Holocaust survivor opens Italian Senate as far-right prepares to govern country

In emotional speech, Liliana Segre recalls discrimination she faced in past, urges civilized debate, as Brothers of Italy, which has neo-fascist roots, set to lead government

Holocaust survivor, Senator Liliana Segre chairs the opening session of the Italian Senate of the newly elected parliament, October 13, 2022. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
Holocaust survivor, Senator Liliana Segre chairs the opening session of the Italian Senate of the newly elected parliament, October 13, 2022. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

ROME (AP) — Italy’s Fascist past and its future governed by a party with neo-fascist roots came to an emotional head Thursday when a Holocaust survivor presided over the first seating of Parliament since general elections last month.

Liliana Segre, a 92-year-old senator-for-life, opened the session in the upper chamber, subbing in for a more senior life senator who couldn’t attend. Her speech formally launched the sequence of events that is expected to bring the Brothers of Italy party, which won the most votes in the September 25 elections and has its origins in a neo-fascist movement, to head Italy’s first far-right-led government since the end of World War II.

Speaking to the Senate, Segre marveled at the “symbolic value” of the coincidence of her role and the historic moment that Italy is witnessing. She noted that she was presiding over the Senate as Italy soon marks the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome, which brought Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to power, and as war rages once again in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Today, I am particularly moved by the role that fate holds for me,” Segre told the hushed chamber. “In this month of October, which marks the centenary of the March on Rome that began the Fascist dictatorship, it falls to me to temporarily assume the presidency of this temple of democracy, which is the Senate of the Republic.”

Segre was one of the few Italian children who survived deportation to a Nazi death camp, and she has spent recent decades telling Italian schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Her advocacy led Italian President Sergio Mattarella to name her a senator-for-life in 2018 as Italy marked the anniversary of the introduction of fascist-era racial laws discriminating against Jews.

In her speech, Segre choked up as she recalled that those laws forbade Jewish children like her from attending school.

“It is impossible for me not to feel a kind of vertigo, remembering that that same little girl who on a day like this in 1938, disconsolate and lost, was forced by the racist laws to leave her elementary school bench empty. And that, by some strange fate, that same girl today finds herself on the most prestigious bench, in the Senate.”

Italian senators applaud Holocaust survivor, Senator Liliana Segre as she chairs the opening session of the Italian Senate of the newly elected parliament, October 13, 2022. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Her emotional remarks brought the 200 senators to their feet in applause, including the Brothers of Italy delegation headed by Ignazio La Russa. La Russa, who once proudly showed off his collection of Mussolini memorabilia, was later elected Senate speaker.

The Brothers of Italy, headed by Giorgia Meloni, has its origins in the Italian Social Movement, or MSI, which was founded in 1946 by former Mussolini officials and drew fascist sympathizers into its ranks. It remained a small far-right party until the 1990s, when it became the National Alliance and worked to distance itself from its neo-fascist past.

Meloni was a member of the youth branches of MSI and the National Alliance and founded Brothers of Italy in 2012, keeping the tricolor flame symbol of the MSI in her party logo.

During the campaign, amid Democratic warnings that she represented a danger to democracy, Meloni insisted that the Italian right had “handed fascism over to history for decades now,” and had condemned racial laws and the suppression of democracy.

Brothers of Italy’s leader Giorgia Meloni casts her ballot to choose the Chamber president in the Italian lower Chamber on the opening session of the new parliament, October 13, 2022. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Segre didn’t refer to the party by name in her speech, but she said Italian voters had expressed their will at the ballot box.

“The people have decided. It is the essence of democracy,” Segre said. “The majority emerging from the ballot has the right to govern, and the minority has the similarly fundamental obligation to be in the opposition.”

Looking ahead to the upcoming legislature, she called for a civilized debate that does not degenerate into hateful speech and respects the Italian Constitution.

She cited, in particular, the Constitution’s Article 3, which states that all Italian citizens are equal under the law “without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion or personal or social condition.”

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