The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy

Rome Again: ‘Viaggio della Memoria’

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I’m back. This is the first afternoon that I have spent at home in three weeks. Between the trip to Rome, a weekend in Venice and a visit from the family, I’ve seen a good deal of Italy recently and very little of my sofa. On top of this, there’s been the usual work that comes with being a language assistant (ie. trying to avoid the sinking feeling of being totally unprepared in front of thirty blank faces) and last but definitely not least, getting to know a special new Italian named Antonio. More on this to follow.

On the penultimate week of February, an exciting opportunity was presented to me at the last minute. As deputy head of the school, Antonella was accompanying four of our students on a trip to Rome to commemorate the Holocaust, “un Viaggio della Memoria’. On the 27th of January, the victims are remembered in Italian schools with classroom activities like readings of Primo Levi. This trip was an opportunity for select students from all the schools in Molfetta to find out more about this period of history by visiting the Jewish quarter in Rome and listening to real stories from survivors of the concentration camps. On the Wednesday, I was offered a place on the bus, on Thursday I paid for my hotel room, and on Friday the 21st of February at 5am, I was on the coach with students, teachers and the mayor of Molfetta ready to set off for the capital.

The journey takes around 5 hours if you count the compulsory break for coffee and cornetti. We rolled out of the bus onto the pavement surrounding the main Synagogue of Rome, where the Jewish museum is also located. After waiting around in the sunshine for a while, we were ushered in and given a whistle stop tour of tapestries, ornaments, traditions and customs. Then, after a quick sit down in the Synagogue, we left our breathless guide and listened to some stories from the daughter of a Jewish woman who managed to escape from soldiers who wanted to take her away. Or at least, I think that’s what she said: my Italian skills are such that if people speak very quietly, if there are too many people around, or if I’m getting hungry, I tend to miss some things.

We took a walk around the Jewish quarter and looked at the ‘stolperstein’, golden paving stones to commemorate individual victims who used to live in those tall and ungainly houses. The buildings in the Jewish ghetto are stacked up high, as floors were added whenever they were needed. In the afternoon, a historian named Anna Foa accompanied us around a building where she used to live and from which a Jewish family was taken captive, children and all. Her research has consisted of finding out the stories of all the inhabitants of the building: the events that she told us about made the rooms feel very cold, even as the climbing plants around us glowed in the sunshine.

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In our lunch break, I ate with Antonella and two other teachers: we decided to try some falafel, hummus, battered fish and deep fried artichoke, as well as the extortionately priced bread. It was all very good and garlicky, taking me right back to Izzy’s cooking: she is the sort of chef who will stick a whole bulb of garlic to bake on a pièce of Brie. But one time she made falafel and it was tasty. At around 4pm, we were back on the bus and heading across town towards the Trastevere area of Rome, on the way to listen to a famous survivor of Auschwitz, Piero Terracina. He has been active in speaking about his experience of the camp, speaking in schools, writing and visiting Molfetta some time ago. He had invited us all to his apartment: bearing in mind that there were over thirty of us, this was no small matter.

After a short but hostile encounter with an appallingly parked car, the bus turned the corner and dropped us off at the apartment building. We climbed all the way to the top and filed into the apartment, each of us shaking Piero’s hand as we went in. We were offered drinks and little cakes, as we all sat on the floor or available chairs and listened attentively in the hot, close air of the flat. There was silence as he spoke. Even if I did not catch every word, the atmosphere was solemn and intense as he spoke about the day that he and his family went into hiding, and then about when he was taken. He spoke about the appalling conditions he lived in, about knowing cold, knowing hunger. The true meaning of suffering that no human should be subjected to. We left after an hour, all of us once again shaking his hand and smiling with respect and gratitude. The mayor of Molfetta expressed her emotion at seeing us all, each with a different expression on our face upon saying goodbye to this man. As she said, we are fortunate to hear the stories from the last remaining witnesses and it’s our duty to internalise this memory and hand it down to future generations.

A bit weary, we headed to the hotel where I found a big double bed all for little old me. The dinner at the hotel was standard school trip catering: decent enough pasta, but meat like an old dog’s ear and shudder-inducing potato purée. A bit giddy with tiredness, we headed out around half past ten for a walk around the city. It was very nice to chat in Italian with the four students from Galileo Ferraris and with teenagers from the other schools nearby. We walked up the Spanish steps and looked at the stars, Antonella sighed at the poorly kept gardens flanking them and then we stopped at the Trevi Fountain before getting on the metropolitana back at Piazza del Popolo. My legs were freezing their tights off by that point so I was happy to climb into bed and sleep in a quarter of the space I’d been given.

On Saturday we had to be up early because we had an appointment with the mayor of Rome. That’s right, on a spontaneous trip to the capital, a British girl infiltrates the Campidoglio and gets a handshake from Ignazio Marino. I had breakfast with the teenagers, who were decidedly unimpressed with the coffee from the machine and the transparent apple juice. For the duration of the trip, I fluctuated between getting down with the kids and spending time with the teachers, but I’m pretty sure my youthful complexion and general wide-eyed disposition allowed me to blend in more with my students than with their supervisors.

We went for a walk around the Altare delle Patria, the monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II, before being graciously ushered inside the Campidoglio, the Capitol where all of the important decisions go down. We were shown into the Sala Delle Bandiere, which had a long wooden table running down the centre and walls bedecked with flags. And then the mayor strolled in with his sash on and delivered a succinct but seemingly heartfelt speech to us about the importance of memory, then accepted our gift of olive oil all the way from Puglia. Then of course he had to meet people more important than us, so he shook all of our hands and went out again. We completed our morning with a tour of the official meeting rooms and some sort of antechamber, before getting back on the trusty old bus to head to the Fosse Ardeatine.

The Fosse Ardeatine is the site of a terrible massacre, which took place on the 24th March 1944 as revenge for an Italian ambush against the Nazis. This was another solemn event for us. It started to pour with rain as soon as we arrived, so we were ushered into the caves and told the story of the killings that took place there and then how the terrain was bombed to hide the evidence. The Nazi authorities decided that for every German killed, 10 Italians had to die and so they selected prisoners condemned to death, or Jews, 335 in number. It was chilling to see the tombs of the fallen men: memory hung in the air as it had all weekend. We touched the little silver wreaths, each encasing a photograph, and felt a sense of duty and responsibility towards all of these names. I paid special attention to the tomb of ‘Ignoto’, unknown and unidentified.

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This visit concluded our journey through the traumatic past and so we headed up the mountain to a restaurant overlooking a lake. We ate plenty of food again, stocking up on bucatini and meat before beginning our trip back to Molfetta. At the table, I was taken to be Antonella’s daughter for the twentieth time and then called ‘bellissima’, which is fine by me. After a busy weekend, I was glad to get back to familiar Molfetta at around quarter past nine, where my boyfriend was waiting for me at the Calvario, the little church by the park. He carried my suitcase and gave me dinner, the cherry on top of an emotional, interesting and unforgettable weekend. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to take part in it, and devote some time to remembering an atrocity that is almost too horrific to imagine. The point of all of us travelling across the country was not just for show, but to increase our awareness of the role we have to play in posterity. Being on a year abroad, I learn something every day, not only the Italian language but also about the country’s history and culture.

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Author: Elly Cooke

Recent graduate of English Literature and Italian from the University of Leeds. Book lover and part-time Italian speaker.

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