“They called us Maccaroni, pasta eaters…”. The Integration of Italian Jews in the Nazi Camps
by Bieke Van Camp
The aim of this paper is to contribute, through the combination of lexicometric and qualitative analyses, to the study of the unofficial relations of domination conveyed by different forms of interaction in the Nazi camps. By using Italian testimonies, this article will try to shed light on the hierarchical dynamics that developed in the camps, in order to comprehend the particular difficulties related to integration and survival. The testimonies of Italian Jews show indeed that there were many varying forms of stereotypes that arose within the concentration and extermination camps, some originating within the community of those imprisoned on racial grounds, others developing within other categories or groups of prisoners. In the first case, stereotypes are generally based on nationality, language and seniority of imprisonment.
The first image that comes to mind when describing other individuals is related to the idea of the category to which each of the individuals is connected2. It can refer as much to nationality, to ethnic or religious groups, as to the function that the individual occupies in the given society. In the Nazi concentration and extermination camps this is no different: in testimonies, co-detainees are first of all identified as Poles, Italians, Jews, political prisoners etc. and to a lesser extent as doctors, guards and so on. These basic collective representations thus have a considerable impact on the social identity of the deportee and, conversely, on the image he has of his co-detainees. In this sense, these images affect the relationships between groups and their members,3 which in most cases lead to stigmatization and to relations of dominance. Subsequently, we can ask what origins these representations have and how they are translated during the concentration camp experience as well as in post-war testimonies. This implies considering the concentration camps as a recomposed society and heterogeneous ensemble of social sceneries.4
After an explanation of the sources and methods applied to accomplish this study5, I consider the concentration camp society and the groups that are likely to assume a dominant position within it: a typology of informal/tacit hierarchies in the concentration camps and the place of Italians in them are studied. Indeed, historiography6 has shown how Jews of different origins, crowded together in extreme living conditions, don’t necessarily form a homogeneous group. Many historians7 and former deportees already demonstrated how language – or language proximity –, the number of deportees per country (minorities or majorities in the camps), and seniority of imprisonment are important factors in shaping the individuals’ integration in the camps. However, I argue that establishing a corpus of testimonies based on solid criteria as well as a lexicometric approach could validly contribute to this research field. In this regard, this article explores the prejudices elaborated by other groups concerning Italian Jews as well as the stereotypical images / discourses developed by Italian deported Jews on co-prisoners from other countries. The goal is to understand the hierarchical dynamics in the camps in general, in order to comprehend the particular difficulties related to the integration and survival in the concentration camps, as described in Italian testimonies.
About the sources: Shoah testimonies
The analysis of testimonies of Shoah victims as historical sources should make it possible to reveal concrete social scenes.8 We consider as testimony any document exposing a sufficiently long experience “to provide an evolutionary image9” of the latter. Thus any object or speech capable of transmitting an experience of the actor (necessarily an eye witness10 who has assisted in an active or passive way to the related experience) can be analyzed. The truth of the testimony rests in this case on the confidence of its receiver.11 Moreover, the will to analyze social dynamics and logics, rather than events (characterized by dates and places), should make it possible to go past the debates concerning the truthfulness or falsehood of the testimonies.12
The sources - testimonies - are extremely abundant and differ according to their nature, the time of their writing and / or recording, but this does not make them incompatible. Indeed, taking into account testimonies of a diverse nature (testimonial narratives, oral testimonies, letters etc.), induces different kinds of difficulties or limits and their variety within the corpus is therefore important. Due to the large quantity of sources available, a central question to this research regards the selection of the eye-witness accounts.
Quantitative methods: prosopography and lexicometry
First of all it is necessary to determine the parent population (according to 3 main criteria) of the corpus of testimonies. We have thus targeted the Jews (1) who survived deportation from Italy (2) and who have testified (3) on their concentration camp experience in the aftermath of the war. The methods of selection of the witnesses in the analyzed corpus are based on the model of the French socio-histoire (both a qualitative and quantitative approach) and on the practice of microhistory.13
A privileged “tool” in socio-histoire is biography14 and its inclusion in a global prosopographic study (through the construction of a database) of the considered corpus of testimonies.15 Therefore, the corpus built according to as many criteria as possible, has to contain a wide variety of Jewish deportee profiles (to get as close as possible to the criteria of a sampling-model with good statistical properties reflecting all the different deportee realities of the chosen parent population). The age, social background, education, places of birth, data related to the deportation (trains, camps etc.), and aspects related to the testimonies themselves (date, place, nature, etc.) should therefore be taken into consideration. In other words, the corpus of individuals and their testimonies was the object of a quantitative prosopographic study for the purpose of scientific description (which makes it possible to consider who speaks, when they speak and from which background they speak16), before being subjected to qualitative analyses.
Another operating tool to this study is lexicometry, which was implemented using the TXM desktop software.17 The contribution of lexicometry helps to quickly grasp the over- or underemployment of words18 in the testimonies, and above all it allows to carry out a great number of calculations starting from the testimonies’ plain text. In this study we use in particular calculations of co-occurrences (the simultaneous presence of two or more words or lemma19 in the same phrase), and of concordances (allowing to determine the context in which the lemma is mobilized) in order to avoid losing the meaning behind the words/sentences/ etc. when studying representations, this tool has several advantages, but it is necessary, however, to be aware of some of its limitations. The corpus must indeed be digitized, which can be time-consuming (and which explains why I will use a limited corpus for the lexicometric analyses). Also, the texts included in the corpus must be fairly homogeneous (in size, date, nature, etc.) so as not to distort the results. Furthermore, by endowing lexicometric analyses with an explanatory value, the risk is to lose sight of the actors (the witness, the interlocutor, the situation) behind the quantified words or lemma. In this sense, lexicometry makes it possible to test hypotheses, but is not sufficient in itself. If quantitative methods do allow to test hypotheses (trough factor analysis or lexicometric analysis); a qualitative approach alone can provide contexts, sense. Obviously, the results of both types of analyses can be considered representative only of the experiences of the individuals included in the analyzed corpus.20
Description of the analyzed corpus of testimonies
For the purpose of this article, a group of 40 witnesses21 was selected: initially, I took into consideration all works written from a first-person perspective published by Italian editors22 and, as to include individuals coming also from lower classes, I then selected witnesses included in different oral testimonies collections.23 The final corpus therefore presents the following characteristics24: there are 17 men and 23 women (figure 1), the oldest at the time of deportation is 44 years old and the two youngest 11 years old (the age groups are then present in a balanced way; figure 2). A fifth of the witnesses were born in Lazio (especially in Rome), another fifth in Piedmont, followed by the other Italian regions. It should be noted that 2 witnesses were born and deported from the Aegean island of Rhodes (under Italian rule at the time) and 2 others from areas of present-day Croatia (in particular the town of Fiume/Rijeka). Almost a quarter of the individuals were born abroad and settled later in Italy, often fleeing earlier racial persecution in these countries (notably Poland and Austria). The different “social classes25” in which we have ranked individuals according to their symbolic capitals26 (e.g. level of study and profession) are present rather equally: the working class represent almost a quarter of the corpus; the intellectual fractions and the petty bourgeoisie about a third (figure 3). This starts from the desire to give the floor to doctors as well as to the most modest workers.
For the purpose of lexicometric analyses, we had to fall back on a more limited corpus of digitized testimonies, which make up a homogeneous ensemble. Indeed, the corpus has to be homogeneous (length of the testimonies; date; etc.) in order to obtain relevant results.27 The corpus is formed by 11 archival transcriptions originating from the collection of the Piedmontese Institute for the History of the Resistance and of the Contemporary Society [Istituto Piemontese per la Storia della Resistenza e della Società Contemporanea],28 which in the 1980s created the Piedmontese Deportation Archives [Archivio della Deportazione Piemontese, ADP].29 It should be noted that this was a regional initiative, which gathered testimonies of political and racial deportees resident in Piedmont at the time of interviews.30 This archive is made up of 219 testimonies, recorded on audio cassettes, collected between 1982 and 1985. Within our corpus 11 individuals, 3 men and 8 women, testified in this manner: these testimonies are therefore subjected both to qualitative and lexicometric analyses. To that end, we have eliminated the interviewers’ questions from the text, so to take into account only the witnesses’ discourses. It should be noted as well that different interviewers were in charge of the testimonies: if the interviewers give information about what they know in the wording of their questions, the indications given by the latter may lead the witness "to complete his/her perceptions and even to rectify them.31” This bias or filter has to be considered at all time when interpreting the results of the lexicometric analyses. Furthermore, these witnesses represent a fairly unbalanced sample in relation to the overall corpus, as can be seen in the present figures (1; 2; 3; 4): women, upper class individuals and elder deportees are indeed overrepresented.
From the point of view of the concentration camp experience, the two witnesses who were interned for the longest time in the camps were arrested in October 1943; The one who was arrested the latest was arrested in August 1944: the duration of their experiences varied therefore between approximately 18 and 8 months. Most of the individuals were deported through the Fossoli transit camp to the Auschwitz camps,32 and 2 (those from mixed marriages) to Ravensbrück. In the camps these individuals were "selected" for the most diverse forced labor commandos (figure 4): exterior forced labor; factory forced labor; favored interior commandos (kitchens, Kanada...); specialists (doctors, nurses, translators ...) and other privileged roles (Kapos, Blockälteste, ...). If those working in exterior forced labor commandos and factories account for 43% of the present corpus, those who have occupied privileged “functions” and specialists account for 18%.
Finally, regarding the act of testifying, we have consulted a total of 84 testimonies (on average 2 testimonies per witness): 51% of the testimonies in the corpus are published works, with or without the bias of a second person (archivist, historian, journalist…), whereas oral testimonies arising from the important moments of archival collection represent 45% of the testimonies, to which are added a few declarations and letters. It can be noted that only 9 testimonies (representing a quarter of the individuals) is written before 1947 (figure 5). Indeed, in the attempt to establish a corpus that is balanced according to the social backgrounds of the witnesses, we have included testimonies covering a large time interval (1945-2016), as the published testimonial accounts in the first years following Liberation are almost exclusively written by individuals coming from the upper classes.
The categorization of the deportees
The categorization of prisoners in itself acts as a means of hierarchization. Moreover, the insignia of these categories had to be visible on the jackets of the deportees: they were thus categorized/stigmatized as much in the eyes of the SS as amongst the other prisoners. The green triangles (common law criminals) occupy, in general, the official hierarchical functions, which reinforces them in a position of strength in the camps (even outside these roles). However, struggles for informal power are well documented:33 if internal harmony is ensured when each member (or category) accepts the status that has been assigned to him, the opposite on the other hand can produce internal violence and conflict.34 To assign different statutes to prisoners, and thus stigmatize them, acts therefore as an instrument of social control.
As historiography has shown, Jewish deportees were to be found at the bottom of the social structure. The analysis of co-occurrences with the lemma “anti-Semitic / anti-Semite(s) / antisemitism” in the ADP corpus shows that antisemitism is particularly present in the comments coming from Polish35 codetainees. Settimia Spizzichino recalls in her published testimony:
“As soon as I could, I went taking a walk in the camp in search of some Italians. I was informed about three sisters from Trieste who had recently arrived. I went to see them and we began to speak. They said they were political internees and asked: ‘And you, who are you? What did you do?’ I replied, ‘I haven’t done anything, I am here only because I am a Jew.’ It seemed that they did not understand and I tried to explain myself; I related the raid, the journey, the deportation. ‘But that means you are Jude!’ - said the tallest. ‘Jude is what the Germans say - I exclaimed taken aback - I am Jewish!’ They looked at me with disgust. ‘We do not want to have anything to do with the Juden.’ I went away filled with rage and shame ... shame on their behalf, the ‘politicians.’”36
Settimia Spizzichino, deported from the area of the ancient ghetto of Rome,37 was clearly seeking to find deportees with whom she would be able to speak Italian and reconnect, through language and conversations, with her life from before deportation.38 If the deportees thus tried to organize themselves in national groups,39 also to look for potential support or ‘allies’ in order to survive, it must be said that the nationality of the deportees goes hand in hand with a whole series of prejudices.
Starting points: lexicometric analyses
The table of the hierarchical lexicon of nouns and adjectives40 present in the ADP corpus (figure 6) demonstrates indeed the importance given in the testimonies of Italian deportees to the different nationalities present in the camps.
If the lemma “German(s)” [tedesco/a/hi/he] and “Russian(s)” [russo/a/i/e] occupy a prominent place in the testimonies (representing more occurrences than words related to concrete objects/situations of everyday life: hunger, thirst, forced labor, etc.41), this is explained in the case of the lemma “German(s)” by the fact that the word embodies both the immediate perpetrators / actors of the persecution and all evil related to persecution in general. Furthermore, the lemma “German(s)” returns as much in the beginning of the different testimonies describing episodes related to the persecutions in Italy than in the end of the testimonies, describing the feelings of the witnesses towards “the Germans” in the aftermath of the war. In the case of the lemma “Russian(s),” its high frequency of occurrence can be explained by the fact that for most witnesses the Russians embody liberation (they are also referred to during the concentration camp experience as a temporal reference point: When the Russians will be here…, Tomorrow the Russians will come… We can hear the Russian [bombing]). The use of both “German(s)” and “Russian(s)” in the testimonies, goes therefore well beyond their immediate meaning, i.e. nationalities (one representing the oppressor, and to a greater extent deportation in itself, the other liberation and hope).
On the other hand, the lemma “Pole(s)/Polish” [polacco/a/i/e], figure 7, occupies a prominent place in the same list. It must be said here that these nouns refer both to the language and nationality, which in some way distorts the results (the hierarchical list of lexicon without lemmatization sheds light on this point; figure 1342).
If we study the case of the lemma “Pole(s)/Polish” more closely (insofar as Polish is the nationality / language of which the image emerges fairly unanimously after a qualitative study of the testimonies), several hypotheses can be tested. In order to avoid losing the meaning of the words, we first carried out some concordance analyses (figure 8).
From the table of concordances, we have proceeded to the description of different lexical fields (figures 8 and 9).
The first three “categories” represent statements in which the lemma is mobilized to describe a rather negative episode. In the category “language barriers” the lemma “Pole(s)/Polish” is used signifying the Polish language [polacco]; the statements describe above all the incomprehension (or isolation) related to the lack of language knowledge. The lemma is then associated 19 times with the hierarchical organization (official and unofficial) within the Lager (the preeminent place of the Polish, and the abuse of their status, is especially discussed). The third category assembles a heterogeneous ensemble of other episodes presenting a negative value (“The Poles with whom we were hated us ... / The Poles were anti-Semites above all .../ The Polish prisoners bullied the other prisoners…”).
In the corpus of testimonies, a rather positive value is attributed to the Poles or to Polish language, when the deportee relates punctual episodes, describing other inmates (in this case it’s only the singular “Pole” and not the plural form “The Poles” that is used): “There was a very competent Polish doctor who took care of us... / He was a very nice Pole ....” This goes to show that in order to describe co-deportees in testimonies, it’s to their nationality the witnesses refer. This explains partly the importance attributed to lemma related to nationalities in testimonies dealing with deportation.
Finally, the category of “neutral values,” refers on the one side to the civilian world (as the majority of witnesses are interned in camps in Poland, the sentences concern civilian workers as well as resistance networks outside of the camps43); on the other side, and to a greater extent, the lemma “Pole(s)/Polish” can be used in enumerations of different nationalities present in the camp / the block /….
The presence of other nationalities (the French and the Czechoslovaks for example) in close proximity to the word “Poles” is attested as well by the study of co-occurrences (figure 10).44
We have investigated the co-occurrences starting from the word “Poles” and not from the lemma “Pole(s)/Polish) (which means the Polish language is not taken into account here). If the presence of the word “Poles” (f. and m.) in the table could be surprising at first sight, this can be explained by the fact that the word “Poles” often returns in the same sentence or at the beginning or end of the next or former sentence. The fact that these are transcriptions of oral testimonies induces a lot of repetitions.
It is interesting to note, that the word “Poles” is most often associated with the word “Germans,” the two nationalities representing frequently the hierarchy of the Lager (indeed the two words often don’t take up their primary and proper meaning of “nationality,” but slide to mean Kapo, “guards,” SS, or in any case privileged prisoner). It’s in this same sense that the words “Kapo” and “bosses” are co-present in the statements containing the word “Poles.” Moreover, the word “Poles” seems to be associated with the more advantageous categories of prisoners: political prisoners and professional criminals. On the other hand, the word “civilians” reflects the fact that the civilian workers in the camps were mostly Polish.
Finally, the word “anti-Semites” is used only in connection to the word “Poles.” This, again, implies a representation of violent (physical and symbolic) behavior of the “Poles” towards the Jewish (and Italian Jewish) witnesses. Moreover, when the co-occurrence search window is widened,45 the words “authority” and “Lager” can be added to the table, both referring to a prominent position of the Poles in the tacit hierarchy of the camps.
The problems related to the difficult comprehension of the language spoken in the camps come back when one also takes into account the verbs:46 the verb capire [to understand] and above all its form capivamo [we understood] results to be the most co-present. To go further into this analysis, we consider the words that co-occur with the words capivo [I understood] and capivamo; in both cases the word non [didn’t] has the highest number of co-frequence (and is repeated more than once in the same sentence: 17 co-occurrences with capivamo, whereas the latter is present only 13 times in the ADP corpus). The noun “angoscia [fear / anguish] has the highest co-occurrence score.47
From this case study, through the prism of lexicometric analyses, the two sets of representations insistently associated with the term “Polish/Poles” are, on the one hand, hierarchical organization, on the other, linguistic barriers. Each of these fields subsequently refer to images of anguish, fear, and isolation. Indeed, relationships of dominance can often be linked to language.
Language as a factor of isolation and hierarchization
If German is considered the official language in the Nazi KL, Polish is attested as the “second” language of orders: as the linguist Giovanna Massariello Merzagora points out, the appellation of certain functions occupied by prisoners (Blockova - Blockowa: Polish variant designating the function of Blockälteste, “dean of the block” in women’s camps) is a good indicator on the hierarchical superiority of the Poles.48 In the ADP corpus subjected to lexicometric analyses, the strongest co-occurrence score of the word “language” (7), apart from functional co-occurrences (auxiliary verbs / pronouns) is to be found in the co-frequency of the word “Polish.” This underlines yet again the importance of Polish in the camps. Moreover, the linguistic affinity between Slavic languages and Polish, between Germanic languages and German, provides a greater possibility of exchange between them. Therefore, Italian prisoners who did not master a foreign language, making them initially incapable of understanding orders, were first mistreated by the SS and Kapos, and then felt isolated from their fellow prisoners.49
Leonella Jona Bellinzona,50 interned in Ravensbrück and a teacher in primary education in the post-war period, points out the problem of understanding languages:
“I actually tell all the students and mothers I know, “Without diploma, but languages...” Because if you know some languages, you already have a great advantage over others, on the other hand we... [...] whilst the Russians knew German, the Poles knew French and German, we were absolute waste, we found ourselves in tragic conditions, our condition as Italians has been tragic. Contempt everywhere.”51
Language, or rather, the ability to communicate with others (in this case with fellow prisoners, privileged deportees, guards), is indeed one of the (only) pillars that makes it possible to regain a social bond. Moreover, the guards did not hesitate to isolate the newly arrived deportees as much as possible. Leonella Jona Bellinzona remarks: “Then, in the blocs, they managed to put together people from a nationality that didn’t amalgamate with the other nationalities.”52
Isolation is one of the techniques of humiliation theorized by the sociologist Erving Goffman.53 Feeling isolated tends to prevent redefining one’s own role, as no point of comparison to others can be found. Therefore, if the isolation from the outside world, where the deportee left all his points of reference, constituted a clear break and identity crisis, being isolated in the camps constituted an utter crisis. At an encounter between Teodoro Ducci54 and Achille, another Italian deportee, Achille expressed to Teodoro his condition of isolation:
“You see Teo, in my Kommando there are Ukrainians, Poles and Hungarians. Nobody knows a word, I do not say of Italian, but at least French. We understand each other with this mixture of German and Yiddish which is the official language here, if one can say it like that. I live in an obsessive solitude. There is no one I can communicate with. You know what it means not understanding and not being able to exchange a word with those that surround you day and night? I am alone in a heterogeneous crowd of which I am excluded. We have in common only the fact that we’re Jews and deported. Believe me, it’s scary. I’m going crazy. I haven’t heard a kind word in days. Here, in this Babel, they make me die a slow death. I have no one to help me. I’m afraid I won’t be able to pull through.”55
“Babel” (from the Hebrew verb בבל, BBL, “to confuse”), is indeed an image that returns in several testimonies.56 Babylon becomes the first society provided with a social hierarchy, based on the dispersion of languages and therefore on the division of its subjects. In the testimony of the translator Teodoro Ducci, who had received a religious education, the reference to the Tower of Babel embodies the impossibility of communication and thus mutual help between deportees. Above all, the quotation shows how the knowledge or understanding of languages in the camps was necessarily linked to hierarchical organization.57 This is also what Liliana Segre reports: “In the factory we were almost all Western Europeans: Dutch, Belgian, and many French women. It was a Babel of languages which, intermingled, made the outcome extremely difficult. There were also prisoners from Eastern Europe who spoke Yiddish and were therefore fraternized by a common destiny.”58
As these witnesses testify, among the Jewish community of the East (Ashkenazi Judaism) the spoken language is very often Yiddish, conveying a certain sense of common belonging and common destiny. The chemist, Primo Levi, analyses the isolation and stigmatization of Italian Jewish deportees, through the prism of the Yiddish language, in an interview of 1982:
“We were rejected, we Sephardic Jews or Italians anyway, because we did not speak Yiddish, we were foreigners to..., foreigners at first to the Germans as Jews, and foreigners also to the Eastern Jews because we weren’t like them, because we didn’t have, they had no idea that [another form of] Judaism existed... Many, many Polish Jews of low extraction were annoyed by this fact: “But you’re a Jew? Redest keyn jiddisch, bist ni keyn jid” they say, I don’t know if you understand. Redest keyn jiddisch, bist nit keyn jid,59 as Yiddish is the adjective that derives from jid, and jid meaning Jude, which means Jewish, it is almost a syllogism, it means a Frenchman who does not speak French. A Frenchman who doesn’t speak French is not French. A Jid who doesn’t speak Yiddish is no Jid. [...] We Italian Jews, we felt particularly defenseless, we and the Greeks were the last among the last; I would say we were in even worse conditions than the Greeks, because the Greeks were in large part accustomed to discrimination, there was anti-Semitism in Thessaloniki, they had built their weapons [...]. But the Italians, the Italian Jews so used to being considered on equal terms with all the others, were truly without shells, naked as an egg without shell.”60
In her testimony, published in 1947, Liana Millul61 accentuates the same idea: “The Italian Jewish deportee was in a position of inferiority and isolation, not only because of the hatred of the SS and the Kapos, but also because he/she was unable to communicate with the other Jews. In the camp, at once, a strong feeling of solitude grew in all of us.”62
Language therefore does convey, more than a mere coded statement, relations of dominance. A Jew of the East, who found himself being part of a majority or who has arrived previously in the camps, demonstrated through the exchanges of speeches that he dominated over his interlocutors. This goes hand in hand with a sense of legitimacy to dominate. In the case of the quotation of Primo Levi, the eastern deportees did not speak only in Yiddish to their interlocutors, but in a mixture of Yiddish and a language in which the interlocutor is able to grasp the meaning of the discourse. In this way, the relation of dominance is more concealed from a linguistic point of view (the one who feels himself dominant descends at the level of the one he thinks he’s dominating). By denying this relationship of domination, the dominant emerges only reinforced in his position. This is an example of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the “strategy of condescension.”63
The other quoted examples demonstrate, on the contrary, that the deportees able to speak in Yiddish did not necessarily make an effort to be understood and thus exclude the minority of deportees incapable of understanding. This means they obliged the latter to adapt. The language spoken by the Italian deportees, or rather their lack (in general) of linguistic knowledge placed them therefore automatically below prisoners from other nationalities or Jewish traditions: having had to succeed in an effort of acculturation to maximize their chances of survival (which equals not being isolated), the Italians necessarily underwent a stronger selection.64 This is what we find as well in the testimony of Alberto Sed in particular, where the deportee receives the punches intended for another prisoner who, by his knowledge of German, knew how to put the blame on Alberto instead of him.65
It must be said, however, that the foreign witnesses or those coming from Rijeka (annexed to Italy in 1924) in the present corpus, knew more (Slavic) languages and were far less isolated. In addition, as far as the hierarchical and advantaged commandos go, these individuals seem to have had more chances to occupy privileged positions in the Nazi Camps (figure 11). This demonstrates how the lack of linguistic capital can be a factor of isolation or stigmatization and, conversely, the knowledge of languages a possible weapon of survival.
Nationality and stereotypes
The isolation of the Italian minority of Jews in the camps (6 806 deported individuals66), was soon accompanied by stereotypical images or abusive language coming from other Jewish deportees. In the Italian testimonies these stereotypes return many times and isolate the witnesses further. Leonella Jona Bellinzona recalls:
“The Italian woman, who entered the camp between the end of 1943 and 1944, when she entered the camp, found herself even below the sub-proletariat, if it’s possible to express it this way, because she arrived in the camp being considered with an evil eye by the Germans, who were calling us Badoglio and who spitted when we passed. Considered with an evil eye by the other inmates and surrounded by their terrible mistrust; they called us Mussolini fascist and, besides, a complete ignorance of the language.”67
The insults that the Italians have most endured are undoubtedly those referring to the contemporary political situation in Italy: the use of the names Badoglio68 and Mussolini were indeed very frequent. It is interesting to note here that in the ADP corpus, looking for co-occurring words with the word “Germans,” the word “Badoglio” emerges three times.69 The oral testimony of Elena Recanati Foà,70 who was interned in Birkenau, Bergen Belsen, Braunschweig and Ravensbrück, is particularly explicit on the matter:
“And then I have to say, perhaps because I was used to being persecuted, persecuted as a Jew, persecuted also during the captivity... when I was in the hands of the Germans ... the Germans persecuted me because I was Jewish, but the Poles, with whom we were, also hated us, because we –Italians- were not Jews like them, we did not understand Yiddish, we had a different mentality, we didn’t feel equal; so we were already detested by the other Jews who considered us different. And in addition, the Germans hated us because we were Italians. Among the Germans they said: “Italienen, ah Badoglio.” When I was liberated by the Russians: “Italianska, ah Mussolini.” It was never ok, I had always been persecuted for one reason or another, for being Jewish, for being Italian, for being a woman.”71
Apart from the insults related to the Italian political situation, there are also much more “common” insults to be found in Italian testimonies, such as Macaroni, and its variants Maccheroni, Macarrone (litt. “pasta eaters”). This is the case in particular in the testimony of Bruno Piazza:72
“I had already experienced during the day how the Italians (and also the Greeks) were treated worse than all the others by the Poles. We were a small minority and they despised us. ‘Taliano?’ they asked with a sarcastic smile. ‘Maccaroni?’ and they softened the ‘r’ so that they seemed to say ‘Maccagioni.’ ‘Spaghetti,’ I replied without losing my composure, ‘Tagliatelli in sauce and tortellini from Bologna, quite the opposite of your dishwater,’ they didn’t understand all of it, but they realized that I laughed at them and repeated seriously: ‘Taliani maccaroni, greco bandito.’ 73 The company of these stupid and wicked people, scum of the backstreets of Cracow, Warsaw, Lviv, and Lublin, was indeed one of the innumerable torments of the camp.”74
These elements are present in testimonies of deportees interned in different Nazi concentration and extermination camps (in particular Ravensbrück, Bergen Belsen and various Auschwitz camps), which means that they were reproduced independently in different places. The fact that common insults of all times like Maccaroni did find their way into the extreme living conditions of the Nazi concentration camps, goes to show that a sort of normality does find its way within these particular social spaces.
Length of internment in the concentration and extermination camps
There was yet another inequality among the deportees, accentuated by the policies of deportation in the respective countries: if the Polish and German Jews seemed to be at the top of the scale (among the Jews) it had to do as well with their “Seniority” of imprisonment (those who survive have now exceeded many selections). The intermediate “positions” were then attributed to those who were or deported at an earlier stage, from 1942 onwards (the French for example), or those who understood the languages of the camps more quickly (due to language proximity).
The fact that Italian Jews entered the camps relatively late made the adaptation time “attributed” to them by the other prisoners extremely reduced.75 Indeed, the accounts testify about the lack of understanding of the “old” detainees. Especially in the women’s testimonies, the hatred against the Italians is clear and is mainly due to the fact that the Italians were able to stay much longer in their homes of origin, that they had to endure “less terrible events”: in other words, all those who have not been, at least for a while, in Birkenau did not deserve respect.76
The place of the Italians is, from this point of view, indeed far from being preeminent. Their presence in the camps dating, for the longest, only from October 1943, they found themselves in rather the same conditions as the Jews deported from Greece (deportation being organized from February 1943 for the Jews of Salonica and later for the Greeks of the south). The Italians (and Greeks, for that matter) did not take long, in turn, to assert their seniority on those who arrived later: this is the case in particular with the Hungarians (Hungary being occupied by the Germans on March 12, 1944, deportation was organized, after a stage of ghettoization, from April and until July 1944). If the Poles, in the Italian testimonies we have consulted, had an image of a “violent” people (because of their privileged, hierarchical roles), but were generally respected by the fear they cause and by their ability to have overcome, physically and mentally, so many trials, the Italians soon stigmatized the Hungarians as “Physically degraded, dirty beings.” Dora Klein77 writes how a co-deportee (named Marta), seeing her poorly tended, said: “Calm down then, do your hair and be a little more self-assured, like this you look like a Hungarian”78. Dora Klein continues: “I had to realize to my great regret how the Hungarian Jews didn’t appear to us as victims of a tragic event, but as a symbol of physical degradation.” Giuliana Fiorentino Tedeschi79 explains this change of condition from the bottom of the scale to a middle position: “Ours was an exceptional group. We had left aside the Greeks, too savage, and removed the Hungarians, unbearable and bleating with those plaintive characteristic of their language, and we had constituted a Latin sector.”80 If at the beginning Italian witnesses testify about inferiority or stigmatization, the more their concentration camp experience settled in time, the more their situation normalized.81
The lexicometric concordance analyses of the ADP corpus (figure 12) highlight in this same sense how the lemma “Hungarian(s)” [ungherese/i] is used in the first place for practical reasons (the enumeration of the nationalities present in the barracks, the possible Hungarian origins82 of the witnesses, the description of a prisoner, identified by his nationality: the Hungarian did so, did that...). However, the lemma is used as well to pejoratively designate a group of off-center prisoners (“The Hungarians who were moribund ... / the lamentations of the Hungarians ..”). Unlike the lemma “Pole(s)/Polish,” used by the witnesses in statements indicating a feeling of inferiority, the Hungarians are referred to in a rather condescending way.
In the ADP corpus, which, as said, remains however very restricted, the lemma “Greek(s)” [greco/a/i/che] only occurs a total of ten times. If half of these occurrences relate to the witness’s pre-deportation studies (the learning of ancient Greek in high-school) or to the description of other nationalities in the camps; the other half concerns descriptions with a rather positive value: (e.g. “The Greeks were very human…”).
Through interactions that occur in the Nazi concentration camps, tacit and informal hierarchical relationships did emerge. When two deportees spoke to one another, a political deportee to a Jewish deportee, a Jewish Polish deportee to a Jewish Italian deportee, a deportee who had been in camps for years to a deportee who had only just arrived, they weren’t merely two deportees speaking: through them spoke their social, religious, cultural and political backgrounds and conditions, and more broadly the recent history of persecution and deportation, the general history of Jewish persecutions and diaspora, the history of religious divergences… .83 This study shows that there are as many mechanisms of subordination put in place officially (through the categorization of prisoners for example), as there are, emerging in a “natural” way.
The fact that Italian deportees constituted a minority within the camps (due to the fact that they were deported relatively late and that their number was significantly lower compared to other nationalities) had as a result that Italian Jews seem to have been particularly disadvantaged. What emerges from the study of 40 of their testimonies is that Italian Jews often felt isolated and therefore even more stigmatized. Belonging to a minority, or to (an) isolated group(s), which, moreover, in general had poor linguistic capacities, represented an additional symbolic violence. It must be added that as the concentration camp experience settled in time, Italians began to find their place and did not hesitate to stigmatize other groups, in particular through the use of abusive language. This further emphasizes a form of normalization of the life within the camps. I would also argue that the fact that the Italian Jews felt as isolated as their testimonies show, made them connect to one another even more so than other national groups.84
It should also be noted that the witnesses of the corpus that seem particularly sensitive to the questions raised in this paper present rather homogeneous profiles. In 7 out of the 40 testimonies85 we analyzed, an explicit reflection on language, subordination and stigmatization returns predominantly (if in the other testimonies these elements can be present, they are more implicit). These witnesses, four women and three men, all come (except for Elena Recanati Foà86) from the “intellectual fraction” (upper classes) of the mobilized corpus: two of them are teachers; one is a translator; another a lawyer / politician; and finally one doctor and one chemist. The witnesses’ identity (conveyed by a political, social cultural background of origin, or on the contrary by the peculiarities of his/her experience in the camps or in the aftermath of the war) often seems to decide on the central themes of the testimony. In other words, the witnesses would have been more sensitive in their testimony to particular aspects of deportation according to their experiences before, during and after deportation. Thereupon, we must keep in mind that in the corpus on which we have carried out lexicometric analyses, the individuals coming from the upper classes are overrepresented and that the interviews take place 40 years after their concentration camp experiences.
It should be noted as well, that we didn’t get beyond studying informal domination on the scale of groups (Italian Jews), which necessarily implies falling back on generalizations and representations. As in all forms of society, there are even more forms of hierarchization and relations of dominance at the level of individuals, which could be the subject of a more in-depth study.
Bieke Van Camp is currently a PhD-student in Contemporary History at Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France). She recently has been awarded a European Holocaust Research Infrastructure fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation, supervised by Professor Frédéric Rousseau, is entitled The Shoah as a Social Experience and the Deportees as Social Groups. A Socio-historical Comparative Approach to Italian and Dutch-speaking Deportees.
How to quote this article:
Bieke Van Camp, "“They called us Maccaroni, pasta eaters…”. The Integration of Italian Jews in the Nazi Camps", in Miscellanea 2017, eds. Quest Editorial Staff, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.12 December 2017