By Roger Cohen
OCT. 8, 2015
“Indifference” is the word engraved on the stark wall at the entrance to Milan’s Holocaust memorial, housed beneath the central railway station from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. The premises vibrate when trains depart overhead, as if mirroring the shudder the place provokes.
A survivor of the deportation, Liliana Segre, whose father, Alberto, was killed at Auschwitz, suggested that “indifference” was the most appropriate word to greet visitors to the memorial, which opened in 2013. Nobody had cared when, from 1943 onward, Jews were hauled through the elegant avenues of Milan to the station. They were unloaded from trucks and packed into wooden boxcars made to transport six horses but used for some 80 doomed human beings.
So it was perhaps inevitable that when Roberto Jarach, the vice president of the memorial, was asked if he could help with Milan’s refugee crisis, he saw that word flash through his mind. As hundreds of desperate refugees converged daily on Milan’s central station — opened during the rule of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — the memorial could not show “indifference.”
“I immediately came down here to measure the space we have,” Jarach told me. “These people hardly know where they are.”
And so, for a few months now, camp beds have been set out every night to the left of the main entrance. In all, about 3,500 people have been sheltered, mainly Eritreans, but also Syrians and Afghans, part of the largest movement of refugees and migrants since the end of World War II.
Children are given toys and crayons. Adults get a new pair of shoes: A pile of discarded footwear testifies to their popularity. A jury-rigged pipe provides a shower in the washrooms. When I visited, 38 refugees had spent the previous night at the memorial. They come in the evening from the station, where municipal authorities and an organization called Progetto Arca have set up a processing center. They sleep near the Indifference Wall. They leave the next morning, usually headed north toward Germany.
There is no direct analogy between the situation of millions of refugees today and the Jews who were deported from Milan’s Platform 21 (as the memorial is also known). The refugees are fleeing war — not, in general, targeted annihilation. They are victims of weak states, not an all-powerful one. Their plight often reflects the crisis of a religion, Islam — its uneasy adaptation to modernity — not the depredations of a single murderous ideology.
Still, there are echoes, not least in that word, indifference.
The indifference of Hungary, with its self-appointed little exercise in bigotry: the defense of Europe as Christian Club. The indifference of Britain, where the prime minister speaks of “swarms,” the foreign secretary of “desperate migrants marauding,” and the home secretary of threats “to a cohesive society.” The indifference of a Europe that cannot rouse itself to establish adequate legal routes to refugee status that would stem trafficking that has left about 3,000 people dead this year in the Mediterranean.
Then there is the indifference of an America that seems to have forgotten its role as haven for refugees of every stripe. The indifference of a world unready to acknowledge that more than 4 million Syrian refugees absorbed by Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon need a massive program of economic and educational aid over the next decade to confront the crisis. “It’s a trend and not a blip,” David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, told me.
If the counter-indifference gesture of Milan’s Holocaust memorial were repeated myriad times across a European Union of more than half a billion people, the impact would be dramatic. One quarter of Lebanon’s population is now composed of Syrian refugees; the numbers reaching the E.U. constitute less than 0.5 percent of its population.
Another echo, for Jews, lies in their own situation in Europe a little over a century ago. They were often marginalized. As Rabbi Julia Neuberger pointed out in a recent sermon at the West London Synagogue, around 150,000 Jews, often fleeing pogroms, arrived in Britain between 1881 and 1914. An anti-immigrant group called the British Brothers’ League declared then that Britain could not become “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe.”
Yesterday’s “scum” often proves to be the invigorating lifeblood of renewal. Churchill opposed the Aliens’ Act of 1905, designed to control Jewish immigration, on the grounds that “free entry and asylum” were practices from which Britain “has so greatly gained.”
Europe is awash in small-mindedness, prejudice and amnesia. On Syria, the United States is not far behind.
Jarach, whose Jewish family arrived in Milan in the late 19th century, is assisted by Adhil Rabhi, a Moroccan immigrant. They showed me around the memorial, explained how each boxcar was filled with Jews and then shunted to an elevator that took them up to the platform.
Nobody saw the Jews. Nobody wanted to see them. Indifference kills. As Syria demonstrates.