From the Italian American, Spring 2003
The nation's most widely read magazine for people of Italian heritage. Vol. VIII no. 2
Ferramonti's Concentration Camp...
A Story of the Southern Italian Character
By Paul Paolicelli
In his new book, Under the Southern Sun, Paul Paolicelli journeys to Southern Italy to learn about the values of Italian immigrants brought to America more than a century ago. He finds some answers among the ruins of a World War II concentration camp in Calabria. But this was a camp unlike any other.
     I was surprised to hear rumors of a World War II Fascist concentration camp in northern Calabria. My innkeeper's brother had mentioned it in passing. "It was at Ferramonti near Tarsia, just north of Cosenza," he said. "You can still see what's left of it from the highway."
     My research turned up one article, a mention on the Simon Wiesenthal Center?s Web site and three books, all by Francesco Folino, but only in Italian and all out of print.      
     One day I decided to drive there on my own. Two old and rusted yellow arrows, half hidden with overgrowth pointed out the way.
IL DUCE'S RACIAL LAWS
    L ike all things Fascist, Ferramonti started with Mussolini. Earlier in the war, Il Duce had scoffed at Hitler's racism, but by 1938, Mussolini had gone from Hitler's mentor to Hitler's petitioner. He needed help and sacrificed the Jews and other political "undesirables" in Italy to get it.
     The Italian authorities rounded up non-Italian Jews and political enemies whom they sent under guard to a camp in a remote region of the country. But there any similarity to the German camps ends.
     Ultimately, Ferramonti became a place of survival. In fact, almost all of the nearly 4,000 prisoners sent there survived the war. The four who didn't were killed during an Allied bombing raid.
LIFE IN THE CAMP
Once the prisoners settled in, an active barter system sprang up. The townspeople traded their meager far produce for money or the supplies the prisoners received from their Red Cross packets, which the Italian guards never tampered with.
     Most prisoners were physicians, dentists, university professors, rabbis and other highly skilled professionals who had fled to Italy to escape the Nazis. When the town learned about its talented neighbors, locals began sneaking into the camp at night to see the prison's healers whom they preferred to the ones in town.
      At least three stills were set up with the commandant's permission to help the prisoners "keep warm" in inclement weather.
     Several synagogues and other places of worship were established as well as schools for the children. Prisoners often ran errands into Cosenza without guards accompanying them.
     One summer evening, probably in 1943, Gaetano Marrari, the Commandant, and his wife backed a truck into the camp and gathered up dozens of the children.
    By now, the inmates knew of the mass murder of Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe. Rumors ran through the camp that the youngsters were being shipped north. Desperate parents were in tears. A few hours later, however, the children returned safe and sound. The commandant and his wife had taken them to town for a gelato.
All that is left of the Fascist camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia which once housed nearly 4000 prisoners.
A CLOSE CALL
    By the fall of 1943, as the Nazis began their retreat from Italy, a German general stopped by the camp to see what was being done to evacuate the prisoners. For the first time in their captivity, the prisoners were in serious danger.
     The lives were saved by a local priest who learned of the impending visit and scurried over to the camp's main gates. There he hurriedly conferred with some of the inmates who quickly took down the Italian flag flying atop the camp's headquarters and ran up a hastily made quarantine pennant in its place.
     When the German officer and his entourage arrived, the priest met them at the front gate and humbly explained  that the General was, of course, more than welcome to enter the camp, but a severe outbreak of cholera there could imperil the officer's health. The German performed a quick about-face and continued on his way north without looking back.  A few days later, the Allies liberated Ferramonti, which then became a displaced persons camp for several years.     
A QUESTION OF CHARACTER
     Near Munich, the town of Dachau has become a Mecca for tourists. Its concentration camp's huge brick buildings house artifacts and detailed descriptions of the horror that took place there more than 60 years ago.     
      At Ferramonti, a solitary plaque commemorates the camp's 50th anniversary, but no maps highlight the spot and the road signs are so poor that few Calabrians and even fewer outsiders know about it. And yet, Ferramonti stands as a stoic, poignant and ironic monument to the humanity of southern Italy and the madness of war.
     It is a symbol of the innate compassion that shapes the Italian character, forged by a long history of foreign invasion, suffering and domination. In the end, the story of Ferramonti is a story of ice cream on a summer's eve and the southern Italian celebration of life.
Under the Southern Sun is one of the Sons of Italy Book Club Selections.
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