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WE ARE HISTORY

by Valentina Rizzi

I arrive out of breath at the Ostia Book and Reading Festival where I have been invited to tell my story on three wheels. I am ready to start when somebody asks to talk to me. I am rehearsing my speech, when I look up and see somebody holding out her hand, a young and tall woman, with long dark hair who wears a nice red lipstick. “Are you the one who moves around in a little Apecar?”. “Yes, it’s me, how do you do!”. “Nice to meet you, we are here… we thought… we have brought…”. I struggle to understand what she wants. A white-haired granny is standing next to her, arm in arm with her granddaughter, and looks at me shyly. “How can I help you?”. “We don’t know who to turn to”.
The granny starts talking in a fairy voice, “I have got a war diary from 1943, which belonged to my brother-in-law, a prisoner of war in Germany. Here it is”. As she talks, she brings out an imposing leather-bound diary. The smell is unmistakable: yellowed paper, the scent of time wraps me up. I feel disoriented and I wonder what I should do with it, but then I surrender to curiosity and passion. I open the diary and leaf through it. I enter the folds of history on those 73-year-old handwritten papers. “There are drawings too, you see? This is the map of the concentration camp. And here are all the figures. 600 Italian internees. My brother-in-law worked as a miner. This sketch shows the tools. And here he writes about the privations they had to endure”. Dozens of pages telling – day by day, hour by hour – what happened in the time span between the deportation and the arrival of the Americans. I go straight to the last page and start to cry. It’s the most moving moment, the liberation. “The Germans abused me for so long. I will never forget. Long live Italy, long live our liberators!”. The tone is aggressive and threatening.
I can still see the map of the camp: a rectangle whose sides are made of huts and latrines. Leafing back through the pages, I find the train whistle and the last glance towards the unknown of those who are deported without a reason, suddenly separated from their beloved ones. I am on that leaving train now, standing next to him as he writes. Packed in what looks like a cattle car, surrounded by shotguns and dogs ready to explode. I read about the arrival at the camp, the dust in the bones, the barbed wire, the meagre meals, the hard work in the mines and the endless inspections in the middle of the rectangle. Years of privations and vexations, cut-off from the world, suspended between anger and fear. History swallows me with its cruelty, its tortures and miseries. The door being opened, the liberators flying over the sky, the hope and desire for redemption. It’s all there and it’s all true, so close it almost pierces me. Here comes the joy, the copious and big joy that can be experienced only by those who have lost all hope. Tears of victory at the cry “I exist!”.
It takes me a few minutes to get my bearings, then I close the diary and put this precious testimony in the granny’s snow white hands. “Sorry, we don’t want to waste your time… We are just looking for advice. We don’t want it to be forgotten”. I realise I am surrounded by a crowd of curious people. In amazement. Such is the power of a legacy entrusted to future generations. “My granddaughter, er... we think that it should be publicized in schools to make people think, not to forget…”. The granny is moved and speaks incoherently, then she pauses as her granddaughter embraces her. Somebody asks, “How could your brother-in-law save this diary without them noticing and seizing it? He risked his life!”. “Well, everything was written here before, in a tiny notebook he always kept with him, and there were also a few scatter papers I keep at home. My sister left me everything, they were her husband’s writings and they were more important to her than her own life”. A man wearing glasses suggests her to contact the Historical Fund of the Ministry of Defence and entrust them with this piece of memory, so immense that we are all astounded. All speechless in front of history. Then my interview starts with this question, “Considering the advent of e-books and digital reading, what does paper mean to you? Why do you persist in carrying its weight on a three-wheeler on the road?”.