Italian town commemorates a lost moment in Jewish history

Grugliasco, in northern Italy, was once home to 2,000 Holocaust survivors


In suburban Grugliasco, near Turin in northern Italy, a crowd of almost 100 people gathered earlier this month to commemorate a forgotten chapter of the town’s Jewish history. To loud applause and with a sharp tug, an Italian flag was yanked off a plaque given place of honour in front of a group of municipal and university buildings.

The plaque shows a sepia picture of eight toddlers and tells the story of some 2,000 Holocaust survivors who lived in this former psychiatric hospital from 1945-49 when it was known as Displaced Persons Camp 17.

Four of those children, now pensioners, who had returned to Grugliasco for the ceremony, could scarcely contain their emotion.

Felicia Wax had come from Israel. Her parents, who were cousins, were the sole survivors of their families. “They went home to Romania looking for their relatives and found each other!” she said, strolling with her two daughters past an area of the old hospital now housing sick dogs and a wild boar, part of Turin University’s veterinary section.

Mrs Wax’s parents were two of the 70,000 Holocaust survivors who passed through Italy after the war. They had walked across the Alps to get here.

“My mother always talked about Grugliasco,” said Mrs Wax, “and how, although their lives were hard, the Italians shared everything with them.  Coming here is like closing the circle in the story of our family.”

Peter Tannenbaum, a mathematician who now lives in California, said his parents never talked about their life in wartime Budapest, “but they always talked about Grugliasco. They were very happy here and the experience gave them the ability to look forward to things again.”

Haim Frenkel, from Haifa, added that although he and his Polish-born parents were only here for six months, it had been an “important time” for them. Bubbling with excitement he said: “Grugliasco was a tiny link in the story of my family and of the Jewish people. I am surprised it means so much to people here.”

Roberto Monta, the mayor of Grugliasco, wearing his sash of office, welcomed the guests. At the time he said, the town had a population of only 5,000, so the 2,000 Jews were a major presence. After they left, however, the story of Camp 17 was completely forgotten.

Marie Therese de Palme, the municipal archivist, one of the organisers of the ceremony, discovered what had happened here when she received a request for a birth certificate. She was amazed to discover a forgotten file with the details of 220 survivors. “It was as if the people and their stories were calling out to me,” she said.

 Today, Mayor Monta is proud that Grugliasco takes care of 10 African refugees. “What happened here after the war was a moral lesson,” he said. “The Grugliasco children symbolise the new life that the survivors built here. It is a story of hope. History has to be a dynamic element of the present.”

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