(by Alessandra Baldini)
NEW YORK / SANTA BARBARA, NOVEMBER 4 – The S.O.S. from a refugee family after years of displacement. A letter, like a message in a bottle, tells a story of 70 years ago which could have been written today in Arabic, Tigrinya, Rohingya, as the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. After surviving the Nazis in his native Hungary, Miklos Tannenbaum never managed to emigrate to America, but his son Peter, the baby in the photograph, did.
The Tannenbaum family story sheds light on the similarities and the differences between what happened 70 years ago and today. It also put the spotlight on the approach, shared then and today by many Italians, of welcoming the foreigner and the “diverse”, as opposed to building walls against a human flood escaping from wars in search of a better future.
Professor emeritus of mathematics at Fresno State University, Peter Tannenbaum was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1946. His parents Miklos and Anczi, Hungarian Jews and Holocaust survivors, escaped from Budapest after the defeat of Nazi Germany and ended up in the internally displaced camp of Grugliasco on the outskirts of Turin.
It was then, on June 26, 1947, that the young father took the pen in his hand to ask the United Nations authorities advice and support in the attempt to move with his family to the United States. The letter, with its very moving appeal, is now in the UN Archives. Professor Tannenbaum was very surprised that his picture – and his father letter – ended up in a Unted Nations exhibition organized for the 70th anniversary of the organizations at UN headquarters in New York. “Indeed I am the one in the photo,” he emailed ONUITALIA: “Although he often spoke of his time in Italy, my father never mentioned the existence of this document. It is a very remarkable thing that his letter survived for almost 70 years. I would like to know as much as possible about its trajectory, and how it ended up in the United Nations Archives.”
Miklos’ letter was put on display in early November as a key moment of two parallel exhibitions organized for the 70th anniversary of the UN: one showing iconic moments in 70 years of activity of the organization, the other on the physical building designed by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. Secretary General Ban Ki moon cut the ribbon of both exhibitions on Thursday. The Tannenbaums, and millions like them , were IDPs, “displaced persons”, a neologism created by the Allied Forces to define one of the most dramatic legacies of the war.
“To the one who opens this letter, please, hand over this our letter to the proper address without throwing it into the waste-basket. Many thanks, be kind”, the young Hungarian asked the head of UNRRA, the UN agency for refugees and displaced persons that preceded UNHCR. Miklos added the photograph of his one year old son, Peter.
Something that happened 70 years ago reverberates in the world today. “For us it is a perfect testament to the need of preserving the archives and the institutional memory of the UN”, Anne Fraser, Archivist of the United Nations told ONUITALIA. In her opinion, the story of the Tannenbaum family is very important, while xenophobia is rising in many parts of the world and “refugees are so often demonized”. But is there a hidden meaning in this extraordinary story? “Is there a missing link in the story of the survivors, from the moment of the liberations and the return of a life more or less normal?”, wrote Robert Eli Rubinstein, another “Grugliasco baby”, in “An Italian Renaissance”, a book on the odyssey of his parents Judith and Bela, who survived concentration camps and ended up in Canada passing from UNRRA camp N.17. Robert, who was born in a hospital in Turin during Judith and Bela stay in Italy, said that his parents experience was “as if they were reborn” after years of horrors and sufferance.
In his letter, Miklos Tannenbaum went directly to the top: he wrote to Pierce Williams, the American director of UNRRA. Camp N. 17 in Grugliasco was one of many locations in Italy where Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust in concentration camps or, as in the case of Tannenbaum and his wife, by hiding in cellars, attics or in the countryside, were hosted while waiting months or years to leave towards other destinations. In the envelope, the young father put a photo of his first-born child, for whom he wanted a better future. “Please uncle President, send me an affidavit to be a good American. Peter “, is the message written on the back of the picture.
The letter conjures a crisis which was not so different from the refugees drama that is unfolding today in many parts of the world. “Having no relatives left, I am forced to send out my S.O.S. call throughout the world, in the hope that it may be heard by a noble thinking person. You can imagine, Sir, how very hard it is for us to act like this, but that may show you that we are absolutely at the end with our wits,” Tannenbaum wrote, demanding to the UNRRA Director to give the chance to a “young couple to hope for a better life.”
Miklos added that: “My wife and I have suffered the torments of hell during Hitler’s regime and now we have a baby.” They had survived hiding for six months in the basement of a business that he owned, their son told. Miklos’ partner, who was a Christian, supplied the Jews with food and water. Only when the Germans withdrew from Budapest, the Tannenbaums were able to see the sun again.
Pierce Williams’ reply was fast, but did not give the refugee family much hope. Migration rates in the United States were already extremely high, explained Pierce, while the quotas reserved for migrants coming from Hungary were low. The fact that Tannenbaums were Jews, however, “could be of some help,” the UN agency Director wrote.
The family never obtained a United States visa. When Peter was four, they left Grugliasco for Uruguay where a sister was born three years later. “I left Uruguay at 18 to attend college in the United States, and then I stayed, teaching mathematics at the University.” Peter’s sister in the meanwhile went to Israel and their parents followed her in the late ’70s. They died there: Anczi in 2001, Miklos in 2004 at 87, “after a full, happy and successful life, two children and nine grandchildren”. In Uruguay Miklos had a travel agency and was the “go to” person for trips to Israel. He and his wife went back to Hungary, as well as Italy, many times. They never thought, however, to go back to Budapest to live. Peter said that his father “would have been very moved had he known that a letter written by him ended up in a United Nations exhibition”.
Immediately after the war UNRRA played an important role in helping migrants who had no home, families nor land to go back to find a new home and build a new life. The agency roles were later taken over by other U.N. agencies such as the International Refugee Organization, which then became the UNHCR and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Grugliasco itself shares a story of horror and violence during WWII: in 1945 members of the retreating German 34th Panzer Division killed 68 partisans and civilians in retaliation for a partisan ambush there and in nearby Collegno. Camp N. 17 and others in the Piedmont region – others were in Rivoli, the largest with over 2,000 people, Avigliana, Nichelino, Lucento, and Trani – were the first stop for displaced persons who entered Italy from Austria.
Even though generally overcrowded, the camps maintained a thriving cultural and community life. The Jewish organization ORT (Organisation- Reconstruction-Travail), organized training activities in the camps: in February 1948 ORT had 190 students and ran courses in dressmaking, mechanical knitting, corsetry, shirt making, upholstery, cutting out of men’s garments and children’s workshops for forty students.
Six months later, courses in welding, tinsmiths training as well as dental mechanics were added to the curriculum. There was also an ORT building construction school and a children’s workshop with boys working with cardboard and girls learning knitting and embroidery. Another school was in Ivrea for typewriter repair. It was inaugurated in 1947 and was situated at the site of the Olivetti typewriters factory. Among the instructors were the typewriter mechanics from Olivetti as well as ORT translators. The board and lodging of the Ivrea students was provided by UNRRA.
In New York the UN Secretary General, himself a child refugee, took special notice of the documents that detail the Tannenbaum family story when he opened officially the Exhibition celebrating 70 years of the achievements of the United Nations. “I was also, as a child, in a place where there was no other way to survive than escape”, Ban said referring to the Korean War which made him a refugee: “When I look at this pictures, I think that it could be me. I was part of that story.”
Ban Ki moon was six when, in 1950, he saw his world “go literally in flames” under his eyes, the village where he had lived until then being bombed from the sky during the Korean War. Ban remembers flying to the hills in search for safety: “At that time, I did not know what politics was. I only knew that I was hungry and needed something to eat”.
Peter Tannenbaum and Robert Rubinstein were too young to remember Grugliasco and the Italia experience which brought their parents “back to life” after the Holocaust. While vacationing in Italy in 2000, Peter and his wife Sally went looking for the place where he had played as a child with many refugee children like himself. In 1948, after the end of the war and the interlude in which it had served ad a refugee camp, the buildings that hosted his family went back to their original status of a mental asylum for women. The pavilions were later closed in the mid ’80s: for a while some of them were occupied by Albanian and Rumanian squatters.
It was complicate for the Tannenbaums to find their way back to the camp: Nobody seemed to know what they were talking about. Finally the young policemen to whom they had asked for help, referred the American visitors to an older colleague who led the way. The iron gate of the camp was still there, same as the park where the “Grugliasco boys and girls” had played with their peers.
In Italy very few know, and even less remember, the history of places like the IDPs camps established after the Second World War in Northern and Southern Italy. In his book Robert Rubinstein talks about the “curious phenomenon” of a “collective amnesia” which allowed to erase from memory hundred of thousands of Eastern European Jews who took temporary asylum in Italy after the Second World War.
It’s a similar amnesia which recently brought the World Monuments Fund to put in its “top 50” spotlight over 100 concentration camps built in Italy and occupied territories such as Croatia between 1939 and 1943. The majority of the camps held prisoners of war and political opponents, but many became deportation camps for Jews, Roma, gay men, and other prisoners who were later transferred to extermination camps north of the Alps.
One of these concentration camps is Fossoli, located 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Modena, which was established in 1942 as a prisoner of war camp for Allied soldiers captured in North Africa. In 1943, Fossoli came under German control, and it was used as a facility where Jews from all parts of Italy were gathered. On February 22, 1944, Primo Levi was one of 650 Jews that were transported from Fossoli to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps, as described in the beginning of his book If This Is a Man. The camp closed in the summer of 1944 and, while used sparingly during the following decade, it has remained abandoned and is now in a state of ruin.
“Today, few of these structures are known to remain. The neglect and destruction of these concentration camps is largely due to the denial of this almost-forgotten chapter of Italy’s recent past”, states the World Monuments Fund who put Fossoli and similar structures under its 2016 World Monuments Watch list. The goal is” to bring attention to this vanishing piece of history and the need for further research to uncover the remaining sites, with the hope that they become protected sites of conscience”.
(AB, November 4, 2015)