This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz

This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz

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Five years after her return home from Auschwitz, Piera Sonnino found the courage to tell the story of the extermination of her parents, three brothers, and two sisters by the Nazis. Discovered in Italy and never before published in English, this poignant and extraordinarily well-written account is strikingly accurate in bringing to life the methodical and relentless erosion of the freedoms and human dignity of the Italian Jews, from Mussolini's racial laws of 1938 to the institutionalized horror of Auschwitz. Through Sonnino's words, memory has the power to disarm these unspeakable evils.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230613997
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/31/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,017,464
Product dimensions: 8.26(w) x 5.52(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

Piera Sonnino was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. She was later transferred to Bergen-Belsen and Braunschweig. The sole survivor of a family of eight, she returned to Italy in 1950. She died in 1999. Ann Goldstein is an editor at the New Yorker. She has translated works by Roberto Calasso, Alessandro Baricco, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Aldo Buzzi. The recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award, she is the editor of the forthcoming collected works of Primo Levi. She lives in New York.

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This Has Happened

An Italian Family In Auschwitz

By Piera Sonnino, Ann Goldstein

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2004 Gruppo Editoriale il Saggiatore
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8704-6


Genoa, July 20, 1960

My name is Piera Sonnino. I was born thirty-eight years ago in Portici, near Naples, the fourth of six children of my mother, Giorgina Milani, and my father, Ettore Sonnino. Their wedding, celebrated in a Jewish ceremony in Rome in 1910, was lavish, in keeping with the social position of both families, and the ceremony concluded with a concert in which a well-known soprano of the time took part. For my mother, deeply in love with the man who had become her husband, and for my father, their life together had an auspicious start.

Their first child was Paolo, who was followed by Roberto, Maria Luisa, me, Bice, and Giorgio. My father was a handsome man. In the only photograph of him that has survived, he is still young, and has the look of an elegant, turn-of-the-century gentleman, with a somewhat arrogant air. He was kind and generous, as the Neapolitans are. He came from a middle-class family—the Honorable Sidney Sonnino was a cousin of our grandfather—and for his entire life, in spite of his physical decline and the atrocious humiliations he endured, he maintained, up until the final long night of Auschwitz, a natural refinement that instilled respect and obedience in us, his children. For many years the profession imposed on him by family tradition and—I believe—undertaken with many reservations, was that of a businessman, a shop manager or salesman, depending on the circumstances, and he pursued it with variable, and usually limited, success. In the periods when luck was with him or when he managed to conclude a favorable deal, my father, with an almost childish enthusiasm, filled the house with all sorts of things that, no matter how superfluous, he thought might brighten the lives of his wife and children. Even before 1938, the year in which the racial laws took effect and the situation of our family, both human and social, fell apart, we spent many days of dignified poverty comforted by gramophones and the latest cameras. Needless to say, these testaments to better times disappeared quickly under the pressure of household necessities.

My mother was born in Rome. She had earned a teaching diploma and was also an excellent pianist. She declared that she was an enemy of popular music, but we, her children, sometimes managed to make her forget Bach and Haydn, and would lovingly coax her to sit at the piano and play the songs that were in fashion. It always happened that in the middle of some light melody the music would suddenly stop and the notes of a sonata would rise into the air. Mamma played with absorption, as if she were drawing those often melancholy passages from within herself, and not just from her memory. At a distance of many years, and with the experience that life has brought, I've found that the love I always felt for my mother has been transformed into reverence.

Today I can fully appreciate, and, if not always comprehend, at least imagine, what a complex and heavy burden she carried, what a sum of sorrows tortured her for years, before the end that awaited her. My mother did not have a greatly expansive nature, like the other members of my family; her rules were silence and control of one's own feelings. But I remember when these rules were broken by events, the day we were arrested, and our last, long night in the transit shed of Auschwitz: I recall the continuous, uninterrupted weeping of a woman in anguish.

Paolo had graduated in 1940 with a degree in business and economics. He had had to work to support himself during his studies, and, particularly after the promulgation of the racial laws, the jobs that he found were always temporary and poorly paid. His degree was the result of great sacrifices and a serious and tenacious character. I think that although Paolo was the oldest and enjoyed a longer period of tranquility than the rest of us, he died having had no experience of love. In our house certain subjects were forbidden, and love was among them, but if there had been hints about Paolo I would remember. Instead, in my memory he is totally absorbed, first by work and study and then by our common anxiety: the anxiety that denied to us, too, his brothers and sisters, youth and love and even the chance to dream of a future. For five years, starting in 1938, we lived in a time without a future, a dark present overhung by a confused and indistinct nightmare, which enveloped us after September 8, 1943.

At fifteen, my brother Roberto had to interrupt his studies and go to work. What my father earned was not, as usual, sufficient to provide even a modest living for our family, which from 1925 included eight people. Roberto's first contribution was two hundred lire a month. Roberto was a practical, cheerful youth who loved life. As, gradually, our father and mother were increasingly unable to react to the nightmare that pressed around us, he became if not the mainstay the one who, more than any of us, assumed the family responsibilities. It was Roberto who took initiatives that many times procured food for us or got us out of terrifying situations. He was anything but contemplative and, if he could have continued his studies, probably would not have had the same success as Paolo—though not, certainly, because he was less intelligent. He had the somewhat disorganized, capricious character of a man of good sense and many ideas.

Giorgio was the youngest. From the age of discretion, he grew up in the nightmare. He spent the last nine months of his existence shut up within the walls of the apartment on Via Montallegro, in the neighborhood of San Martino, where we had found lodging and refuge. For nine long months he was cut off from society and from life. He became nervous to an extreme degree, and during the aerial bombardments he suffered breakdowns that left him exhausted. We, his sisters, brought him books: he asked us continually for history books, in particular about the first Risorgimento. He became profoundly knowledgeable about the lives of Mazzini and Garibaldi. In the last days he had begun to memorize a dictionary, and in the morning, when he came to help us in the kitchen, he would ask us the meaning of the most abstruse, least modern words he could find, entertaining himself by embarrassing us. We gave him the opportunity to embark on long dissertations that originated in the need that he had, and that we understood, to feel, through his words, that he was alive. But these were rare moments of relaxation. Giorgio, minute by minute, day by day, lived nine months of terror. He was the first among us to enter the antechamber of death, and when death arrived he yielded without resistance.

Maria Luisa was the oldest sister. She was beautiful, and her character was similar in many ways to Roberto's. At Auschwitz and, later, when we were separated from our parents, in Belsen and Braunschweig, she was like a mother to Bice and me. Sometimes now, at a distance of fifteen years, when there is silence all around me, I seem to hear again her thin, hoarse voice rising in the barracks, as she sang for Bice and me, to keep alive in us the absurd hope of surviving. One evening, when we had just returned to the barracks in Braunschweig that we few Italian Jews shared with seven hundred Hungarian Jews, a supervisor came to read a list of those of us who were to be deported. Among them was Maria Luisa. Our sister lined up with the others whose names had been called. Bice and I thought that they were bound for an extra work shift, as often happened. Our sister wasn't even given time to say goodbye to us. We never saw her again.

Bice, of all of us, most resembled our mother, above all in her character. She was the second-youngest and still a child at Auschwitz, at Belsen, at Braunschweig. For four days her body lay abandoned on a wooden bench and in the end disappeared under the snow. My father, Ettore Sonnino, and my mother, Giorgina Milani, at the ages of seventy-four and fifty-eight, respectively, were killed in the gas chambers at Birkenau on October 28, 1944. Paolo, at the age of twenty-seven, and Roberto, at the age of twenty-six, were killed in November. Giorgio, at the age of nineteen, was killed a few days after his brothers. Maria Luisa was killed at Flossenburg on March 20, 1945, at the age of twenty-five. Bice was killed at Braunschweig on the night of January 15–16, 1945. She was twenty-one. The number that death imprinted on my arm, and that I still bear, is: A26699. In September 1950, after five years in rehabilitation centers and sanatoriums, I, alone of my entire family, returned to life.

The first signs of the nightmare reached us between 1934 and 1935. German Jews expelled from Nazi Germany were constantly arriving in Genoa, where we had lived since 1925, and the community helped them as much as it could, directing them for further aid to other Jewish families.

Their number increased to the point where we ended up having very little to share. These first victims of Nazi anti-Semitism, ragged and starving, entered our house as if ashamed, and thanked us effusively if we could give them anything. None of them spoke Italian, but many knew French, and in that language they tried to explain to us, in lowered voices, as if they were afraid of not being believed, what was happening in Germany. Jewish shops and homes attacked and destroyed, Jews severely beaten, killed—a blind, premeditated fury that was growing. The stories we heard seemed to belong to a world so distant from ours that it represented a different reality. We couldn't imagine that any neighbor of ours, any acquaintance, any of the thousands and thousands of strangers we encountered every day would be capable of entering our house, of attacking our father and mother, of harming us because we were Jews. We said these things to the Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany and they shook their heads sadly. Nazism is a gangrene that will spread widely, they said. After 1935 the refugees abruptly ceased to arrive, and we thought that the situation had somehow become normal. Instead, the death struggle of the German Jews had begun and we were unaware of it, as we were unaware that those camps, where just nine years later our family would be exterminated, had begun operations.

The exodus of the Jews from Hitler's Germany had sowed in us suspicions and worries, however vague. Although we took no part in the common life of the community to which we belonged, and were aligned neither on one side nor the other of the barricade, the resemblance between Fascism and Nazism could not escape us, nor the steps that the two dictatorships were fatally taking toward one another. These sensations were still confused, and not yet conscious—presentiments that we, like our fellow Jews, repressed, because it is a particular characteristic of the Jews to believe that the desire to be ignored is transformed, precisely because it is a desire, into the reality of being ignored.

It was in these years that the financial situation of our family worsened. Papa and Mamma, after their marriage, had moved from Rome to Portici and then, in 1923, with the children who were already born—Paolo, Roberto, Maria Luisa, and I—to Milan. In Milan, Bice and Giorgio were born, and Giorgio was only a few months old when, after a new move, we settled in Genoa. My father had become the manager of a shop in Piazza Campetto, and that seemed to open up good prospects for the future. Three years later, however, with his usual bad luck, Papa had to resume the old, unprofitable profession of salesman. In 1935, as I said, Roberto abandoned his studies and went to work.

My memories of that period are not very pleasant. There were many days when we had nothing, in the literal sense of the word, to eat. Several times, the elderly lawyer Giuseppe Fontana, who treated us as his grandchildren and never could have imagined our situation, bought Maria Luisa, Bice, and me an ice cream when we met him in the gardens of Piazza Manin, which served as both lunch and dinner. We hid our poverty from strangers by every possible means. We all became expert at preventing anyone who didn't belong to our narrow family circle from coming to our house and noticing the gaps that appeared among the furniture and knickknacks. We girls were at the age when one likes to invite school friends home and be invited, in turn, to play, study, and spend time together. We couldn't aspire to any of these things but had, rather, to keep our relations with our classmates on a superficial level, learning to contain and repress any impulse of sympathy. Today I no longer entirely understand such embarrassment or shame about our poverty, except in the context of the economic and social disaster that during those years befell numerous families in the lower and middle classes—those, at least, which had been unable or unwilling to be part of the regime. We accepted as natural the idea of hiding our true circumstances, and if someone had told us that in doing so we were conforming to the prejudices, the inability to confront reality, and the fundamental apathy of the classes we came from, and not, instead, the laws of dignity and decorum, we would have rebelled. Myself above all. Let me add, further, that we were originally from the south, and had come with traditions and customs as firm as irrevocable principles, and so it was difficult to assimilate or be assimilated into Genoese society. And the particular disfiguring atmosphere of Fascist reality also weighed heavily on us. The official optimism of the regime did not admit or tolerate economic catastrophe. We who were not infected by Fascism saw clearly the unbridgeable gap between reality and the official optimism, but I think that this, in the end, even if we were unconscious of it, in some way legitimized what we considered dignity and decorum. All these elements were at the source of that phase of our family's isolation that ended when, a few years later, Paolo, Maria Luisa, and, finally, I began working, and the situation partly improved. But starting in 1938, unfortunately, our isolation was enforced by law.

After 1935, as I said, the Jewish exiles from Hitler's Germany ceased to knock at our door. But, that same year, Fascism set off on its own brutal adventures and Nazism stood at its side. Later, there were days when our emaciated and terrorized visitors of earlier times seemed to peep out from the big war headlines in the newspapers, and we felt their vague and shadowy presence near us as indistinct fears that we did not speak of with each other.

Our family, meanwhile, was regaining a certain economic ease. Paolo got a job at the Venice General Insurance Company, Roberto at the National Institute of Insurance, and Maria Luisa at the state banana monopoly. Giorgio was studying at the Tortelli Technical Institute and Bice and I at the Regina Elena Business College.

The racial laws went into effect unexpectedly in August 1938. Some time earlier, the Fascist government had declared that in Italy the "Jewish question" did not exist. And so the event took us by surprise: a lightning bolt striking our house. In the course of a few days Paolo, Roberto, and Maria Luisa lost their jobs. In October Giorgio, Bice, and I had to leave the state schools and enroll in the Jewish school. I was then sixteen years old, an age when young people, in general, have a lively critical sense and, with it, begin to confront and judge life. My sisters and I had been reared and educated according to principles that prevented us from having any contact with people of our own age, with society, with the world. We were kept in the dark about all aspects of family affairs that pertained exclusively to our parents, and in general they avoided discussing in front of us any subject apart from simple domestic relations. It may seem absurd, but I don't know what my brothers were earning at the time. And it would have been vain to seek the cause of our own difficulties or of those which occurred outside the magic circle of our family.

We were a family of lambs, good people, ready to suffer any wrongs rather than be stained by a single one, eager to make as little noise as possible and occupy the least space possible on this earth. Even the night when Paolo, Roberto, and Maria Luisa announced that they had lost their jobs and the vortex of the future opened before us, we did not complain, remaining silent so that no one would hear us, meditating on the terrible unknown of the next day. In my mind the memories of the events of those days are confused.

Papa was pessimistic, and he realized that, at least in official relations with firms, his profession, if he had never had much success, would from now on be absolutely fruitless. Mamma, who perhaps better than all of us sensed the dimensions of our present and of our brief future, aged rapidly in a few days, enveloped in an increasingly desperate silence. Roberto and Maria Luisa seemed the most optimistic and with their words they encouraged the rest of us. But beneath the more immediate worries, in the depths of our anxieties, was the sensation that something calamitous was about to overwhelm us. Yet again we discovered that our visitors of 1934 and 1935 had left in our house and in us a thick, almost concrete presence that was beginning to have a shape. The Germany of Hitler, which had seemed so far away, was becoming confused with our own land, the land of our birth, my land and that of my forebears. The reality that we had wanted to ignore suddenly, and in its most brutal form, possessed us.


Excerpted from This Has Happened by Piera Sonnino, Ann Goldstein. Copyright © 2004 Gruppo Editoriale il Saggiatore. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by David Denby

Translator's Note by Ann Goldstein

This Has Happened

Epilogue by Giacomo Papi

Afterword by Mary Doria Russell

Further Reading

Reading Group Guide for This Has Happened

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This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
rosies on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like most stories on the topic, the writer and her family¿s experience was horrible and tragic. But here, what¿s also shown is a certain stubbornness in Italians in general - one that is inherent in second and third generation Italian-Americans today. (text (translation) contains a lot of commas)
meggyweg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a slim memoir, enhanced by a forward and epilogue written by scholars which explain the historical context. The author, Piera Sonnino, wrote it for the benefit of her daughters and never intended it for publication. One of her children had it translated and published years after her death.It is a fairly typical Holocaust memoir, distinguished mainly by three things: the Italian family that is the subject (not many stories about Italian Holocaust victims out there), the author's dignified, refined genteel tone, and the fact that, unlike in many such books, a lot of information is provided as to what happened to Piera after liberation. I would recommend as a solid addition to Holocaust collections.
agerchak More than 1 year ago
This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz, by Piera Sonnino, and translated by Ann Goldstein, shows how one Jewish-Italian family suffered through the Holocaust. The book is narrated by Piera Sonnino, so all the events that occurred were told from her perspective. She began the book describing her family. Following this, she describes the extreme poverty her family endured and how her eldest siblings went to work to help support the family. As the story progresses, the reader learns that the family was forced into hiding because of the Holocaust. The Sonnino family moved around multiple times to try to evade capture; they were in hiding for almost two years. During this time, Piera’s father and brothers were in constant fear of being taken by the Nazis. Eventually, the family was taken by the Nazis and put in concentration camps. Piera and her sisters went from camp to camp, although the rest of her family stayed at Auschwitz. Piera suffered through the loss of both her sisters before the camp she was in was liberated. I gave this book five stars because I thought it was very interesting to learn about what Piera went through during the Holocaust. Another reason I would give this book 5 stars is because the chapters were short and focused on a single event. This allows the reader to focus on one specific event at a time instead of multiple events happening in a chapter, like in most books. Overall, the book was very good, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading a book about the Holocaust.
Cougar_H More than 1 year ago
This book "this has happened" by Piera Sonnino shows the true meaning of love between a family. While reading this book I think the author's purpose for writing this book is to show the true meaning of family and what happened to Piera and her family during world war 2. In the book Piera starts her story off telling how her family was struggling with money but they still had the household necessities. Piera was the middle of six children Paolo, Roberto, Maria Louisa, Piera, Bice, and Giorgio. As Piera's story goes on she tells about how her brother's and her dad had to hide from the German's while the sisters and mother had to act casual so they would not get deported. Once Piera and her sisters went to Auschwitz her oldest sister Maria Louisa treated Piera and her younger sister Bice as if they were her own children. Maria Louisa soon got deported one night and Piera and Bice never saw her again. Since Maria Louisa left Piera took her spot and watched over Bice. Through Bice's last days of being sick Piera begged Kapo's to let her stay with her sister. Piera would try to stay awake just to make sure Bice was okay. Even after the tragic happened Piera still went strong. Once she was liberated Piera went to the hospital where she spent ten years getting her life back together. After she was out of the hospital she went back to her home thinking some of her family would be there. As Piera says " I began to see clearly into myself and into the story of my family."