MILAN — Located on the frontline of the immigration crisis, for many in Italy’s Jewish communities, the horrifying images of migrants and refugees washing up on the country’s shores over the past few weeks have evoked memories of a terrible past. Not so long ago, many Italian Jews were refugees themselves.
The Italian communities, decimated by the Holocaust, were bolstered by Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were forced to leave their homes in 1948, 1956 and 1967.
And for the past several months, as Germans and Austrians welcomed a flood of refugees coming across their borders over the weekend, a similar scenario on a somewhat smaller scale is playing out in southern Europe. According to an AP report, Italy has nearly 120,000 people who were brought to its shores after rescue at sea and who are hoping for asylum in Europe. Untold others died in transit.
Many of Italy’s Jews, aware of the similarities in their own communal fates, are deliberating their next steps, or already actively working to aid the influx of migrants.
Among them is Milo Hasbani, one of the presidents of the Jewish Community of Milan.
“Doing something for these migrants is very important to us, also considering that so many members of our community fled Arab countries and found a better life in Italy,” Hasbani said, recalling how he himself left Lebanon with his family in 1956 when he was only 8.
And so in Milan, when a small group of Africans sought shelter, they found it in a rather fitting site — the city’s Holocaust Memorial.
Fleeing war and poverty, 35 women and 7 children, mostly from Eritrea, found safety this weekend underneath the city’s train station to the memorial that commemorates Italian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. The memorial stands on notorious platform 21, which during World War II was used to secretly load trains to deport Jews to the death camps.
Since the beginning of the summer, part of the Holocaust memorial has served as a shelter to hundreds of migrants from Africa and the Middle East as they anxiously wait for trains to take them to northern Europe. Over 2,500 migrants have been accommodated so far, thanks to the efforts of the Foundation for the Memorial, whose members, among others, include the Jewish Community of Milan, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) and the Catholic organization Sant’Egidio, whose volunteers run the shelter.
Practically every night a new group comes with harrowing stories of survival. Aiman, 38, a Palestinian who fled the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus with his wife and two children, said he is looking for asylum after repeated death threats and violence at the hands of the Assad regime and anti-government forces. Although his request has already been denied in Sweden, Denmark and Italy, he still hopes that he will succeed in Germany.
On Sunday morning, only a couple of hours after the refugees left, the memorial was open to visitors, with the conference hall ready to host events for the European Day of Jewish Culture, celebrated on September 6 in over 30 countries in Europe. The event is particularly successful in Italy, where thousands of people participate.
This year, UCEI president Renzo Gattegna announced that the organization decided to dedicate the Day of Jewish Culture to the tragedy of the refugees in order to raise awareness of their situation.
‘The responsibility for all the horrors that are happening does not rest only on the extremist groups or regimes who commit them, but also on the people who stay silent and are not willing to fight for human rights’
“The responsibility for all the horrors that are happening does not rest only on the extremist groups or regimes who commit them, but also on the people who stay silent and are not willing to fight for human rights, but instead look the other way,” Gattegna said in his inaugural address in Florence. “For this reason, I want to dedicate this day to those who are forced to flee their home country to save their life and the life of their children.”
The Jewish Community of Florence is at the forefront of the Jewish efforts to offer relief for the refugee crisis.
“In times of need, our community considers a moral imperative to do its part,” explains Sara Cividalli, the president of the Jewish Community of Florence, in a phone call with the Times of Israel.
At the beginning of summer 2014, the Municipality of Florence appealed to private citizens and institutions to contribute in order to help solve the emergency of the growing wave of immigration that had started to reach the city. The Jewish community was the first to respond, making an apartment available to accommodate some of them.
“Welcoming people in need is ingrained in the Jewish identity. Wasn’t the tent of our forefather Avraham Avinu open on all sides, precisely for this purpose?” Cividalli concluded.
The Jewish Community of Turin is following Florence’s example. Dario Disegni, the community’s president, announced that in the next few days they will offer the municipality an apartment to shelter refugees.
However, although it has partnered with interfaith organizations in the past to aid the refugees and individuals are still volunteering time and basic necessities, Rome’s Jewish community is still deliberating its next step.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel on Friday during Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit, president Ruth Dureghello said Rome is often used as a way station for the migrants, whose goal is to reach Germany or Scandinavian countries.
For those who are settling, however, Dureghello would like to introduce programs to acculturate the immigrants, through language instruction and general education.
“It is much more important to give them the chance to be introduced into society than continue to be different,” said Dureghello. “We are a people of refugees. For us Jews, it’s an experience we have had in the past.” But she emphasized that aiding the migrants is “not just a Jewish responsibility, it’s a human responsibility.”
Other Jewish communities are partnering with existing programs in the hopes of amplifying their efforts.
During the summer, the Jewish community of Milan collected food, clothes and toiletries for the migrants and donated them to the Italian charity City Angels, which after 20 years of experience in assisting the homeless started to offer support to migrants last year.
‘It was especially meaningful for us to hear the comments of the refugees, mostly Muslims, when we told them that the supplies came from the Jewish community: They expressed their gratitude for “their Jewish friends”‘
“We are very grateful to the Jewish Community for the help it provided,” founder of City Angels Mario Furlan said. “It was especially meaningful for us to hear the comments of the refugees, mostly Muslims, when we told them that the supplies came from the Jewish community: They expressed their gratitude for ‘their Jewish friends’.”
A similar initiative was taken also by the Jewish community of Genoa, with Chief Rabbi Giuseppe Momigliano emphasizing how collecting supplies for the migrants represented a great opportunity to “play an important role for the city, while performing the mitzvah of tzedakah [charity],” as he told the Italian Jewish paper Pagine Ebraiche.
In Milan, the Holocaust Memorial is planning to shelter refugees until at least mid-October, at which point it will reevaluate the situation, said Roberto Jarach, who serves as vice president on the memorial’s foundation board and the UCEI.
As in the case of Aiman and the many others in his situation, the shelter and its volunteers cannot solve all of the refugee’s problems. But at least they provide them with a safe place, food and a bed for the night to dream of a better life in Europe for them and their family.
Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.