John Barruzza 1

John  Barruzza  ABD

Field of Study
Modern Europe, Modern Italy, The Holocaust and Memory

Michael Ebner

Dissertation Title
“Genocide and Indifference: Milano Centrale and the Holocaust in Italy, 1931-2019”

Dissertation Description

My research hinges on the interplay between history and memory. At a public event in Milan a few years ago, Silvio Berlusconi took advantage of an impromptu press conference to tell reporters that Benito Mussolini had done well as Italy’s ruler. Although he acknowledged the deeply antisemitic racial laws as Mussolini’s greatest fault, he softened the blow by insisting that this legislation had only emerged within the context of the Nazi alliance. Had it not been for those meddling – and considerably more powerful – Germans, Italy’s Fascist period would have been spared its antisemitic and racist taint. How is it that the most towering political figure in Italy of the past quarter-century could still openly invoke myths that academics, activists, and even some politicians had done so much to dispel? Inspired by questions like this, my research centers on the relationship between historical events and the ways that they are collectively remembered, forgotten, or obscured.

My dissertation magnifies one node in the vast, complex architecture of the Final Solution to help us better understand the legacy of the Holocaust in Italy. My method is to diachronically pair a historical record of collaborationism with the suppression of this activity in postwar collective memory. Doing so reveals the misrepresentation behind the many self-acquitting myths that emerged in Italy after the war, myths that ranged from national resistance, to collective victimhood, to moral superiority vis-à-vis Nazi Germany, to italiani brava gente (the conviction that Italians are innately good people). Milan’s central railway station is a fitting site for such a study because that is where the history and memory of the Holocaust in Milan reached their climaxes. From December 1943 until January 1945, after central and northern Italy were absorbed into Hitler’s empire, the Nazis and Italian collaborators deported approximately 1,000 Jews, Italian and foreign, from Milano Centrale station. A microcosm of the Holocaust in Italy, the majority of the victims perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau. To keep these operations hidden from public view, the perpetrators staged the deportations in a space unknown to most Italians, a subterranean chamber built for mail shipments. After the war, like elsewhere in Europe, sanitizing master narratives overpowered nuanced historical realities. Knowledge of Italian participation in the Final Solution was suppressed accordingly, even though collaborators had been present at every stage until the deportation convoys crossed Italy’s border. Remaining unknown to most Italians, Milano Centrale’s subterranean space quickly resumed its former function, keeping its secret hidden even from the Milanese who frequented the station. It was not until the turn of the 21st century, after this area had been abandoned, that local Jewish and Catholic groups excavated the memory of the deportations from the buried remains and exposed them to the public. Today, the culmination of this effort, the Shoah Memorial of Milan, sits on the precise track where the Nazis and Italian collaborators assembled the deportations. When Berlusconi made his apology for il Duce, he was speaking from the sidelines at the memorial’s inauguration.

Along with contributing to the small body of non-Italian scholarship that assesses Italy’s role in the Final Solution, my research aids our knowledge of the relationship between the Holocaust and Italy in a number of ways. By bringing to light an important but little-known or forgotten episode in Holocaust and Italian history, my dissertation illuminates how the Nazis and their Italian accomplices carried out the Final Solution in Italy. Used for continuous genocidal operations throughout most of the Nazi occupation, Milano Centrale lends itself especially well to such a study. By drawing extensively on diaries, memoirs, and oral testimonies, I restore the voices of Italy’s Jewish victims, whether they spoke before, during, or after the Holocaust. Victim accounts corroborate Italian collaboration, while survivors discuss the obstacles that they overcame to bear witness, obstacles political, social, cultural, economic, and personal. By extending my analysis into the postwar period and concluding in the present day, I show how the postwar history of Milano Centrale reveals larger patterns in Italy’s reckoning with the Holocaust. From the rapid suppression of the deportations in the early postwar period, to a long and sustained silence over the Holocaust and the question of collaboration, to the creation of a Holocaust memorial that remains off the radar for most ordinary Italians, the history of Holocaust remembrance at Milano Centrale station reflects the history of Holocaust remembrance in Italy. This leads me to conclude that Milano Centrale is not just a site of memory in Italy, but a site of memory contestation. Although the Nazis brought the Final Solution to Italy, the Shoah Memorial of Milan highlights Italian culpability by articulating a narrative of indifference. The product of survivor testimony, this collective counter-memory challenges the hegemonic narratives of the Holocaust that have long held sway in the Bel paese.