Lingering aspects of traumatic events of the Second World War
The traumatic events that occurred during the Second World War continued over time. The survivors of the Nazi-fascist massacres perpetrated in Italy (1944) certainly suffered a very strong trauma during the killing and immediately after it: they narrowly escaped death, they often witnessed the death of their loved ones, and had to bury the corpses themselves afterward. Then the war ended, the villages were rebuilt, the survivors managed to rebuild a life, get married, find a job, have children. A life that could be described as normal.
Yet, survivors say, the trauma has never really been overcome. There have been extreme cases of suicide, but even those who have not made such a dramatic choice often have had to deal with the memory of the massacre throughout their lives. Even the youngest, who initially had refused the oppressive mourning of the elderly, once mature recognized that the massacre was the pivotal event in their lives. Some claim to be, in a certain sense, dead with their relatives killed, then. This kind of fate is even more true for the survivors of political and racial deportation.
The concentration camp had to slowly kill its victims. The psychophysical degradation of the prisoners, programmed scientifically, became a big problem for those who had suffered it and managed to survive. For them, once they returned to their country and their loved ones (if they had remained) it became difficult to tell what they had suffered and what they had been forced to see and do in the Lager. Moreover, even when they had tried to tell they had realized that those who listened could not understand, could not believe.
This suffering was joined by a series of symptoms that haunted the survivors for years, sometimes for a lifetime. They couldn’t sleep. They had horrible nightmares. Even during the vigil, unpredictably, the terror of the Lager suddenly fell upon them, leaving them stunned. They realized that their character had irremediably changed, they had become more nervous, more fragile, and at the same time more violent, introverted while before they were extroverted and cheerful. After a while, they could not believe that what they had suffered was real.
Even the second generations were often involved in this unsurpassable mourning. Dina Wardi spoke of “candles of memory” referring to children of the Auschwitz survivors. With that expression she wanted to describe a recurring situation: when parents, unable to process the trauma, unwittingly imposed on their children an impossible task: to overcome a bereavement that they had not suffered personally. I was able to observe the same situation in some children of survivors of the Nazi-Fascist massacres of 1944. They tell of a joyless childhood, with dull parents, the house full of images of killed relatives. Even in their case, therefore, the massacre continued to act destructively even after decades, even for those who were not even born at the time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giovanni Contini is president emeritus of AISO (Italian association of Oral History), member of the board of directors of the historical institute of the resistance in Tuscany and president of the historical institute of the resistance in Pistoia.
1975 – Graduated cum laude, University of Florence.
1976-1979 – Research assistant, University of Siena.
1981-1984 – Research Fellow, King’s College (Cambridge, U.K.).
1984-2014 – Director of the Audiovisual Archives, Archival Superintendency for Tuscany.
1992 – Representative for Italy in the Oral Tradition Committee of the International Archives Council.
2005-2012 – Professor of History of Contemporary Italy and of Archival Science, University of Rome La Sapienza.
2001 – Member of the UNESCO Italian Committee for the Protection of Intangible Heritage.
2002 – Visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, Komaba.
2006 – Regents fellow at UCLA, Los Angeles.
2013-2017 – President of AISO (Italian Association of Oral History).
2013 – Lectures at University of California Los Angeles, Center for Jewish Studies .
2014 – Lectures at the University on Air, Tokyo.
2016 – University of Amsterdam, visiting professor.
2019 – Lectures at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Over the years, I wrote over a hundred essays, including several books, among them:
Memoria e Storia. Le officine Galileo nel racconto degli operai, dei tecnici, dei manager. Milan: Franco Angeli, 1985.
Contini, Giovanni and Martini, Alfredo. Verba manent. L’uso delle fonti orali in storiografia. Rome: Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1993.
La memoria divisa. Milan: Rizzoli, 1997.
Aristocrazia contadina. Sulla complessità della società mezzadrile: fattoria, famiglie, individui, Siena: Protagon, 2005. Reprinted, Siena: Gli Ori, 2008.