“I’m occasionally tempted to throw in the towel. If, at the age of almost 90, you end up targeted by insults, under escort, deprived of the simple, reserved life you led previously, I think it’s normal to wonder ‘why am I doing this?’. But such moments of doubt are short-lived: I’m not someone who gives up easily.”
So, Senator Segre, will you chair the commission against incitement to hatred, which is to be set up on your initiative?
“If they offer me the post, I think I’ll accept. I’ve had doubts, and I’m clearly not getting any younger. But I believe in this commission, so I hope I can find the strength to do the job.”
First there were abstentions from centre-right MPs in the vote to approve the setting up of “her” commission on 30 October. This was followed by a banner put up by far-right party New Force in Milan near the theatre where she was giving a talk, the assigning of a police escort, the hate messages and those who doubted they were genuine, and the leaked meeting with Matteo Salvini which was supposed to have remained confidential. These have been tiring weeks for Liliana Segre, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was deported at the age of 13. She is now a senator for life, after being appointed to the role by Italian president Sergio Mattarella on 19 January 2018. She gave her first interview after almost a month of silence to the Corriere.
How do you feel after what happened?
“I’m exhausted. Too much exposure, too much hate, too much controversy, too much popularity, too much everything. At my age I find myself leading a life I could never have imagined.”
Has your life changed now you are under escort?
“Neither my family nor I asked for anything. The Committee for Safety and Public Order of the Prefecture of Milan decided to grant me protection, which is a less drastic measure than an actual escort. Naturally I was stunned: at almost 90 years of age and simply because I’m a survivor of the Holocaust who calmly expresses her convictions, my safety needs to be protected. It has certainly affected my private life, and I don’t like the idea of being a burden on the State, but the carabinieri who accompany me are wonderful young men who have adopted me as a grandmother, not only with professionalism, but also with affection.”
In your testimonies, you have often talked about the strength you found to carry on living, even when you were little more than skin and bones, in the icy winter of the camp. Is that the origin of the strength you still have now?
“I spent forty-five years after the war eating myself up with remorse for not finding the strength to speak out. Then, at the age of 60 I found the words to say what it was my duty to say. Over the last few decades I have relived the nightmares of the past in order to testify in schools, in the hope that even a single student would accept and learn from my ‘painful gift’ to them. Today, thanks to the astonishing decision by President Mattarella to appoint me as a senator for life, I can reach millions of people. If I stopped, I would have a more peaceful life, but I wouldn’t be at peace with myself. And I would be giving in to the haters.”
What do you have to say to those who criticize the “Segre Commission”? There are those who speak of “gagging” people.
“I think it’s a joke: ‘What’s the crowning irony for a Sephardic Jew? Being made the head of the Spanish Inquisition’. Let’s be serious! We have even seen the paradox of it being re-baptized with contempt as the ‘Segre-Boldrini Commission’ by the same parties that in the last legislature unanimously approved the conclusions of the Jo Cox Commission, i.e. the real ‘Boldrini Commission’. I repeat, let’s be serious. The commission I proposed can’t judge or censor anyone and can’t change the law. Its aim is to study a phenomenon, to put forward proposals to deal with a problem which everyone, even opposition leaders when they talk off camera, say they are concerned about. Online hatred is a growing problem. People’s conviction that they can say what they want in an uncontrolled environment is producing barbarism, a sort of large-scale bullying that the existing laws are unable to contain.”
Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni also say they have been targeted.
“I would like to take this opportunity to express my solidarity. I may be naive, but I continue to hope that everyone will join in a bipartisan commitment to prevent epidemics of hatred. I have experienced the damage they can do.”
After abstaining in the vote to set up the commission to fight incitement to hatred, racism and anti-Semitism that you proposed, the centre-right reaffirmed its ‘friendship for Israel’. Are the two things reconcilable?
“They’re separate issues. I was pleased to receive the affectionate message from President Reuven Rivlin, although I won’t be able to go to Israel because I find long journeys too tiring. I’m often asked to take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I refuse. I don’t want to mix issues. I’m not an expert and I don’t feel I have to account, as a Jew, for what Israel does. My discomfort was expressed masterfully by Clara Sereni in an article in l’Unit, ‘The guilt of being Jewish’, on 16 January 2006. She said she had been forced to speak on the Middle Eastern question and almost had to justify being a Jew. ‘I shouldn’t have to do so anymore,’ she stressed. Having said that, I too have my ideas: I was incredibly saddened by the death of Yitzhak Rabin and very much hoped to see peace based on the principle of ‘two peoples, two states’. Now I can only hope that my children will see it.”
Doubts were also raised about the messages of hatred against you.
“I knew little about these messages because I don’t have accounts on social media and my children had decided to shield me from them. After the report of the Anti-Semitism watchdog of the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Centre, I had to deal with it, and it was very unpleasant. Not only because of the obscenities I had to read, but also because, based on the number of messages, ‘200 a day’, resulting from an inaccurate newspaper report, a campaign of denialism was unleashed which called into doubt not only the number, but the very existence of the hate messages. The aim was to make everyone seem either visionaries or speculators.”
So what is the truth of the matter?
“Not only do the messages exist, but they arrive in huge numbers. Nobody can provide reliable figures because to do so would mean monitoring millions of Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram accounts, websites, and blogs. What has emerged is just a sample, the tip of the iceberg. Peaks in the messages coincided with my moments of greatest exposure. This is how it works: someone starts by posting an attack on me, which is often vehement but not necessarily in bad taste, but this triggers an avalanche of comments that turns into a contest of triviality, ferocity and filth: dozens, sometimes hundreds, under every single post. Wishes for my death abound, along with insults and expressions of regret that ‘the Nazis didn’t finish the job’, as well as accusations that I’m an old fool who is being manipulated ‘by the communists’. Then there are more specific threats.”
In what sense?
“I mentioned that I had been an illegal immigrant, and I was told: ‘You’ll stop talking like that when some immigrant rapes you, you old hag’. I mentioned the massacre of the Roma people, and people said they hoped my house would be burgled by gypsies. Then there are those who jump on the populist bandwagon and express their indignation over ‘another one whose keep we have to pay for’, or the fanatical anti-Zionists who consider me an accomplice of the ‘Shoah of the Palestinians’. There are even animal rights extremists that post photos of me from twenty years ago wearing a fur coat, who accuse me of being like the Nazis and approving of the torture of minks.”
The number of towns that want to give you honorary citizenship is multiplying. But there are also those councils that refuse.
“Among the innumerable manifestations of affection I have received, there are dozens and dozens of councils, governed by majorities from across the political spectrum, who want to confer citizenship on me. I have been told that some of these initiatives are politically instrumental. I can’t comment on that – I assume such offers are in good faith. This is why, so far, I have welcomed such proposals and feel honoured. Unfortunately, I have to tell them that due to my age, I’m unable to go and receive the honour in person. But this whole honorary citizenship thing is also becoming a battlefield that I could do without.”
In Sesto San Giovanni the mayor said that you ‘have nothing to do with the history of the town’. In Biella, Ezio Greggio renounced his honorary citizenship after it had been denied to you.
“I’m sorry if I have been a cause of embarrassment to those town councils. The case of Biella, however, gave me the chance to receive a precious gift: Greggio’s gesture means much more to me than honorary citizenship.”
In Naples you yourself declined the honour…
“In that case the proposal wasn’t from the city council, but from a councillor who wanted to exploit a situation for political ends. In order to respond to criticism of her expressions of hatred towards Israel, she said: ‘Let’s make Segre an honorary citizen then’. I really love Naples, and it was the first Italian city to rebel against the Nazis, but I’m not going to act as a human shield to save a councillor from embarrassment.”
Yesterday you received Giuseppe Conte at the Milan Holocaust Memorial. What did you talk about?
“The prime minister wanted to see everything and overstayed the time he had scheduled by at least half an hour, because he wanted every detail explained to him.”
Do you think your vote of confidence in the new government coalition may have something to do with the criticisms you have received over the past few weeks?
“I’m not a part of the majority; I’m independent, and I decide how to vote on a case-by-case basis. I would have preferred to have abstained, as I did in the vote of confidence for the first Conte government, but I heard a warning bell inside me and decided in conscience for the interest of the country.”
What kind of warning bell?
“Constant overreactions led to the creation of a tense climate, with people talking of an ‘emergency’ every time a few dozen poor immigrants arrived – problems that the new minister Lamorgese sorts out with a mere phone call –, not to mention requests for far-reaching ministerial powers, as if we were preparing for some kind of crusade. I believe that even those who created this climate later realized they had gone over the top. In the new wave of hatred that engulfed me, I was also told to ‘Respect our religion!’, despite the fact that [Catholic newspapers] Osservatore Romano and Avvenire had pointed out that it is precisely the political abuse of religious symbols that constitutes a lack of respect.”
Salvini visited you at home. How did the meeting go?
“I don’t want to comment; we both promised to keep the meeting confidential to avoid political exploitation. In any case, if two people meet to talk, especially when they’re both from the same city – Milan – and are fellow senators, this should be considered a normal occurrence.”
There was a proposal for you to stand as a candidate for the post of President of the Republic, but you declined.
“I have great respect for Lucia Annunziata and I’m sure her proposal was a way of expressing appreciation and solidarity. Nevertheless, I realized that in spite of myself, I’m already a figure to whom too many symbolic meanings are attached. There’s no need to add others or to take on a role for which I would be unsuitable. The president has to be someone who can act as a referee, with the energy to run all over the pitch, and who, above all, possesses great political and institutional wisdom. In other words, someone like President Mattarella, and not a ninety-year-old who has arrived like a Martian on the political scene.”
English translation by Simon Tanner