Sur­vivor of Nazi raid on Rome’s Jewish ghetto en­dured Auschwitz and Dachau

The Press - - Obituaries -

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

Ger­man sol­diers.

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 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.

‘‘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.’’

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