‘We could not remain indifferent’: Milan’s Holocaust Museum now a shelter for African refugees
70 years ago, the notorious Platform 21 was used to load Jews on boxcars headed for death. Today, the same space houses those who have fled their countries seeking life
MILAN — It’s not every day that Muslims break their Ramadan fast with a kosher meal delivered by a Chabad-Lubavitch soup kitchen. But for Adil Rabhi, who has partaken of the certified kosher pasta and snacks for the past week, it’s becoming the norm: Since Monday, Rabhi, a 32-year-old Moroccan immigrant who has lived in Italy for the past 13 years, has spent his free time volunteering at the Memoriale della Shoah di Milano (Milan’s Holocaust Memorial).
Seventy years ago, Platform 21, the vast cavernous space underneath the city’s Central Train Station where the Holocaust Memorial now stands, was used to load Jews in secret onto trains destined for the death camps. This week it was turned into a shelter to accommodate the influx of men, women and children who have fled war, hunger and persecution in Africa.
In the past few weeks, thousands from Syria and Eritrea have traveled through chaotic Libya to sail across the Mediterranean Sea and reach Italian shores. Over 55,000 Africans have illegally entered Italy since the beginning of 2015, and with no friends or families, many sleep restlessly in train station corners, hoping to continue their journey to northern European countries.
With the help of the European Union, the Italian government is attempting to find a long-term solution for these refugees. Alongside the political initiatives, many nongovernmental organizations, such as the Fondazione Memoriale della Shoah di Milano (Foundation for Milan’s Holocaust Memorial), and individual citizens are also trying to alleviate their suffering.
“We could not remain indifferent to such a terrible humanitarian crisis,” said Roberto Jarach, vice president of the foundation and vice president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI). In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Jarach said the idea of setting up a shelter at the Holocaust memorial was especially welcome since the refugees already gather at the train station.
Jarach stressed the importance of giving refuge to people in such a highly symbolic place, but he also had more practical concerns.
“The first night we noticed that a lot of people took advantage of the restrooms to wash their clothes. We had thought about providing toiletries and towels, but not about that. I need to go buy washtubs, washing powder and drying racks,” he said.
The area where the refugees are sheltered has been separated with a panel from the rest of the memorial, which during the day is regularly open to visitors. Two areas have been designated for folding beds, one for men and one for women and children, with a capacity of over 30 people.
Under the gray concrete ceiling, which vibrates from time to time as trains run above it, some men and women have already taken possession of their beds and sit on them chatting quietly this Tuesday evening. They are all from Eritrea, exhausted and emaciated, but clearly relieved to find themselves in a protected environment.
Adil is one of the volunteers who takes care of the refugees. He speaks Arabic and has experienced the trauma of a dangerous and exhausting journey to Italy himself, which allows him to better connect to the migrants. He spends every night sleeping at the memorial with the refugees, making his Ramadan more challenging, but more meaningful.
‘Visiting this memorial while we were preparing the room for the refugees was extremely interesting and moving’
“Growing up in Morocco, I had Jewish neighbors but I did not know a lot about the Holocaust. We studied a little bit about in school, but I found out a lot more after I came to Italy. Visiting this memorial while we were preparing the room for the refugees was extremely interesting and moving. I think that giving shelter to these people in need here sends an amazing message,” he tells The Times of Israel.
Platform 21, which now houses the memorial, had remained forgotten post-World War II until the 1990s, when it was rediscovered as a crucial place for preserving the memory of the Holocaust in Italy. A memorial was eventually completed in 2013.
According to the memorial foundation, of all the places in Europe involved in the deportations, Platform 21 is the only site still intact.
Other than the original loading dock, where visitors can walk through two original freight cars, the memorial also features a testimonial hall and the Wall of Names, on which the names of all those deported from Milan Central Station to Nazi camps are projected.
In the memorial’s atrium, which is formed from the original entrance to the dock, visitors see the Wall of Indifference, a cold gray structure inscribed with the Italian word “indifferenza” (indifference). According to Liliana Segre, one of the most well-known Italian Holocaust survivors, the indifference of so many was what made the genocide possible. Segre was deported to Auschwitz from Platform 21 in 1944 when she was 13.
And as the one who insisted upon writing “indifferenza” at the memorial’s entrance, it is no surprise that Segre pointed out that contemporary European societies are demonstrating indifference toward these migrants.
‘Today I witness with astonishment what is happening to these migrants who are seeking help from our opulent Europe, where people waste food and are obsessed with buying new things’
“When I was expelled from school, very few people noticed that my seat had suddenly been emptied; very few people didn’t turn their faces when they ran into me on the streets. Today I witness with astonishment what is happening to these migrants who are seeking help from our opulent Europe, where people waste food and are obsessed with buying new things even if their houses are already full,” said Segre, speaking at a conference in the memorial’s auditorium on Tuesday.
“However, I must stress that there is not the same indifference that surrounded the persecution of the Jews back then,” said Segre.
The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor noted a close similarity between the scafisti, the people who smuggle the migrants from North Africa to Europe today, and the passatori, who smuggled people through the border between Italy and Switzerland during World War II.
“Since the first moment I heard about these people making a profit through the suffering of other migrants, often using unsafe and inadequate boats to sail them in, I immediately thought that it was a story that I had already seen happening, many decades ago,” Segre related.
As for the migrants, telling them what the memorial represents is not first priority. Mabit is a bouncy six-year-old girl who runs and jumps everywhere to the delight of her young parents and all the volunteers. Her smile is enough to remind everyone of the importance of this mission.
The meals for the refugees are provided by Beteavon, the Chabad Soup Kitchen, while the volunteers belong to the Catholic organization Sant’Egidio, which first rediscovered the site of Platform 21 in 1994 and is today among the partners of the Fondazione Memoriale. Other partners include the UCEI, the Jewish Community of Milan, the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center, Milan Municipality and many others.
‘I think that the fact that we, Christian, Jews, and Muslims, are all working together to help these people is a very meaningful aspect of this initiative’
“I think that the fact that we, Christian, Jews, and Muslims, are all working together to help these people is a very meaningful aspect of this initiative,” said Giorgio Del Zanna, president of Sant’Egidio.
Meanwhile, as the night passes, new refugees arrive. They receive food and sit to eat all together. All of a sudden, a toddler pops out from a group of women, crawling super fast on the floor before a tiny girl picks him up and ties him on her back, walking back and forth to rock him to sleep.
“It’s really nice here,” comments Robert, a 25-year-old from Eritrea, one of the very few migrants who speaks a little English. He stresses that he is in Italy only temporarily. His dream is to reach England.
“We are just fighting for a better life,” he says, “It is really important that the European countries who can do something to help us understand that.”
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