Holocaust Survivor Enzo Camerino’s Story

Special contribution Italo Camerino

2013/12/03
Holocaust Survivor Enzo Camerino
Holocaust Survivor Enzo Camerino
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When Enzo Camerino was a little boy growing up in Italy, the country had racial laws against the Jews similar to Germany, but they were very unpopular with most Italians. The Jews, as they are still today, had been an active Roman community for thousands of years. Mussolini refused to send Italy’s Jews to work camps outside Italy; life was difficult but not as deadly as in German-occupied lands. Things took a turn for the worst when Mussolini’s government fell and the Nazis took charge. On October 16, 1943, Camerino was not yet 15 years of age when his entire family was awakened by a knock at the door around 5 am.    

Camerino lived with his brother Luciano, sister Wanda, uncle Renato, and parents Giulia and Italo. German officers, accompanied by Italian police, presented his father with an official document stating that, because they were no longer Italians but stateless Jews, they were all to be relocated to a work camp. They had to immediately pack their bags for an eight-day journey.

That day, 1,024 Roman Jews were rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz. They were all kept in a Roman jail for another two days until they began their journey by train to Poland, herded together in cattle cars 50 to 60 at a time, with no heat or room to sit.

Upon their arrival to Auschwitz, the selection process was the last time Camerino saw his mother and sister. The men were then further divided between those who could or couldn’t work. His uncle Renato, an invalid, was sent immediately to the gas chamber. They soon after tattooed him with his camp number: 158509.

Living and working conditions were harsh and most often cruel. Camerino lived in an environment where every slip-up could have resulted in the loss of his life. The camp inmates were now nameless souls and only addressed by their tattooed number and guarded by brutal guards with vicious dogs. Different work duties separated Camerino from his brother Luciano and father. Because they were assigned different huts, Camerino would often sneak out at night to visit his brother to exchange news or scraps of food. On one of these nights in 1944, he found out his father Italo had died earlier that day. While out on a work detail, Italo was severely beaten by a German guard for not being able to get up fast enough from a fall he took.

After two years of living under these conditions, Camerino and his brother Luciano were finally liberated in 1945. Of the 1,024 deported from Rome on that day in October 1943, only 16 came back; Camerino and his brother were two of them. Following the war, he lived with relatives until his life started to get back to some kind of normalcy. In 1951, he married his wife Silvana Pontecorvo and in 1952 he had a son and named him Italo after his father. Camerino then decided to emigrate for economic reasons and also out of the anger he still felt towards Italy because of his experiences. In 1957, he moved to Canada.

He built a life in Canada and in 1959 his family grew with the arrival of his daughter Julia, who he named after his mother. Camerino worked for the Pascal Hardware chain and then opened his own retail shop in Park Extension, which he operated until retirement. His brother had died in 1966 helping rescuers during the Florence flood of the Arno River. With his death, Camerino’s connection to Rome had dwindled, but his retirement and the passing of his wife had afforded him the time to reconnect with family and friends in Italy.

In 2004, on Camerino’s first visit back to Auschwitz since his liberation in 1945, forgotten memories quickly rushed back to him. Chills shot down his spine when he saw that the apples trees from which he had stolen fruit were still standing. For that simple act, he was sent to work in the coal mines for hours on end, bent over, not being able to stand in four-foot shafts.

With this year marking the 70th anniversary of the 1943 deportation, the Roman- Jewish community sought to include Camerino in its many commemorative events. Of the original 16 that survived the deportation, only two are left. Camerino had some health issues this past year, but under his daughter Julia’s care, he was able to get strong enough to fly to Rome and take part.

Coincidentally, while he was in Rome, Erich Priebke died while awaiting prosecution. Priebke was a German officer who took part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre of 1944 in which 335 Italian civilians were murdered as a reprisal for partisans killing 33 German soldiers. Until his dying days at 100 years of age, he denied responsibility for the deaths and denied the Holocaust ever happened. Camerino was proud of the hundreds of protesters that worked hard to refuse him the Christian burial Priebke’s friends and family wanted for him. To let that happen would have been an insult to the insult to the memory of those innocent souls he had a hand in murdering.

During Camerino’s time in Rome, the overwhelming media attention he received allowed him the chance to tell his story to thousands. To his great surprise, he was granted an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis I as well as a meeting with the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano. They each wanted to personally hear about his experiences in Auschwitz and they both asked if there was anything they could do for him. His response to each was the same: in his lifetime, he would like to see a book published and studied in schools to teach about past horrors of war in the hopes of preventing them from ever happening again.

Through this simple request, we can only hope the lessons that Enzo Camerino and countless others who suffered through wartime atrocities recount, will serve that exact purpose.

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