It was a refuge for hundreds of child Holocaust survivors. Now it is a museum

The building in the town of Selvino was opened as a museum last week


A museum dedicated to the story of how 800 child Holocaust survivors were cared for in an Italian Alpine ski resort opened its doors on Sunday.

It follows a seven-year campaign to commemorate the stories of the children and those who helped them to put their lives back together between 1945-48 in the town of Selvino, 70 miles northeast of Milan.

A list of the children’s names is displayed in the new museum, while a map shows the route they took across war torn Europe to the safety of Italy.

An organisation known as the Bricha — made up of former partisans, Jewish youth workers and members of the Jewish Brigade, a British army unit recruited in Palestine that went AWOL dedicating their time to helping survivors — helped the children make their way to Selvino.

Menachem Krigel had spent 15 months hiding in a cramped wood store in the home of a Ukrainian peasant with his mother during the Second World War.

In the weeks after the liberation, as the frontline moved back and forth, they were separated. He has no idea what became of her.

In his home in Haifa, he explained how, “orphaned and alone”, he was eventually reunited with a cousin. They were two of the 100 survivors from 10,000 Jews who lived in his Polish hometown of Buczacz, now Buchach in Ukraine.

Together they travelled to Krakow in Poland where they joined a group of survivors intent on making their way to Palestine. The cousins became two of the 70,000 Jewish refugees who flooded into Italy after the war.

The historian Marco Cavallarin rediscovered the story of how the children were cared for in Selvino in 2012. He and his fellow activists hope the exhibition is the first step in what will be a larger project to restore the house where the children lived.

The house, which was a school for children of the fascist elite before the war, is privately owned and in a serious state of disrepair. Its preservation has been partially secured by a grant from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage.

Mr Cavallarin hopes to turn it into a museum of Aliyah Bet, the name given to illegal immigration into the Palestine Mandate, then controlled by Britain.

The children of Selvino made the journey to Palestine on illegal immigrant ships that sailed from northern Italy. Many were interned in detention camps in Cyprus by the British authorities. Mr Krigel and his cousin sailed on a ship known as the Josiah Wedgwood.

The children formed a tight friendship group and many settled on Kibbutz Zeelim near Beer Sheva in southern Israel. They and their children hold regular reunions and have supported the campaign to have their story remembered.

At the museum’s inauguration, Selvino’s mayor Diego Bertocchi said the story spoke of “the solidarity and acceptance” shown by the locals despite the poverty endured in this remote mountain village at the time.

Also at the ceremony was Giovanni Bloisi, a wiry man in his 60s, who completed an epic 1,466-mile bike ride from his home in Varano Borghi, hard on the Italian side of the border with Switzerland, to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in order to highlight the campaign.

Mr Bloisi said: “It is vital in this difficult moment in Europe, with nationalism and antisemitism on the rise, that we remember what happened.” Referring to the orphans, he said: “These kids had seen unimaginable horrors but were welcomed in Italy, cared for, and brought back to life.”

Music played a key part in this rehabilitation. Mr Krigel recalled that he not only sang in a choir, but was taken to see an opera at La Scala in Milan. All the children had their photographs taken and given to them, and for many it was the only memento that they brought with them from Europe to Palestine.

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