Eric Lamet and Donato De Simone met for the first time Tuesday night at the Slifka Center, but their experiences in Italy during the Holocaust were closely related.
In a panel discussion sponsored by the Italian Department, Lamet, a Holocaust survivor, and De Simone, whose family harbored Jews during the Holocaust, discussed growing up in a time of extraordinary danger, and how each emerged from this era still full of hope.
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Lamet was born in Vienna, but left in March 1938 at the age of eight, following the German invasion of Austria. He and his family fled to Italy, which until 1940 was the only country in Europe that accepted Jewish refugees, Lamet said.
In Italy, Lamet’s family was separated, though he and his mother managed to stay together. They were sent to an internment camp in Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo, a small mountain village south of Naples.
More than anything else, the fact that he and his mother were in Southern Italy saved them, Lamet said. He said his experience was very different from that of many other Holocaust survivors.
“What happened in Italy is nothing compared with what happened elsewhere in Europe,” Lamet said.
Lamet’s internment meant that he and his mother were sent to one town and could not leave until after the American liberation.
The survivor’s new book, “A Gift From the Enemy,” which features an introduction by Yale Italian professor Risa Sodi, focuses on his time in Italy as a foreign Jew in hiding. In his Slifka address, as well as his book — which he said took 10 years to write — he gave considerable attention to the kindness of the Italian people.
“Italians are lovers, not fighters,” Lamet said last night.
It was the generosity of an Italian family that provided Lamet and his mother with a room to sleep in and the ability to live what he called a “calm existence.”
Lamet also recalled befriending one German soldier, which jeopardized his and his mother’s safety and even risked their lives. But one day, the soldier told Lamet that he would not turn them in to the authorities.
“I know that you are Jewish, but not all Germans are alike,” said Lamet, recalling the solider’s words.
It was the warmth of this soldier and of the Italians who helped him and his mother to hide that allowed the Jewish writer to write a “hopeful book, which is devoid of hatred and vengeance,” he said.
De Simone, the other speaker at Slifka, grew up in Fossacesia, a very small town in Italy. Because the town is located in a mountainous region and not in the center of the country, none of its residents initially believed that the war would reach their part of Italy, De Simone recalled.
But the war came, and 214 Jews sought refuge in Fossacesia when De Simone was just a boy. His family allowed many refugees to stay with them, though De Simone was never told the guests were Jewish so that he would not let word slip.
“I did not know a Jew from a juniper,” De Simone said. “We did not have any prejudice against the Jews, so we took them in.”
He did recall that when his mother first told his grandmother that the family would be having secret visitors, his grandmother was “furious.” But his mother won the argument with one simple question.
“What if Jesus were at the door?” De Simone remembered his mother asking.
De Simone’s book, “Suffer the Children: Growing up in Italy During World War II,” will be published in the next few weeks. Professor Millicent Marcus, chair of the Italian Department, wrote its introduction.
Sodi and Marcus, who organized the panel discussion, said it was exciting to bring together two speakers who witnessed the Holocaust from different sides and yet had many experiences in common.
Jennifer Goldman ’07, who will be traveling to Italy this year on a Fulbright Scholarship, said she was excited to attend the talk because it was a rare opportunity to hear from both a Holocaust survivor and a Holocaust rescuer simultaneously.