Film awakens Italy to its Holocaust Reality: A tragicomic film has reconnected Italy to its terrible role in the Holocaust. But for Italy's few Jewish survivors, the death camp experience can never be a fable.


ROME -- In his Holocaust movie fable "Life is Beautiful," actor-film director Roberto Benigni plays an Italian Jew trying to shield his young son from the horrible reality of a Nazi concentration camp.

The caring, sometimes kooky father convinces the little boy that the German soldiers who had come to their house were part of an elaborate, childlike game. Benigni works the tragic premise for laughs, earning the Italian filmmaker controversy both in the United States and here in Italy -- as well as Academy Award consideration for best foreign film.

Piero Terracina was 15 when the Nazis pounded on his family's door. His father, too, would have liked to protect the innocence of his children. But this story was no fable.

Tracked down in April 1944 in the Rome apartment where they had been hiding, the Jewish family was taken to a prison along the Tiber River. When they were ordered to face the wall and remain silent, Terracina remembers his father turning to him and his three older siblings.

"He said to us that anything can happen now, the most terrible things may happen," Terracina recalls. "But he told us to never lose the dignity of being human. Then he asked for our forgiveness."

Now 70 and living in an apartment about two miles from that same prison, Terracina says his father had no reason to ask forgiveness. But the months that followed surpassed the father's worst fears for his family.

The teen-ager was sent to Auschwitz with his parents, two brothers, a sister, an uncle and a grandfather. Only young Piero survived; he weighed 84 pounds when a Soviet soldier found him huddled in an abandoned Auschwitz barracks in January 1945.

Terracina makes a point of speaking about his memories, of making sure his Holocaust story is remembered alongside any fictionalized accounts preserved on film.

Since Benigni's movie opened here last year, more Italians than ever have been talking about a chapter in their nation's history that some would prefer to forget.

Before sweeping Italy's version of the Oscars, "La Vita e Bella," helped spur a national dialogue here that has included debates on the merits and message of the film itself and coverage in September of the 60th anniversary of Benito Mussolini's racial laws of 1938, as well as an unprecedented Italian high school trip to Auschwitz joined by survivors of the concentration camp and the mayor of Rome.

One activist in Rome's Jewish community says that until recently, Italians tended to think about the Holocaust as part of Germany's history alone.

"People spoke only of concentration camps and Nazis," says Pupa Garribba, who visits schools to tell students about her family's life under Mussolini. "Now we are starting to speak more about fascism and the racial laws in Italy."

In a country of 40 million, the 42,000 Jews living in Italy in the mid-1930s were by all accounts well integrated, and there was relatively little anti-Semitism. But Mussolini, trying to rally support for his regime and emulate Hitler, targeted the Jews.

He unveiled a law Sept. 2, 1938, that effectively made Jews second-class citizens. Jewish students and teachers were expelled from Italian public schools and universities, government workers lost their jobs, marriages between Jews and Roman Catholics were outlawed, restrictions were placed on owning property. Eventually, Jews lost their Italian passports.

Many individuals and businesses went beyond legal requirements to discriminate. Newspapers ran stories and cartoons defaming Jews, companies fired their Jewish employees, and stores and restaurants prohibited Jews from entering.

In September 1943, the German army occupied Italy. A month later, Nazi troops surrounded the Jewish quarter in Rome's center. In a single day, Oct. 16, 1,022 Roman Jews were taken from their homes. Two days later they were sent to Auschwitz. Only 16 returned -- 15 men and one woman. The other 1,006 perished, including about 200 babies.

In the ensuing months similar, though smaller, citywide deportations occurred in Florence, Bologna, Milan, Trieste and Verona. Throughout the country Jews who were found by German soldiers were arrested, often with the help of Italian fascist sympathizers. All told, 6,746 Italian Jews were deported to Nazi camps, and fewer than 900 survived.

During the school trip to Auschwitz in October, students joined Italian survivors as they toured the remains of the Polish concentration camp. Rome's Mayor Francesco Rutelli proclaimed that "the deportation of the Roman Jews will remain an uneraseable memory for the city, a place in its history like the Forum, the Campidoglio and the Colosseum."

Benigni, one of Italy's top comic stars, has said that because of the universal horror and the lessons that must be learned, the Holocaust belongs to everybody. His cinematic version portrays scenes and conditions at the fictional concentration camp that admittedly are far from reality.

Some critics here charged that the movie portrays Italian anti-Semitism as somehow playful and less serious than the German variety. Others have questioned whether anyone should make a comedy about the Holocaust at all. Most, however, have applauded Benigni's work for its sensitivity and its success in sparking wider discussion in Italy and elsewhere.

Piero Terracina chose not to see the film, which like others on the subject, he says, risks becoming a "great banalization" of the real-life events. The semiretired business manager prefers to tell his own story.

He will not tell many of the most terrible things he saw, he says, because he fears people might not believe them. Instead, he describes the daily struggle for survival amid constant fear and hunger and sorrow. He also offers two particular memories. He tells them in a calm baritone, but the words unreel with cinematic clarity.

One, which occurred in August 1944, he remembers with his ears. Next to his barracks at Birkenau, near Auschwitz, was the camp of Gypsy prisoners. Unlike the Jews, they had been allowed to stay in families and keep some of their possessions. Terracina remembers hearing the lively sounds of children playing, mothers washing clothes, people strumming guitars.

Then one night, he heard German soldiers storming into the Gypsy barracks, shouting orders. He heard the sounds of mass confusion, children screaming and then moments later -- complete silence. The next morning, the barracks were empty. All the Gypsies in Birkenau, he learned, had been killed in that one night.

The other episode, two months later, Terracina remembers with his eyes. It was the face of a young German soldier who patrolled the area where he was being held. The soldier had somehow seemed kinder than the other guards.

Then one day in October, there was a short-lived rebellion of Greek Jewish prisoners. While all prisoners were ordered back inside, Terracina watched that same young soldier riding around the grounds on a bicycle with a machine gun balanced over the center of the handlebars, calmly shooting anyone who was outside the barracks.

"I can see it," Terracina says 54 years later, "I can see him on that bicycle like it's happening now in front of my eyes."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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