Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre was awarded the Exodus Prize for intercultural cooperation at a moving ceremony in the northern Italian port city of La Spezia on May 11.
Ms Segre was just 13 years old when she was taken from her home in Milan to Auschwitz. Only 25 of the 775 Italian Jewish children deported to the concentration camps survived.
Her father and paternal grandparents were murdered, while her mother died before the war, and Ms Segre endured forced labour and a death march before liberation at Malchow, one of the sub-camps of Ravensbrück.
Presenting the award the mayor of La Spezia Pierluigi Peracchini said Ms Segre was not only a witness to the horrors of the Shoah but in speaking about her experiences had done outstanding work using “historical testimony to counter violence and indifference.”
She was appointed senator for life earlier this year, eighty years after Italy first introduced racial laws that saw her expelled from school at the age of eight. Her family were secular and until this point she had no idea that she was Jewish.
In her acceptance speech, Ms Segre talked of the difficulty of re-integrating into a society that had shunned her. She said it was “impossible to find the words to describe what she had seen” and had not spoken about her experiences as a result.
She described herself as “an injured animal” and “a little girl who came back from hell”, and that no one had understoo.
“I was the one who had to adapt myself to a world that wanted to forget,” she said.
“I started talking after 45 years of silence after the birth of my first grandchild.
“I never talk about hate, but about life and hope.”
In the last twenty years Ms Segre has dedicated herself to talking about the Holocaust. After the ceremony local school children crowded around the 88-year-old asking her to sign her memoirs.
Mr Peracchini said it was vital that history did not repeat itself. There has been rising antisemitism and more racial attacks in Italy, particularly since thousands of migrants came into the country in recent years.
Ms Segre said there needed to be better civic education in schools in Italy and spoke of the pressing need for a law against all forms of racism.
The mayor of La Spezia also announced a competition to build a memorial on the site of the Pagliari Pier, where over a thousand Holocaust survivors went on hunger strike in 1946 after the Royal Navy blocked their illegal immigrant ship from sailing to Palestine where the British authorities had imposed strict immigration quotas.
The city is often known as the “Gateway to Zion” because over 20,000 Holocaust survivors left for Mandatory Palestine between 1945 and 1948.
La Spezia’s role in helping Jews leave for Palestine was all but forgotten in La Spezia until ten years ago, when it was unearthed by journalist Marco Ferrari.
He was one of the founders of the Exodus Prize, which was named after Exodus, the ship that inspired the novel and the Hollywood blockbuster staring Paul Newman.
The Exodus was kitted out in nearby Porto Venere. The story of the hunger strike on the Pagliari Pier inspired the author Leon Uris, who went on the to fictionalise the event setting it in Cyprus.
Ms Segre said that the “survivors had found themselves against the world but not the inhabitants of La Spezia “ and she praised the people of La Spezia for their” humanity and hospitality”.
Rosie Whitehouse is currently researching a book on Holocaust survivors experiences between 1944-48.