Interviewing Sami Modiano is a profound and emotional experience. His kind eyes and determined voice tell the story of a boy, who together with his father Jacob and sister Lucia, was deported from the island of Rhodes to the Auschwitz- Birkenau extermination camp in 1944. He is the only survivor of his family and one of the very few from Rhodes, which had a vibrant and ancient Jewish community, devastated by the Holocaust.
Sami now lives in Ostia, just outside of Rome. Since 2000 he has been speaking in schools all over Italy and taking students to Birkenau to convey the horrors of the holocaust, but also to touch hearts, open minds and reach out to human kindness and hope. “It is my mission, a moral obligation I have towards those who didn’t survive”.
Hello Sami, how are you feeling in these times of pandemic?
My dear, as you know I have lived many experiences in life: as a child I have been expelled from school because of racial laws, I witnessed war, I have been deported to extermination camps and I have lived as a survivor. The Covid pandemic joins the list! Of course, my wife Selma and I need to be very careful and this has a psychological effect without us realizing it. We must limit our contacts and we miss speaking to people in person.
As a child, you were expelled from school and then had to live the horrors of the Shoah. How would you describe what you felt as a boy?
I was a very happy boy living in a beautiful island, I had adorable parents who gave us a great education and a loving sister. The Rhodes Jewish community was like a big family. The first painful impact in my life as a young boy was when I was expelled from school for being Jewish. I was 8 years old and I couldn’t understand the reason for my expulsion. I used to play together with my school mates: Jews, Muslims and Orthodox. I never felt different from them. Today, I am 91 years old and I still like to tell everyone that I am no different, I’m a human being.
What is the strongest and most painful memory you have of the Shoah?
Cruelty was everywhere. The strongest pain was obviously losing the people that give you love and affection; may it be a father, a sister, an aunt. When that love is brutally taken away, it is very painful.
Also, they took our dignity and decency from us. Already starting from the journey towards the camps, they threw us in cargos full of animal’s excrements. There were children, pregnant ladies, old people. The Germans treated us like beasts, in horrible hygienic conditions, tearing away crying babies from desperate mothers, depriving us of any humanity.
You often speak about Lucia, your beloved sister, how was your relationship with her?
You see, I lost my mother Diana who had a heart condition just before the Holocaust, I was 11. Lucia always loved me as a sister, but when my mother passed away, she became caring and present like mothers are. In Rhodes, I was energetic and active, I always had a big appetite and she often used to pretend to be full to give me her food. I can’t forget that.
My sister was my father’s pride, she was beautiful, smart and sweet.
After a month in the camps, God gave me the opportunity to see her once again through barbed wire. She was in Lager B, I was in A. I saw a figure waving at me, I couldn’t recognize her at first, she was so thin. (His voice breaks). I threw a small piece of bread we were allowed, over the wire, risking my own life, to make her eat it. She looked at me with loving eyes, mimicked a hug, wrapped both my piece of bread and hers and sent it back to me. Even in those starving conditions Lucia was behaving like a mother, making sure I would eat. I never saw her again. We were only kids. When my father realized she died, he let himself go. Losing her was excruciating.
Did you ever lose faith?
I was raised as a Jew and was preparing for my Bar mitzvah when I was deported.
In Auschwitz- Birkenau, I did lose faith. I had already lost my sister and my father. One day, they chose me to clean some canals to let the water flow. I lifted my head and saw a train arriving and thousands of terrified people getting off, infants snatched away from their mothers, the screams. I knew most of them were being selected and sent directly to the gas chambers. I felt anger. I saw those things, didn’t HE?
I then found my faith again; I believe in God and I understand that he saved me so that I could make a difference and leave a message to the young generation. The first time I went back to Auschwitz Birkenau after 60 odd years, together with young students, I saw my sister, my father and all the atrocities all over again. I was crying and when I turned around, the students were also tearful as they listened to my words. So, I understood. This is why I am alive. The young generation needs me.
How did you get to Rome after the Holocaust Sami?
My relationship with Rome already started in Birkenau, as I made friends with Piero Terracina. He was a Roman Jew and had lost everyone, just like me. A true friendship was born in a place of death. Anyways, when the Russians arrived, Piero was transferred to another hospital and I lost contact with him. Three months after the end of the war, the Russians made us work to build trenches and bridges. I met another Jew from Rome, Settimio Limentani, a very important person to me.
He was smart and he understood we needed to do something as the Russians were not moving fast enough to repatriate us. I was 14 years old; he was double my age.
We walked together from Russia to Austria where the Americans finally enabled us to get to Rome. I stayed in his home for a few days and then moved to a shelter for survivors. I then moved to Congo, where I built my career, and came back to Rome in 1972. I found my friend Piero Terracina again and gradually became part of the Roman Jewish community.
What is your bond with the Roman Jewish community today?
The community has done and does a lot for me and my wife. When they found out my Bar mitzvah was in Auschwitz-Birkenau, they organized a beautiful ceremony to celebrate my adulthood in Rome’s temple.
My sister’s name and my father’s name were added in the commemoration list of the Roman Jews who died in the Shoah, even though they were from Rhodes.
Elvira di Cave, a doctor that belongs to the Jewish community, takes care of me and Selma with love and devotion, she is precious to us.
I am very grateful; I found a family here. We never feel lonely, so many people from the Jewish community in Rome are close to us.
Can you give us your thoughts on the Holocaust Remembrance Day?
It is a very painful but important day; people must know what happened. The events I saw with my own eyes 78 years ago torment me every day. I survived; I promised my father I was going to. However, I never left Auschwitz – Birkenau, I am still there, I can still see the people who died, I can hear the perforating screams of mothers crying, the children killed. You and I are making sure, these people are not forgotten. They were innocent. 6 million were Jews, but there were also, homosexuals, disabled people, Romanis, politicians. All those souls had the right to live. We must not forget them.
Photo cretids Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Roma - Fondo Sami Modiano