“Afterlives: Memories of the Displaced Persons Camps in Italy” by Danielle Willard-Kyle (PhD candidate, Rutgers University, History), 2018-2019 Center Graduate Research Fellow, April 16, 2019 (lecture summary)

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 12:00am

Danielle Willard-Kyle, the 2018-2019 Center Graduate Research fellow, gave a public lecture about her month-long research at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on the testimonies of Jewish survivors who went through Italian Displaced Persons camps after World War II. The lecture stemmed from Willard-Kyle’s last dissertation chapter and examined the changes in survivors’ memories of the camps over time. 

Willard-Kyle started the lecture by offering a brief historical background about displaced persons camps in Italy. Between 1945 and 1951, around 50,000 Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, and North Africa, who often used Italy as a transition point in their journey to Mandatory Palestine, joined Italian Jews interned in Italy. However, tens of thousands of these displaced persons became stuck in Italy because the British eventually blocked all sea routes to Palestine by the end of 1945. In Italy, they were stationed either in hachsharots (Zionist training camps) or in Displaced Persons camps. 

Willard-Kyle continued by tracing the changes in survivors’ memories of and narratives about these camps, particularly the differences between survivors’ early statements about the camps and their later testimonies recounting their time there. When it comes to survivors’ early statements, Willard-Kyle noted that these mostly consist of those found in camp newspapers, DP’s letters to their relatives, diaries, and official paperwork. During her lecture, Willard-Kyle contrasted their early statements with narratives found in survivors’ later oral history testimonies and memoirs, paying special attention to the changes in narratives regarding food and material goods, work and camp life, and anger and gratitude. In their early statements, both individual refugees and their representatives complained about the lack of food and seasonally appropriate clothing in Italian camps. However, in their later testimonies, refugees remembered there being enough food in the camps, and were more focused on remembering their feelings about food, primarily the fear of being hungry again. To illustrate this change in narrative, Willard-Kyle played an excerpt from the testimony of Baruch Goldstein, housed in the Visual History Archive, who characterized himself as being “hungry psychologically” at the time. Similarly, refugees complained about boredom and the lack of work in the camps in their early statements. These statements were countered by survivors’ reflections about the camp life in later testimonies, in which they fondly remembered the flourishing of cultural activities in the camps and focused more on the temporary nature of the camp life, and less on the very quality of it at the time. Finally, Willard-Kyle pointed to the same change in narratives about refugees’ emotions, especially anger and gratitude. For example, early statements often emphasized blaming the Germans, and the emotion of anger also featured in later survivors’ testimonies. However, Willard-Kyle said that she was surprised at the abundance of gratitude for Italy and Italian people expressed in survivors’ later testimonies, even among survivors who had limited contact with Italians. This gratitude is almost completely absent in the early statements. She pointed out that this change in the narrative might be due to the effect of collective narrative about the “Italiani brava gente,” which survivors apparently appropriated, and it might also be accounted for by survivors retrospectively contrasting their experiences in Italy with their wartime experiences before Italy. 

In the second part of her lecture, Willard-Kyle turned to the discussion of memorials, focusing in particular on the sites of three former DP camps in Italy: Santa Maria Di Bagni, Selvino, and Cremona. Of these three sites, only Santa Maria Di Bagni, which was the largest and most active camp in southern Italy, was turned into a memorial museum in 2009. Santa Maria di Bagni is also the place of one of the most important memorials to the Jewish DPs in Italy -- the murals by the young Romanian Zionist DP Zvi Miller. Willard-Kyle stated that the other two camp sites, Selvino and Cremona, are in ruins today. However, she mentioned local initiatives aimed at bringing back the memory of these camps, preserving them, and turning them into memorial sites. 

Willard-Kyle concluded her lecture by returning once again to the changes in the narratives about the camps over time, and the struggle to preserve these sites today.

The lecture was followed by a long Q&A session, which included questions about driving forces behind the emergence of survivor testimonies in the 1980s; the existence of the registry of names of DPs and children born in DP camps; the way Jewish organizations acquired hachsharots at the time; the reasons why some DPs stayed in the camps; the extent to which the DP camps are covered in the historiography of Italy, and about those writing these local histories; the differences and similarities between German and Italian DP camps; the commonality of the references to revenge in survivors’ narratives; and the discoveries in the Visual History Archive that surprised Willard-Kyle the most. 

Summary by Badema Pitic

"Afterlives: Memories of the Displaced Persons Camps in Italy" - Public lecture by Danielle Willard-Kyle (PhD Candidate, Rutgers University), 2018-2019 Center Graduate Research Fellow

By using case studies of camps in northern and southern Italy, this lecture shows how former Jewish refugees and local Italians have maintained and forgotten the memories these crumbling structures hold. It demonstrates that the struggle to preserve these old buildings is reminiscent in many ways of the struggle to preserve the lives and culture of the Jewish refugees who once lived inside them.