Translation edited by: Arianna Cassani.
“Why I came back alive? Why I survived? Why me?”
These were the questions that recurred in Sami’s mind.
Samuele Modiano was born in Rhodes in 1930. After having lost his mother some years before, on the 23rd of July of the year 1944 he, his father and his sister together with the whole Jewish community of the city of Rhodes, were taken to the extermination camp of Birkenau. An atrocious journey, with no respect for the basic human conditions, through watercrafts and trains, that lasted approximately one month. Thanks to the obstinacy of Sami’s father, Giacobbe, and thanks to the help of God, Sami was sent to forced labour and escaped the death chamber. He lived among misfortune and merciless human conditions, but in January of the year 1945, after having lost his father and his sister too, he managed to survive the death march, concealing himself under a pile of corpses. After his return, he moves to Africa, from where he will flee because of the war in Congo, a bloody conflict. He married Selma, the woman he still lives with, and in 2012 he started to tell all the things that he had to face and all the things he has been through during his life.
“Sometimes we saw recon planes that flew above our heads and we noted some suspicious ripples on the sea surface, not that far from our boats. They were English and Greek submersibles that constantly patrolled the Aegean Sea. Probably they have been following us all along. And yet, they didn’t do anything to help us.”
In this passage, a 13 and a half year-old boy experiments deep down his soul the indifference, as a point of no return, that will be added to the many questions and wounds that a survivor carries with him.
“And then, the selection began. It was a doctor who was in charge of it […] With a simple gesture, with that very glance he decided who had to live, for a while, and who had to die right away.”
“It was my father’s obstinacy that saved my life. He was a man of 40 or 45 years old, tall and strong enough; I was holding his hand and I was hiding behind him, and when he was sent to work, he took me by the hand with him, so I ended up together with the people selected for forced labour.”
In a split second a “man” that could not be called like that anymore, decided other people’s fate and those people were powerless in front of their destiny.
“It was the last procedure of the registration: the tattoo, that the same convict did to us. My father was still holding my hand, he hadn’t left it since the beginning; he pushed me towards the table where he put his arm, in front of me, like he wanted to show me how I had to behave, because he didn’t want me to be scared. So I imitated him, and he waited for me to finish my tattoo. Indeed, I have the number B7456, while my father had the number B7455.”
Even if they were in a place from where they could come out only dead, the emotional bonds were stronger, and they represented a lifeline, the strength necessary to survive.
“The situation, as the days passed, became more and more difficult, and even if after work I wanted to spend some time with my father, I knew that there was something wrong, and something was trying to divide us. I noticed that he became more and more quiet and he began keeping to himself. He was consumed […] I decided to talk to my father: if she didn’t come, it meant that she didn’t make it.But he had already understood everything. And that day he decided to get it over with, because there was no way out.”
“I often ask myself what was the thing that saved me in that moment, my father’s will or the confusion? Maybe God.”
This is the declaration of a 13 year-old boy that was entering adolescence and that soon would have become a man like everyone else.
But he, like many other Jewish, was the victim of one of the deepest abyss ever reached by mankind.
It was the 7th of July in 2017 when Sara and I met Sami and Selma. Everything was random: it was a warm afternoon and they received us inside the synagogue of the Old Town. We let ourselves get carried away by their story, through their tales. We do remember as if it was yesterday the moment when Sami asked us to tighten our hands around his tattoo and to make a wish: moments like this change your life forever.
It was ten to two in the afternoon, and Sami was about to finish his volunteer service for the synagogue. We have been looking for that place for the whole morning, and we found it by chance a few minutes before giving up and before going back to the hotel. We were supposed to meet: it was like everything was meant to be and our gazes, full of emotions, were a proof of it.