#UN70: then as now, the SOS of a refugee family on display at the UN

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NEW YORK/SANTA BARBARA, NOVEMBER 4 – A letter, like a message in a bottle, tells a story from 70 years ago, as relevant todat as the thousands of stories of the current refugee crisis, the worst since World War II. Miklos Tannenbaum, who escaped Nazism in Hungary, never made it to America, but his son Peter, the child in the photo, did.

Peter, born in Genoa in 1946, is a professor of mathematics at Fresno State University: his parents, Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust and arrived in Italy from Budapest after the defeat of Nazism, ended up in the refugee camp of Grugliasco on the outskirts of Turin. It was there that, on June 26th, 1947, the young father wrote a letter to ask the UN authorities to help him reach America with his family.

Peter Tannenbaum

Miklos’ letter is on display at the UN Headquarters in New York, in one of two twin exhibitions organized in occasion of the 70th anniversary of the organization. The Tannenbaums, and millions like them, were DP or “displaced persons,” a neologism introduced by the Allies to refer to refugees. “To whoever opens this letter: please deliver it to the right address and don’t throw it in the trash,” reads the young Hungarian’s appeal to UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, established before the end of the war, and that later became the UNHCR.

Miklos’ and Peter’s story from 70 years ago reverberates in today’s world. “For us, this discovery is the perfect demonstration as to why we need to preserve the UN’s archives and institutional memory,” Anne Fraser, UN archivist, told ONITALIA. According to Fraser – in a world where refugee status is often demonized – the story of the Tannenbaums is as important today as it was then. “Everyone knows the immense tragedy of European Jews during the war, and that in later years many survivors successfully managed to rebuild their lives. But what is the meaning of this astounding achievement? There is a missing link in the story of the survivors, between the moment of liberation and the resumption of a more or less normal life,” wrote another ‘Child of Grugliasco’, Robert Eli Rubinstein, in his book “The Italian Renaissance”. The book is dedicated to his family’s journey from the Holocaust to Canada, via Piedmont. Robert, who was born in Turin, notes that in Italy his parents “were reborn”: as if “in an involuntary nursing home” where they were able to spend “a period of convalescence at the end of terrible suffering.”

ONUITALIA reached Peter Tannenbaum in Santa Barbara, California: “My mother Anczi was 21 years old, my father 28. In Grugliasco, they lived with other refugees from Hungary. They were all friends. My parents loved to tell me about that time, how beautiful it was, that there was a big park where my mother used to take me around in a stroller. They always kept beautiful memories of the years in Grugliasco and of the Italians they had met there. It was, in their lives, a good time, especially compared to what they had been through.”

Professor Tannenbaum sent ONUITALIA some photos from the summer of 1947-1948, showing aspects of the life in the camp: “What these images tell me is that, after the horrors of the Holocaust, Grugliasco was safety, nothing like what the photos of a refugee camp show us today.”

Robert Rubinstein based on the accounts of his parents and in particular his mother Judith to describe life in the camp: “The population far exceeded the number of people the pavilions could accommodate. The bedrooms, designed to accommodate four psychiatric patients, now had to house seven married couples. Every sigh, every groan was easily heard by all.” Each day UNRRA delivered food rations. The staple food was pasta to which soft white bread was added, much loved by the Americans. To Europeans, who were used to rye, this bread looked like cardboard. After the Liberation, Italy was on its knees and the refugees from Grugliasco were made to understand that they would not be able to seek any kind of employment outside of the camp.

In 2000, on vacation in Italy with his wife Sally, Professor Tannenbaum returned to find the place where as a child he had played with a dozen children of refugees like himself.

The UNRRA camp building number 17, a former women’s asylum, was once again used as an asylum for the mentally ill after the war. After mental hospitals in Italy closed down, some of the buildings were again occupied by refugees, this time Albanians and Romanians. The complex is now incorporated in the Turin hinterland and was difficult to find: unknown to the young policemen to whom the American couple had asked for information. Only by turning to one of their senior colleagues the Tannenbaums found their way. The American professor was surprised to learn that his childhood photo ended up in an exhibit at the UN. “It’s actually me. My father never told me about this letter. It’s amazing that a document like this survived and ended up at the United Nations”

Peter e Sally Tannenbaum

Miklos Tannenbaum letter was addressed to Pierce Williams, the American director of UNRRA, who only a year earlier had warned of an enormous problem on a wounded continent. In a publication produced in 1946 by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York, made to provide the United Nations with useful information for possible future interventions, Williams had warned that: “in countries so terribly undermined by collapsing economies and still so spiritually weakened by the nihilistic influences of Nazism and Fascism, failure to deal constructively with the problem of refugees and displaced persons could prove fatal to the moral, political, and spiritual reconstruction of Europe.”

Camp number 17 of the Grugliasco organization was one of many in Italy, where Jewish refugees who had survived the concentration camps -or, as in the case of the Tannenbaums, hid from the Nazis in cellars, attics or in the countryside- were sorted and welcomed. In the envelope addressed to Williams, the young father had placed the photo of his firstborn son, born ij a new country after escaping Hungary, for whom he wanted a better future. On the back of the photo he wrote: “Please uncle president, send me an affidavit, to become a good American. Peter”.

Il retro della foto di Peter inviata dal padre all’UNNRA

The letter evokes horrors of that time, which are not too different from those experienced today by 60 million people, half of them children, currently fleeing in places like the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the same old Europe. “I have no living relatives left. I am forced to send my SOS to the whole world in the hope that it will be picked up by a noble soul. You can imagine, sir, how difficult it is to act like this, but this can show you that we have now lost all resources,” wrote Tannenbaum senior, asking, asking the head of the UNRRA to give an opportunity to “a young couple who hope for a new life.” And again, “My wife and I suffered the pains of hell during Hitler’s regime and now we have a child.”

Williams gave little hope to the refugee: “Being Jewish might help,” but the U.S. had immigration quotas and those for Hungary were low.

The Tannenbaums, who had survived the Shoah by hiding in a cellar in Budapest, were unable to obtain a visa. When Peter was four years old, they left Grugliasco for Uruguay, a country that, after Argentina, Brazil and Chile, is home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America. “I lived in Montevideo until I was 18, then I came to study in the U.S. and stayed there, with a job at the university.” Peter’s  younger sister emigrated to Israel. That’s where Miklos and Anczi went to live in 1979 and where they died, she in 2001, he in 2004 at 87, “after a full, happy, successful life, two children and nine grandchildren,” adds their son.

Miklos, who had a travel agency in Uruguay, returned several times to Hungary and also to Italy, but only for visits. He never thought of settling there. “My father – said Peter – would have been touched to know that a letter of his ended up in a United Nations exhibition.”

La lettera di Tannenbaum e la foto di Peter (UN Archives)

The UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), which ran refugee camps such as the one in Grugliasco, played an important role in helping those who had no home or homeland after the Second World War in returning to their countries, or finding a new destiny in Palestine or overseas. In 1949, it was dismantled. Its UN functions were later transferred in several international agencies such as the International Refugee Organization, later UNHCR, and the WHO.

In New York, visiting the exhibition, Secretary-General Ban ki moon -himself a child refugee during the Korean War- showed particular interest in the photo of little Tannenbaum and his family: “I too found myself at six years old in a place from which one could only escape. If I had been ‘lucky,’ I would have been in one of these shots, too.”

Peter a Grugliasco (cortesia famiglia Tannenbaum)

Ban Ki moon was six years old when, in 1950, he saw his world “literally go up in smoke.” With the outbreak of the Korean War, his village was bombed. Ban remembers fleeing into the mountains, mud under his shoes, to find refuge with his parents in his grandparents’ home. Both Peter Tannenbaum and Robert Rubinstein were too young to have flashes of memories of Grugliasco, of the Italian experience that “gave life back” to their parents after the Holocaust. Today, even in Italy, fewer and fewer people remember what happened in Camp 17 in Grugliasco, as well as in other similar centers, not only because of the inevitable, progressive disappearance of those who may know. In his 2010 book, Rubinstein examines “the curious phenomenon” of a “collective amnesia” that has caused Italians to erase the memory of those thousands of Jewish refugees who found temporary asylum in Italy after World War II.

It is the same kind of amnesia that is causing Italian concentration camps such as Fossoli, near Modena- where Primo Levi spent the first months of his captivity before being deported to Auschwitz- to fall into ruin. A few weeks ago the complex outside Carpi was included by the World Monument Fund of New York in its “top 50 2016” list of world monuments to be saved.

Between 1939 and 1943, hundreds of these structures were built, few of which, with the exception of San Sabba near Trieste, remain standing today. The reason, according to the American organization, is “a form of negationism of an almost forgotten chapter of Italy’s recent past”. The goal of the list is to turn the spotlight on this historical reality “that is fading from the memory” of the country: further research on Fossoli and other sites is necessary, in the hope that they become “protected places of consciousness.” (@alebal, November 3, 2015)