Interview with Aldo Villagrossi Crotti, Writer and Poet
by Maria Teresa De Donato
(Italian translation of the English edition The Girl from Sighet: A Memoir, February 25, 2009by Authors Hindi Rothbart and P’nenah Goldstein)
This month we will continue with a second interview with a very special and equally interesting character we met in May: Aldo Villagrossi Crotti, Writer and Poet.
During our first interview, Aldo and I talked in general about many aspects of his activity as a writer and poet, his publications and some rather unique experiences related to his life and his work.Today we will be focusing on one of his works, namely The Girl from Sighet – From Auschwitz to California – A History of Hope (Edizioni Paoline, 2013), a book that not only deserves to be read, but which is being talked very much about at the moment and in various environments.
T: Hello Aldo and welcome back. Glad to have you again on my blog.
A: Hello Teresa! Look, I haven’t left your blog ever since… anyway, thank you for not having expelled me yet.
T: You are very welcome. It is a pleasure. I insist that you stay. JAldo, in our first interview we mentioned your work… and, for those who have not had the chance yet to read it, we may want to make a brief summary and explain how from a simple typo you ended up with the publication of this beautiful book.
A: Quite simply, I Googled my name and by mistake I misspelled it: instead of ALDO VILLAGROSSI I wrote ADOL VILLAGROSSI and, as consequence, Google suggested me “Did you mean ADOLFO Villagrossi?” Knowing that Google could not offer me anything that was not already on the net, out of curiosity I clicked on the suggested name, and Google sent me to a preview of a self-published book in the US that showed for 30 minutes three random pages of it each day. As it turns out (assuming that things might really happen by chance) the three pages I read talked about my uncle Adolfo Villagrossi. And it was indisputably him. I made screenshots of the three pages, translated them, and sent them to my father for confirmation. The answer was a confirmation: it was him, and his persona was very well described. Tall, handsome and carrying an accordion on his shoulder; an Armir soldier on duty at the border between Hungary and Romania in 1942. It was him. And the person who wrote about Adolfo was a more than eighty years old lady who had written this book almost 70 years after the events, remembering the name of an Italian soldier who had tried (in vain) to save her from the concentration camp. She, Hindi (called India by my uncle Adolfo), had described him so well that we immediately recognized him not only by the description of his appearance as presented in the book, but also by his character’s traits. She, Hindi, survivor of the concentration camp, ends up on a ship that takes her to New York and later to California, where she will die the very day the book is published in Italy, which was delayed to allow me to add one more memory of India/Hindi that came up to my mind.
T: For those who might not have a thorough knowledge of places, characters and events related to the Holocaust, could you, please, provide some details about who exactly Elie Wiesel was?
A: Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, journalist, writer, essayist of Romanian origin, born in Sighetu Marmatiei September 30, 1928, Author of the poignant novel “Night”. I cannot say anything else, however, since one really needs to get to know Wiesel without him being explained too much, he can presents himself. Going back to Sighetu Marmatiei, at that time it was called Sighet and it was the same city where Hindi/India and my uncle Adolfo met the first time. Someone will wonder if Elie Wiesel and Hindi knew each other. No, or better: they met one day in California at the end of a conference held by Wiesel. Hindi approached him and asked if he had some memories at least of the Hindi family, the Friedman. They found out they had only one acquaintance in common, Uncle Szrul, whom Hindi quotes several times in her book. On the other hand, there were 10,000 Jews in Sighet, and it goes without saying that a 14-year-old boy like Wiesel a that time could not have known all of them.
T: In your view, was the deportation of the Jews from the city of Sighet, in Romania, to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, in Poland, somewhat different from the others? And if yes, why?
A: Not as for the method used, but as for the times, yes it was. In my view, the fact that Hungary
hesitated to grant the Germans the deportation of the Jews was due more to blackmail among governments than to any other reason – since, thanks to the powerful pro-Nazi party of the Hungarian
arrow crosses, Hungary enjoyed a wide ramification on the territory able to “manage” deportations and ghettos with ease. Which they did, indeed, with some delay, even in Sighet. All this happened in the spring of 1944, and here begins the dance with the numbers: some speak of 10,000 people, some of 15,000, some other of 32,000 people being deported from Sighet and the villages around Sighet. The battle of the numbers of the holocaust is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my whole life. It seems as those numbers need to somehow take the stage, as if a higher number would play a role more important than a lower one, as if there were a list of holocausts. You know, there are two things about Judaism that need to be mentioned on these occasions, and perhaps that’s why Jews have never really wanted to make sense of numbers: According to the Talmud, every generation knows 36 lamedvavnikim, or 36 men from whose conduct the destiny of humanity depends on. According to tradition they perform humble jobs and once they die, they are replaced with other lamedvavnikim: these will exercise their power when a threat looms over Israel, and then will disappear after having removed it. Here, for a people that firmly believes in the existence of only 36 humble men who can save the rest of the world, I personally do not understand why the number of people killed in concentration camps should make any difference. Even if their number was only 100,000, it would have been madness anyway due to the intention beyond it. Then, going back to the issue of extermination, one thing that is rarely spoken of is the real reason why Adolf Hitler tries to exterminate the Jews even when he knows very well that the war is lost forever: with the extermination of the Jews Hitler tries to unify Europe under a single ideal, that of anti-Semitism. And as for this aspect is concerned, believe me, all Europe basically agreed upon. And even today we are still paying a high price at all level for that. If you do not confess your faults, you are eroded by remorse, and we, Europeans, have been enduring the consequences of that for more than 70 years. In any case, allies or not, each of these countries strove to make this crazy Hitler’s idea a concrete reality, including us, Italians, who in 1938 promulgated the infamous Mussolini’s racial laws, which were inspired by the German Nazis and shared by Mussolini thanks to the common ideologies with Hitler’s allies, ideologies that considered the Jewish Masonic oligarchs who had dominated the world for many years before Mussolini and Hitler were physically born. Hitler knew it well, and was well supported by all the countries from which the deportations started. The Jews have always been accused, first of all, of being the killers of Christ, then of having indicated an “alternative” story to that told in the Gospels. To this day there are parts of the Talmud where lines are omitted, and the reader knows that, had the text been, there would be mention of things that it is better not to write again, but which conventionally are there, two or three empty lines, to symbolize what is known but it is better not to say. In a Catholic and Christian Europe it would have been easy to gather consensus in this sense. The Jews unters, loan sharks, corrupt bankers. All stereotypes that we still see emerging from illustrious feathers all over the world. Europe knew all about the concentration camps, but did nothing. And it is a shame that we have been carrying with us for more than 70 years, and from which we will hardly free ourselves, at least as long as we continue with this attitude of revisionism that makes our conscience impervious to every human feeling towards every European holocaust.
T: Of course – and I totally agree with you on this – focusing on numbers and almost have them compete with each other to show who is closer to the real one, does not seem just absurd, a total nonsense, but in my humble opinion even outrageous and insane. It reminds me of the biblical saying “Drain the midge and swallow the camel.” The efforts, from all of us, nobody excluded, should be directed to avoid that tragedies and similar shame are never repeated again rather than elaborate a classification of the holocausts. As for Europe, which generally speaking was either united in actively participating in the Holocaust or, in any case, in not firmly opposing it, it became an accomplice, this too is a sad and bitter truth. In the summary of your book it is stated that Hindi, the protagonist, and her sister Relu passed “dramatically in May 1944 from the carefree moments of their adolescence to the deportation to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, along with other ten thousand people, all belonging to the Sighet community.”
The simple thought makes my skin crawl… An immense tragedy, an endless shame in the history of Man, which should never have happened but that, unfortunately, did… How could it occur – many of us still wonder – that more than 6 million people, mostly Jewish, lost their lives under the more or less indifferent eyes of the rest of humanity… a tragedy that, sad to say, has continued, albeit with other peoples and for different reasons, up until now?
A: History is full of holocausts. This, the one that occurred during World War Two, is the very first that comes to our mind, but let’s not forget that the Americas were conquered through the extermination of the peoples who lived there, of whom we ignore even the number since they were never counted, and never we will know it. The 6 millions could be 8 as they could be 2. Nobody knows that for sure, and as long as we speculate with numbers there will always be someone who will say: “Ah, I think they are not so many, they are only 350,000”. And who can contradict them? The Germans, assisted by the IBM, kept all the registers until the day when it was clear that the Russians were at the doorstep, and then they all disappeared. So 6 millions is a number that, frankly, I take for what it is: just a number. What really scares me is that even today there is someone who thinks Hitler was right.
T: Indeed. That’s the real problem: Not learning anything from history. And when we do not learn from our mistakes, the latter, as we know, are destined to be repeated. In this regard, what do you answer to the so-called “Holocaust deniers”? I am speechless.
A: Let’s say that denying the Holocaust is absolutely ridiculous, but as always, every theory is not completely meaningless, otherwise the author of the theory would be locked up in a mental hospital the very next day and we would be kissing their theory goodbye. But be careful: Do you know why I always refused to go to Auschwitz? Because that place has been transformed into a sort of Disneyland of sorrow. Many witnesses, including people I met in person (such as Hindi, among others), say that the crematoriums of Auschwitz were bombed shortly before the liberation took place and they were never rebuilt. What we see today in Auschwitz are reconstructions, but nobody says it or writes about it. Why? What is the reason for rebuilding such a horror by pretending it to be genuine? Perhaps it is good for the tourism in the area? Well, I have no doubts at this point, I can live without vising it: I will never go to Auschwitz, but I have no doubt that in that place, at that time, there was a place of extermination. My grandfather ended up in Dachau. I never even went there either. But the stories he told me about it are enough for me, and I know I can trust him.
T: The most excruciating thing, from my point of view, is that all this pain, all this suffering and the loss of thousands or even millions of lives could have been avoided. What can we and should have already learned to avoid such tragedy and how can The Girl from Sighet help so that such horrors can remain, once and for all, only warning examples from the past and are no longer repeated?
A: The teaching of that book is one and only one: whatever the conditions in which you are, if you want, you can rebuild your life starting from its own ruins.
T: This brings us back to the English saying, “What does not kill you makes you stronger”, experience that many of us had personally lived, even though not necessarily by escaping from a concentration camp. It is true, however, that regardless of the conditions in which we are and the obstacles we are facing, it is only the inner strength that can move us to action and help us “rise up and continue the journey”, just like Hindi/India did.
Does your book mention whether the main character or some other victim of the Holocaust and of the deportations from Sighet to Auschwitz immediately realized what was truly happening and how it would end up… or if they were all completely caught off guard, for everything took place all of a sudden and out of the blue, so to speak “?
A: It looks like my uncle Adolfo became immediately aware of what was going on, since in 1942 he wrote to Hindi from Plojesti in Romania: “India, I am very worried about you. I have already informed my parents, here you find their address. From now on, do not write to me anymore but write to them. Once the war is over I will come back and marry you.” Adolfo’s intention was clear: he, an officer of the registry office, had prepared everything to welcome Hindi and her family to his village. There, in the sunny province of Mantua, it would have changed their personal data and the Friedman would have become … who knows, maybe Frimatti or Bertolazzi as he had already done with many others. She did not follow his instructions and it ended badly. On the very day of deportation, locked in cattle cars, they thought they might be relocated to special farms. Unfortunately they were wrong. They arrived in Auschwitz, where things immediately revealed themselves for what they truly were. Adolfo, on the other hand, had witnessed the trains full of Jews from Bucharest transiting through Plojesti, and he had understood that Sighet was going to follow the same fate, and his beloved India would end up in that “pile”. Unacceptable for a man who had lived among the Jews, people he had always known and respected, since he was a child. Simply unthinkable. He returned home sure that India was safe. I wonder why. He was right, but he never found her again. It was she who found him, by chance, thanks to his nephew (myself) but he had already been dead for a long time. And, for some strange reason, she thought he had died under a bombing in 1943. In those days there were no cell phones. Communication was not easy. What a pity.
T: Yes, what a pity that things went as they did… but maybe also in that case there was a reason for that which at the moment we still can not see… Who knows, maybe one day, in another life… we will be explained or we will understand and everything will (eventually) make sense to us. In our interview in May talking about ‘self-criticism’ you said: “I have something to say about self-criticism: I am terrific from this point of view towards myself, and I tend to justify the rest of the world. My wife says that if Hitler came tomorrow, the character that hurts me the most at 360 °, if he came, as I said, crying and asked me to help him, I would probably do so. And I’m afraid she [my wife] is right. Furthermore, poetry is not discriminatory, so, through poetry, I tend to help everyone who reads it, including Hitler.”As I told you on that occasion, this is a beautiful and equally rare aspect of the human nature that I would have liked to delve into with you. Therefore, I take this opportunity, to do so now. In fact, among the many questions that arise in cases like this are the following:
1) After experiencing such a tragedy, having witnessed indescribable atrocities… and being miraculously alive… are we really able to forgive and come to terms with what happened?
2) And if so, how and to what extent?
A: If God himself teaches us and tells us about the ability to forgive, why couldn’t we do so ourselves since we are made in his image and likeness? I believe in forgiveness. I always hope to be able to enjoy the effects of it on myself first (I’m joking), but mainly I believe in the saying: The streets of hell are paved with good intentions. Sometimes human consciousness gets twisted to such an extent that it can no longer distinguish good from evil. And I cannot judge the one who takes a wrong path, but rather show him what I believe is the right way. Hoping I am on the right path myself. Who knows? But religions are born for this reason, that is, to try and brighten the path to follow, wouldn’t you agree?
T: Yes, I agree even if there might be much more to be said on this subject. As for forgiveness, although it may sometimes be difficult to grant it, we should all, in fact, be able to forgive or at least to try and develop the ability to do so. It is interesting to note that, etymologically, the term “for-give” (to-donate) gives the idea of ”giving as a gift”, so it is an encouragement not to focus on the evil we may have received or the wrong that might have been done to us. This, of course, does not mean at all that when we forgive we forget or justify the evil that has been done, especially if it is something serious. On the contrary, the very moment in which we really succeed in forgiving, we relieve ourselves of a heavy burden: the “burden” we were carrying and which consists of suffering, resentment, pain, and sometimes even hatred that we might have experienced towards those who hurt us. Negative feelings like those just mentioned, are in effect destructive, unhealthy energies, which might have repercussions on those who experience them, and therefore on our health at all levels – psychological, mental, emotional and even physical. This implies that if we truly forgive… we also benefit from it in terms of health… even though, of course, we should not do so for this reason… .
As for this, another aspect comes to my mind… In the Bible, a book considered by many as the ‘Inspired Word of God’, we are exhorted to hate evil. Is it possible, in your opinion, to hate evil without hating those who practice it and who even prove they enjoy the suffering they inflict on others? How do you distinguish between the two and create a clear division between subject and action he/she practiced?
A: Translation error: it is not “to hate” evil, but to “repudiate” evil.
T: Thanks for clarifying this point.
A: You are welcome. Evil is part of our existence. Without evil there would be no good because there would be no comparison of contrast. “Nothing is born on the cement, flowers are born on the manure”, said De André. Flowers are beautiful and fragrant, the manure much less. Without manure, flowers do not even spring from the ground, so what are going to do about it? Evil must be known and only once we have known it we can repudiate it. And this explains the concept of forgiveness in universal terms. Who has not known evil cannot forgive. The one who does not understand, heals, talmudic quote. The soured wine barrels that cause so much pain to its owner till he discovers that the vinegar is worth more than the wine. I will tell you more: in the Gospel is written clearly, but often misinterpreted, that Judas Iscariot, the traitor, is in reality part of a very complex divine plan. An aspect we struggle with, that is, that evil is an integral part of the understanding of good. Yet Jesus Christ, Yesu in Nosseri, a Jew from Nazareth who says many interesting things but difficult to interpret, in this case explains this point very clearly: “I know that you will betray me, and I know you will repudiate me, I know you won’t believe me, I know you will not support me, but I die [and I will come back to life] for you.” Therefore, evil and good are part of the same design. Absolutely indivisible. In conclusion: evil requires our understanding. It is paramount to understand evil. If it were not so, the holocaust or the extermination of the populations of the pre-Columbian Americas (for example) would have no theological meaning and the understanding of the divine plan, already rather foggy as it is, would at least be undermined at its very base. If, on the other hand, the result of this understanding is forgiveness, I am not surprised at all. I find it rather natural and… human even more than divine.
T: Indeed. Interesting argumentation that would require further digging, but we would go astray from our topic… So, going back to your book… Is The Girl of Sighet a Love story or a story about Love?
A: It is a story that is written in LOVE. That book is completely immersed in love, love for what has been lost, love for what has been found, love for what one could have had, but also love for what has been achieved after living the madness and the black misery of the concentration camp: THE RENEWAL. Here is the true meaning of Love, knowing how to renew oneself continuously. I love because every day my love is a new love. Think about it.
T: Beautiful consideration and equally true. I am happy with how you have elaborated this thought because very often when talking about Love people think of a couple. But Love goes far beyond a couple’s relationship: Love is a dynamic, universal, creative and renewing force. But let’s stop right here since this is such vast a topic that it would take a long time or at least an entire interview to discuss it.Thanks Aldo for your participation. Would you like to remind our readers how they can get in touch with you or order your book?
A: Of course: the Italian edition of the book can be found quite easily on eBay, while for the American version in English you have to look for it more carefully under the name of The Girl from Sighet. If someone would like to receive it [the Italia edition] from my own hands and perhaps lovingly signed, they can contact me directly through my e-mail address and I will send it to them if they live far from Soncino, where I live, (in this case, however, a payment of 17 € + shipping, price imposed by the publisher, is due); if, on the contrary, they live close to my area I can personally bring it to them in exchange for a good coffee instead of shipping costs.
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