Survivor of Nazi raid on Rome’s Jewish ghetto endured Auschwitz and Dachau
Lello Di Segni, who has died aged 91, was the last known survivor of the Jewish population of Rome exterminated during the Holocaust; some 1000 men, women and children were sent to Auschwitz in 1943, of whom only 16 returned.
Although subjected to discrimination under Mussolini, Italy’s Jews were not included in the Nazis’ Final Solution until the German takeover of much of the country in early September 1943. A month later, on October 16, Lello Di Segni, who was then 16, answered an early-morning rap on the door of his family’s apartment in Via Sant’Ambrogio, near the synagogue. He was still dressed in his pyjamas.
Outside, there were two
They spoke no Italian, but with gestures made it clear what was required. Some days earlier, the family had heard warnings on the radio from London that the Jews might be sent away but had dismissed them.
The night before the round-up, however, houses in Rome’s ghetto, to which its Jews had been confined between the Renaissance and their emancipation in the late 19th century, had been attacked with fireworks and sprayed with bullets to convince their inhabitants to stay inside.
The soldiers searched the flat to ensure that no-one else was hidden inside – Di Segni’s uncles and aunts had fled some time earlier – and then, having hastily packed some belongings, they were herded downstairs and pushed into a lorry. Ever after, Di Segni was haunted by the sight of his fellow Italian citizens doing nothing to help them.
Several hundred foreign Jews, and those in mixed marriages, were released, but two days later the remaining 1022 were dispatched by cattle truck to Poland. Among those who arrived at Auschwitz on October 23, 1943, were Lello’s parents, his grandmother and three younger siblings: Angelo was about to celebrate his 13th birthday, Mario was 8 and Graziella was coming up for 5.
Lello and his father, Cesare, were quickly separated from his mother, Enrichetta, and his siblings but felt sure that they would see them again that evening. When they were told by some Polish prisoners that they had all been gassed, they were so disbelieving that they began to scuffle angrily with the Poles.
Lello was able to stay with his father in the camp for a month – both were tattooed with an identification number – before the latter was sent to a coal mine in Silesia. Lello, instead, was bound for Warsaw. There he spent 11 months removing rubble from what had been the city’s ghetto, the scene earlier that year of the Jewish uprising. It had ended in May with the systematic razing of the area by the SS.
Lello, who by now weighed 32 kilograms, was forced to carry bags of cement that weighed 50kg. ‘‘I survived because I worked
‘‘I survived because I worked hard. I was too afraid that they would beat me to death. It was the only way to stay alive.’’
hard,’’ he recalled. ‘‘I did everything I was told, even if I didn’t want to. I was too afraid that they would beat me to death. It was the only way to stay alive.’’
He was then transported to work as forced labour at a factory in Halle, Germany. On the way, his train was strafed by Allied aircraft and he was lucky to survive when the guards began shooting the prisoners as they fled to safety.
Di Segni remembered, in particular, waking one morning to find that his shoes had been stolen. He tried to carry on with bags wrapped around his feet, but in the end had to resort to stealing another pair.
Sent eventually to Dachau, he was liberated in April 1945 by United States troops. He knew his ordeal was over when he saw that the German sentries in the watchtower were dead. He slept for two days, before being taken by the Red Cross to an uncle in Milan. He was later reunited with his father, who had also survived.
Lello Di Segni was born in Rome into a family of observant Jews. His father was a street peddler but lost his licence when race laws were introduced in 1938. Lello was forced to leave school to help the family make ends meet, which they did by selling goods illegally.
About 8000 Italian Jews died in the camps. After Di Segni returned, he followed his father’s profession and later opened a shop selling undergarments.
For decades, he could not bring himself to speak about his experiences, and hearing German spoken on the street would upset him. He was especially sorry not to have been able to bid farewell to his mother and three siblings.
‘‘I tried to forget, but I could not be free,’’ he said. Then, in 2000, after his cousin Settimia Spizzichino, the lone female survivor, died, he began to give talks in her stead to schools, worried in particular that racial hatred might return to Italy. In 2008 he set down his recollections of the war in a memoir, Buono Sogno Sia lo Mio (Let the Good Dream Be Mine).
He was married to Silvana, with whom he had a son. – Telegraph Group