An Italian Holocaust Survivor Asks if She Has ‘Lived in Vain’

For decades, Liliana Segre visited Italian classrooms to recount her expulsion from school under Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws, her doomed attempt to flee Nazi-controlled Italy, her deportation from Milan’s train station to the death camps of Auschwitz. Her plain-spoken testimony about gas chambers, tattooed arms, casual atrocities and the murders of her father, grandparents and thousands of other Italian Jews made her the conscience and living memory of a country that often prefers not to remember.

Now she is wondering if it was all wasted breath.

“Why did I suffer for 30 years to share intimate things of my family, of my pain, of my desperation? For whom? Why?” Ms. Segre, 93, with cotton-white hair, a steel-cage memory and an official status as a Senator for Life said last week in her handsome Milan apartment, where she sat next to a police escort. She wondered, not for the first time these days, if “I’ve lived in vain.”

Even as Ms. Segre accepted another honorary degree on Saturday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, rising anti-Semitism and what she considers a general climate of hate have put her in a pessimistic mood.

The Hamas-led massacre of Jews in Israel on Oct. 7 revolted her, she said, and Israel’s reaction in Gaza left her with a “desperate” feeling, as did what she considered the exploitation of the conflict to spread anti-Semitism under the guise of a pro-Palestinian cause. In Europe, Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine led her to ask about President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, “What is this, another Hitler?” while the rise of the far right in France and Germany make her queasy.

In Italy, Ms. Segre is dismayed by a recent mass gathering of right-wing extremists giving the Fascist salute, by nasty language against migrants whose plight reminds her of her own and by a right-wing government led by Giorgia Meloni, who has condemned Italy’s racial laws and the horrors of the Holocaust, but who herself was reared in parties born from the ashes of Fascism.

Musing on a cyclical view of history, Ms. Segre wondered if she had lived so long as to see history repeat itself.

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