We’d parked our car in corso Matteotti. Under a fastidious rain we walked, rather aimlessly, towards via Roma. My feeling of despondency, due to the realisation that I’d started forgetting the streets of a city I’d lived in for five years, was compounded by the irritating double standards of the city council, for whom Saturday was a non-working day as far as public offices were concerned, but damn well wasn’t when it came to paying for parking.
We were walking along one of those streets built in gentler times when nobody checked that the city wasn’t going to break the 3% ratio between deficit and local GDP. A double row of trees. Ornate buildings that, with a healthy dose of imagination, could pass for Parisian. Big slabs of stone acting as pavements. A Juvarran splendour, drenched in rainwater. Amongst all this understated opulence – not for nothing Turin’s official motto was esageruma nen, thou shalt not exaggerate– something was out of place. Something on the pavement glittered gold.
A Stolperstein. Literally “stumbling blocks”, they are little brass plaques, no larger than the average porphyry cobblestone that is used in so many Italian cities, made by German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate the victims of Nazism. Each of them tells the name, and brief story, of one life taken by an ideology that thought some men worthier than others. Polite, unobtrusive, they are a growing army, 66,000 strong, sticking out of sidewalks, doorways and alleys all around Europe, from Spain to Russia, from Norway to Greece, shyly pointing out that, once, one man, one woman, one child lived here. I’d seen one before in Erzsébetváros, Budapest, but didn’t know that they existed in Italy as well. And, frankly, why not; whilst it’s true that Mr Demnig dedicated some to Italian soldiers deported to Germany following the Armistice, it’s not as if we’d ever been squeaky clean when it came to the main victims of the Nazi murderous folly.
To see how dirty we were, one just had to look at Trieste’s main square, piazza Unità d’Italia. There’s a plaque, there, to commemorate the time when Mussolini soiled its memory by announcing, there, the publishing of the Leggi per la difesa della razza, or Laws for the defence of the race. It was September 18th, 1938. It’d been less than two years since Rome had gone to bed with Berlin and finally Mussolini, who had at that time a Jewish lover, decided to give in to his new best friend’s prodding.
Banned were marriages between Jews and “Aryans”. Jews couldn’t employ “Aryans”. The civil service, public companies, banks and insurers couldn’t employ Jews and if they had, they had to fire them. Jews couldn’t be journalists, teachers, directors of universities, couldn’t serve in the army, couldn’t own businesses of public relevance or properties above a certain value. Jewish kids could attend non-Jewish schools only if there weren’t enough of them to set up their own school; finally families were banned from certain, high-end, shops. Ninety-six university professors had to give up their jobs, some of them fleeing overseas. Italy lost two future Nobel prize laureates such as Franco Modigliani (economy) and Enrico Fermi (physics; Fermi wasn’t Jew, but his wife was), and countless more smart people.
At the start of hostilities, in 1940, internment camps for Jews were set up. Some 40,000 were placed in large tent-cities, under armed supervision. At that time Italy hadn’t joined Hitler’s obsession for a final solution, and no deportations to Germany had taken place; in fact, in several occasions the Italian army had refused to give up Jews, in France and in the Balkans, to the SS. This was all to change, though, come the September 1943 Armistice.
Whilst the South – and the largest camps of interned Jews – were being liberated by the advancing Allied forces, upon the North descended the German army. Hitler had long harboured doubts on his southern ally, and his army had prepared a plan, Operation Achse, to invade Italy. A puppet regime, the RSI – acronym for Repubblica Sociale Italiana, Italian Social Republic – was born, with Mussolini once again at its head, albeit only nominally. Here, the gloves were off: on November 11th, ’43, Mussolini announced that Jews were “an enemy nationality”. Extermination was firmly on the cards.
The first mass arrests had already begun, notably in Rome on October 16th, but from December 1st every prefecture got the order to arrest every single Jew in their territory. More than 8,000 were captured and imprisoned, to be then transferred in Italy’s lagers: Borgo San Dalmazzo, Fossoli, the Risiera di San Sabba, and Bolzano’s transit camp. Thence, freight trains would bring the Italian Jews to Poland. 6,800 made the journey, only 837 came back. None of these camps were mentioned in my high school history book.
Who was Gino Voghera? we wondered looking at his humble Stolperstein under the rain of corso Matteotti, himself a victim of Fascism.
Voghera is a town in Lombardy, in that bit of the region straddling south of the Po river and thus obviously called Oltrepo. It’s one of those places for which, in my region, the neologism paesone is used: not a village anymore, but not yet a city. And Gino? A rather old-fashioned name, quite apt for a man I imagined wearing a tie every day, smart trousers, a thin moustache and thinning hair combed backwards with the help of a little Brylcreem. I could see him exiting the gate of that smart building in corso Matteotti, back then named corso Oporto, to run some errands or for a quick glass of bicerin. Until that day of March, 74 years almost to the day from the moment where we found his Stolperstein. No, Gino Voghera hadn’t had the time for a quick bicerin then.
I had a mental image, but who was, really, Gino Voghera?
I did what anyone else would’ve done, and that was Googling his name. The first hit, from the CDEC – Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, a foundation collating and cataloguing recent Jewish documentation and history – showed a rather dapper man in uniform.
Gino Voghera, a short description said, had been a military man. He served in the Army as an Artillery lieutenant during the Great War, working for the State for 10 years as a soldier. He’d been born in Padova, Veneto, in 1889, son of Benedetto Voghera and Anna Salom. He had a brother, Ferruccio, and was married with one Gaetana Nejrotti, a surname that couldn’t possibly be more Torinese not even if it tried.
He was arrested in March 1944, the Stolperstein said that. What I didn’t know was that he was sent to the city prison, called Le Nuove, still standing on the corner between corso Vittorio and corso Castelfidardo. The jail is now a museum and offices, I’d been there. Thence, he was moved to Fossoli and, finally, on August 2nd 1944, he climbed aboard train no. 14. On August 6th, four days later, the train pulled over at Auschwitz. Gino Voghera never got out. So didn’t his brother Ferruccio. Of the 152 Jews that the CDEC recorded being on train no. 14, only 11 returned.
Benito Mussolini, on a day in November 1943, called the Italian Jews “enemies”. This enemy, as Gunter Demnig’s Stolperstein showed, was a 50-something man called Gino, who had spent 10 years of his life serving the very state that was to betray him.