Liliana Segre: Holocaust survivor, natural Stoic

(Liliana Segre)

I recently read an interview with Liliana Segre, an Italian Holocaust survivor, in which she comes across as what I would call a natural Stoic. While telling her story of survival at Auschwitz to a group of students in Milan, Segre commented: “Il mio corpo è stato prigioniero, ma la mia mente ha sempre volato. Quella non avevano potuto tenerla prigioniera: io ho sempre pensato con la mia testa.” Which translates to: My body was imprisoned, but my mind has always been free. They could not imprison it: I have always thought with my own head.”

This immediately reminded me of Epictetus:

“‘I will throw you into prison.’ ‘Correction – it is my body you will throw there.’” (Discourses I, 1.24)

I say “natural Stoic” because I have no idea whether Segre actually embraces the philosophy, and almost surely she didn’t when she was sent to Auschwitz as a kid. She was expelled from school in 1938, at age 8, because of the newly passed “racial laws” in fascist Italy. Ironically, her family was secular, and she discovered her Jewish heritage only when she was kicked out of school. Her father, Alberto, hid Liliana at a friend’s house, providing her with false identification. 

But on 10 December 1943 — when she was 13 — she and her father tried to obtain asylum in Switzerland and were turned down. The very next day they were arrested by the fascists. On January 30, 1944, they were both deported from Milan’s central station, headed for Auschwitz. Once arrived, she was separated from her father, who was killed on April 27 of the same year. On May 18th, her paternal grandparents, who had also been deported to Auschwitz, were killed as well. As you can see, callously denying asylum to people whose life is in peril does have direct, dire consequences, which should weigh on the conscience of those who do the denying.

Liliana was forced to work in the Union ammunition factory, which was owned by the German company Siemens. Big business always thrives in wartime. She was liberated by the Red Army on May 1st, 1945. Liliana was one of only 35 Italian children, our of 776, who survived Auschwitz.

Another bit of natural Stoicism in Segre emerges later on in the article, when she recalls liberation day. She saw her former head prison guard discard his clothes and his pistol, mingling in underwear with the former prisoners, heading home to his family. She had a chance to pick up the gun and shoot him, but decided that — despite all her suffering — hatred was not the way. Freedom lies in peace, not revenge.

Seneca would have agreed:

“The most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one’s adversary worth taking vengeance upon.” (On Anger, II.32)

Segre’s speech brought up a number of disturbing aspects of what was happening at the time. For instance, she pointed out that apparently nobody ever wondered — at Milan’s central station — how come all those trains left full of people and came back empty. She highlighted the utter disinterest of the Allied forces to do anything about the concentration camps during the war, even after some prisoners escaped and managed to make Winston Churchill directly aware of the situation.

After a long period of silence in her life, Segre started talking openly about her experience as a Holocaust survivor in 1990. In 2018 she was appointed Senator for life by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, for “high merits in the social field.” Her first act as Senator of the Republic was to introduce a bill, which is now law, that would establish a Parliamentary Commission on racism, anti-Semitism, and incitement to hatred and violence. Predictably, she immediately started receiving death threats, and the police now provides her with an armed escort every time she engages in public appearances.

The Beast, apparently, never dies. Which is the very reason we need to remember, and be constantly on the alert. In Italy as well as everywhere else in the world.

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