It has always been a fascinating puzzle to me how our brain works, and how memory influences us and the way we look at the surrounding world. We always say that a person with a good memory is better equipped and has better skills to understand what happens around him. Memory is an extraordinary faculty which is able to record and process stimuli generated through multiple senses. Sometimes, our memories are formed around visual images, sometimes through smells, or following strong emotional experiences induced by fears, or pleasures, or tragic events. I have always believed that recounting memories, bringing them into order in our mind, and recognizing the imprint of history on us and our communities, through responsible and truthful narrative, is a necessary condition to live head high, especially through times where falsehood, blasphemy and propaganda shape collective perceptions by means of mass-media and other technological machineries. Like it or not, history offers us personal facets, which are interlaced with the great events occurring during our life time. If I go back to my grandparents’ times, then instantly specific images related to my maternal grandmother cross my mind: during the Second World War, she was running a family-owned hotel on the lake of Garda. In that hotel, German army officers were regularly served in the restaurant hall; on the other hand, antifascist partisans were from time to time hiding under the roof of the same building. These scenes forged my understanding of those times, and eventually my political sympathies, and allowed me to closing accounts with my family’s past and the challenging powers of the era.
Every year, a Day dedicated to remembering is celebrated, it is January 27. As many other countries, the Italian Republic recognizes the date when the gates of Auschwitz were knocked down, as the “Day of Remembrance”, in order not to forget the extermination of the Jewish people, the racial laws, the Italian persecution of Jewish citizens, the Italians who suffered deportation, imprisonment, death, as well as those who, even in different camps and sides, opposed the extermination project, and at the risk of their own lives saved other lives and protected the persecuted. In our national history, we have also February 10, as an official Memory Day which commemorates the massacres in the so-called “foibe” and the Julian-Dalmatian exodus. This Day of Remembrance is linked to the violence and killings that took place in Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia between 1943 and 1947. When Yugoslavia took control of those territories, a fierce reprisal began that struck many innocent Italian citizens, implicitly considered guilty of having lived under the fascist regime. Through imprisonment, forced labor camps and death in the “foibe” (natural vertical caves, swallow-holes, very common in karst areas, where the victims were thrown in, even alive) between 4,000 and 5,000 people were suppressed. My country has been making a considerable effort in paying a tribute to the victims of history crimes, and I am proud of that.
This is unfortunately not true in others, and where remembrance has not been cultivated to heal the wounds, hate and propaganda have maintained their powerful grip on human souls. I was surprised to hear that, last February 19, Spanish fascist groups marched together to commemorate the Spanish fighters who fought during Second World War alongside Hitler. They were freely parading on the public street, declamating that the Jew is the enemy, and celebrating the virtues of fascism. Why was that possible? Because Spain has never come to terms with its Francoist past, and too many victims of the Civil War are still buried in some of the 1,200 unexcavated mass graves. And probably Francoist fighters have been buried without a name too, leaving a throbbing wound in the society of that country. We could say similar things for a country like Russia, where millions disappeared during the Soviet Union times, and still today repression prevent the truth to be narrated. We could say likewise for Syria, where the disappeared – most of them at the hands of the Syrian regime and Daesh – are at least one-hundred thousand, while those perished in the recent civil war, trying to hold ground against dictatorship, are now represented by those who prevailed as trivial terrorists. And what about the territories of the former Yugoslavia or the current Yemen, where the suffering of many families has not yet found a voice. Or what about the victims of the Algerian “black decade” (1991-2002), when thousands were killed in a dirty war between army and Islamist militants, without allowing the families of the victims for any call for justice or remembrance, even after twenty years have passed.
The list could go on. And it is not only about tragedies such as wars and dictatorial rules. Memory can be trampled even with ordinary measures: it is for example the case of the Nakba in Israel, the remembrance of the loss of their villages by the native Arabs with the arrival of the Zionist state. Holding events to remember it is a punishable offense in today’s Israel, and even organizations lead by Jewish citizens such as Zochrot, who tries to pay a tribute to the Arab side of recent history, in order to prepare for reconciliation, are hindered by the government and accused of anti-patriotism.
Recognizing past crimes in our own national histories is a primary condition for establishing peace and social cohesion. It is also the requirement to make families within the same community accepting each other, and giving a retribution to the pain of many. Grief must always be honored, no matter where and by whom it is experienced.
Unfortunately, often and I would say increasingly more, memory distortion serves the purposes of those who are ready to crush others for power reasons, and do not consider humanity and human life as a value.
The most astonishing recent example of this will of ‘memory cleansing’ is Egypt. On January 25, 2021, we remembered the ten years since the popular revolution that removed Moubarak from power. In the past few years, January 25 has been a national holiday dedicated to the achievements of Egypt’s Arab Spring. The Egyptian military and despot cancelled de facto such a reference, reviving the celebrations of the Police Day. They did worst. They made January 25, 2021 as a working day, and postponed it as an alternative day off to Thursday January 28, “in order to give citizens a longer weekend”. People had to work on January 25 – what means: less possibilities for protest gatherings. No people’s celebration activity was admitted that day, nor on January 28, and a complete social and intellectual blackout was enforced by the country’s rulers. It was as if ninety million people were administered drugs to reset the last decay from their minds. Memory for certain governors seems to be a malleable fluctuation of episodes, because the Police Day does memorialize another milestone event in Egypt’s history: it commemorates the killing of fifty Egyptian police officers upon refusing British demands to hand over weapons and evacuate the Ismaïlia Police Station on 25 January 1952. What should then one learn from that? That when victims are brutalized by the Foreigner, they deserve the national honor, but when they are brutalized by their compatriots – as it happened in 2011 and continue happening nowadays – then they deserve forgetfulness?
There is something else which makes me very angry with respect to the distorted use of historic events: it is when history is ignored to create a scapegoat. That is exactly what is happening with migrants. It is unbearable to hear Italian politicians calling for the closure of the borders, because “they” [the migrants] are too many, and should not enter our territory, or claiming that “they” should make their fortune in their own country. “They”. If you close the borders, then of course anyone who tries to reach your land is illegal. And behind that notion of “illegality”, any measure responding to the principle of humanity can be easily stifled. Once the borders are closed, issuing a refusal to rescuing people at sea becomes simply an administrative step framed by law. Well, where lies there the “distorted use of historic events”? Where is there the falsification of national history?
Here is the response: Italy is probably the country that has been most severely transformed by migration flows. In just over a century (1860-1970), it recorded 25 million of departures – though not all final – equal to half of its 1960 population . Italians left their country defying immigration laws, they left their country because they could not make their fortune there. How can a nation of emigrants pretend to ignore that migration is a human phenomenon? This is only possible through systematic denial of our own past, stories, biographies and family memoirs.
Memory gaps. They are as dangerous as climate change. Memory gaps are steps toward alienation, memory gaps serve the fabrication of narratives which destroy our intimacy, our grandmothers’ tales, the spiritual heritage preserved in our graves. This is why I defend Remembrance Days from any ideological attempt to restore narratives of the oppressors, legitimize a crime, or feed the hate of the bully.
Protect your memories, defend the right to cultivate them, one day they will serve the cause of an unfulfilled demand of justice.
Florence, February 21, 2021.