Those who know Quattro Castella, a village on the hills in Northern Italy, know its medieval history, with the facts linked to Matilde di Canossa, as told by Donizone. But some time ago, thanks to some enlightened administrators and to ISTORECO (Institute for the Resistance and contemporary society history), we got to know about another relevant story, more recent and undoubtedly more poignant. 

It’s the story of Etla Felman and Chaim Moshek Cywiak, a couple of Polish Hebrews who had been confined for 2 years in Quattro Castella, before being taken to the prison camp in Fossoli and then to Auschwitz where we lost all traces of them in 1944. What do we mean by saying they were confined in Quattro Castella? There were no concentration camps there. 

In August 1938 in Italy the racial Laws came into effect: all Hebrews, Italian or not, started to be surveyed and catalogued, first students and then those who worked in the public administration. In the previous years, some students from Eastern Europe came West to end their studies or find a job. In fact, there, these racial laws came first.

The census went on in 1939, when we get the first information about Etla, who arrived in Italy with a tourist visa, and of Moshek, who had a business visa as he was transferring to China. We know they lived in Milan, while the fascist government was trying to organize a “free internment regime” for the surveyed people. What does it concretely mean? Like Etla and Moshek, the surveyed people (Hebrews and not) were sent all over Italy and forced to live in local houses, but without ever showing or taking part to the public life. They couldn’t go out, get in contact with other people and the external world. They were forced to live without books, newspapers, social life, they only got a daily allowance, and they lived under the constant control of the local authorities.

Etla and Moshek’s last traces can be found in Quattro Castella townhall archives in November 1943, when the village and the region were part of the Repubblica Sociale (Fascist Republic) and the last daily allowance was registered. They were sent then to the transit camp in Fossoli and in February 1944 they arrived at Auschwitz. Then, their traces went lost.

I can’t think of a better way to describe this story than the title given to the related video: “Hidden in plain sight”

I’m thinking about their neighbours, who must have seen them, who must have questioned what was happening to them. I am thinking about the local authorities who knew and must have questioned as well. Although Auschwitz, Birkenau, Mauthausen and the other camps were far away, although news was not that fast in spreading as it is today, one can’t say one did not know. I think they should have suspected something bad was happening. I think that fear was winning over the people and cancelled any willingness to understand or know. This is why it doesn’t make sense to point the finger against someone. Probably I would have done the same. What stands out the most in this story, is that there was no barbed-wire to divide them from the free world: they were there. It was enough to stretch one’s hand to touch them. Who knows how many people from the village have seen them, smiled at them without knowing. Unaware accomplices.  

Somebody guessed that Moshek never asked for a safe-conduct to China because he was bond to Etla by an unbreakable love and this would have never allowed him to leave her alone with her fate. It looks like they were not married or at least there are no certificates to testify it, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that their tie, together with tons of other, was broken by higher entities, which really knew nothing about love and respect. It’s easy to let anger rise when you think about them, who were not allowed to live their relationship, and you contemporarily see today many couples which drag themselves without any interest in each other. What a wickedness! 

Injustice, rage, shame are only some of the reactions that this story may rise. What can we do then? It’s impossible to repair, we can’t give them back their lives. We must remember, though it’s hard. And it’s even harder to hear voices of deniers rise even among young people. And it makes ones angry to see that the school books overlook these topics. 

On the other hand it’s encouraging to see some public institutions such as the PA of Quattro castella and its library, give birth to good initiatives with the aim not to forget. One of these: a simple mailbox hung at the door of the house where Etla and Moshek spent their last years before the concentration camp and the request to students and citizens to drop a letter there. The letters gathered have been then stored in the local archive “ad perpetuam memoriam”.

There is only one thing we can do to make sure that active commitment and sympathy replace silence and fear: we must remember. Remembrance impresses people in our hearts.

In order not to forget about Etla and Moshek, I invite you to take a look to this video: NASCOSTI IN PIENA LUCE – SULLE TRACCE DI ETLA E MOSHEK – YouTube and to follow the local library social media page: (2) Biblioteca di Quattro Castella | Quattro Castella | Facebook

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