was a real atmosphere of Eretz Israel there. We started to feel good… The house was very beautiful, like a palace for us, very tidy, blue beds and clean, and there was a pool there. After everything we'd been through, we arrived at such a luxurious house…
In Selvino, children started to study and the older teenagers worked maintaining the place. Children were given the chance to connect to their Jewish heritage - they observed Shabbat, celebrated Jewish holidays, learned Hebrew and were trained for their upcoming new life in Eretz Israel. When they arrived there, the Selvino children were absorbed into youth Aliyah groups and in different kibbutzim.
Approximately two-thirds of the Jewish refugees and displaced persons who lived on Italian soil after the war-some 50,000 people-made their way to Israel; the remaining third immigrated to the United States, Australia and Latin America. Only a few thousand remained in Italy.
After the war Italy was placed under the supervision the Allied armies, principally the British Army. The British authorities put pressure on the Italian government not to allow the masses of refugees to enter Italy, and not to permit refugees already in Italy to immigrate to Eretz Israel. In order to enable the unofficial entry of tens of thousands of refugees to Italy, to arrange their stay and make preparations for their illegal immigration to Eretz Israel, contact with various Italian authorities was necessary - without involving the British. Raffaele Cantoni, who was appointed President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, helped enormously in this regard and was in close contact with Yehuda Arazi and Ada Sereni, two of the heads of the Mossad LeAliyah Bet (responsible for the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors to Eretz Israel) who came to Italy. The Italian authorities turned a blind eye to these activities.
The smuggling and illegal immigration network expanded rapidly. Jewish refugees streamed to Italy from all over Europe, on foot or by vehicle, at all hours of the day and night, and in all weathers. The Diaspora Center contacted Jewish centers in European countries where convoys of refugees had gathered, arranged a border-crossing time with each center, and coordinated transfer to kibbutzim and refugee camps in Italy, until the time came for the refugees to board ships for their immigration to Eretz Israel.
Mordehai Braun recalls the industry of forging passports for travelers to Eretz Israel:
I needed to make stamps, and the photo had to be changed… The photo was partially stamped, so I needed to match the stamp's position exactly… These were passports from Palestine, belonging to Poles, English and Dutchmen... We ran this operation as if we were in a consulate. Anybody who came to the base filled out a form… We also recruited art students to help fill out forms and forge clerks' handwriting… There was only a problem when we received, say, many Polish passports, because they [the students] didn't know Polish, and so it happened that sometimes they moved a line, and it came out that he [the refugee receiving the document] was of blonde height and with blue hair…
Itzhak Klein, one of the Selvino children, recalls the journey to Eretz Israel:
The goal – immigration to Eretz Israel. Establishing a kibbutz, building the country… At the end of the day, we are living the dream… They brought us here to the sea shore, a “Ma’apilim” ship was supposed to pick us up there, and then I suppose the whole business was discovered by the British and they took us from there… to Metaponto, next to Bari. There were many Holocaust survivors there who wanted to go to Israel…We were about 70 kids from Selvino with our counsellor Yeshayahu Flamholz who was older than the oldest boys by 2-3 years… Some time later the Haim Arlozorov ship arrived. At night they loaded the immigrants on board and once again we stayed below… Luba Eliav was the ship's officer and he decided to bring us up on deck. We boarded when the ship had almost cast off… The journey was very hard. There was terrible crowding… In the end, we didn't make it to Eretz Israel; we were taken to [the British detention camps in] Cyprus.