Snuggled into the cozy hills of southern Italy, in the golden fields between the highway and the river, rests the Ferramonti concentration camp.
Ferramonti was a concentration camp unlike any other. While six million were murdered elsewhere, in Ferramonti there were no deportations and there was no violence. The guards were nice and respectful, and the camp director was lenient and kind. Ferramonti resembles an underfunded summer camp more than a holocaust concentration camp.
Ferramonti was the first camp to be liberated and the last camp to close. As the nazi army retreated through Italy in the fall of 1943, the camp director sent the Jews out of the camp and into the hills to hide with the locals. The local Italians, living in a tough wartime economy, decided to ‘cut their bits of bread in half,’ and they fed and protected the Jews as the German army passed through with the Jewish brigade of the British army on their heels. Once liberated, the prisoners voluntarily returned to the camp, because it was safe and nice, and the camp was only closed at the end of 1945, several months after the war was over.
Ferramonti held over 3,000 prisoners, and only 40 people died there, 39 of them from natural causes. The 40th was killed by the British army when they briefly and accidentally mistook the camp for a military base because of its spacious and clean barracks. In Ferramonti, there was good food and proper shelter, and the medical care was so good that the locals would come to the camp when they were sick.
I’ve cried in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdonik, and Theresienstadt, but when visiting Ferramonti, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. In the museum, there are pictures of the women’s volleyball teams and the men’s soccer teams, children hugging and joyously dressed for Purim outside of one of the three synagogues. There are pictures of the Talmud club studying, academics reading in their makeshift studies, and report cards from the several schools in the camp. There are pictures of wedding ceremonies and concerts. There are pictures of the barbershop and the ice cream store. And most interestingly, there are pictures! The prisoners had cameras and developed their own photographs.
The economy in Ferramonti was strong, considering there was a war going on. Every prisoner received a stipend from international Jewish philanthropies and the regional government, and they could buy food at the camp store, grow their own food in a garden, and / or barter with the locals. Prisoners who had been professionals before the war freely continued their trades. Artists created, teachers taught, doctors healed, and people enjoyed life.
What is the meaning of Ferramonti? I think it is a profound lesson in civil disobedience and claiming one’s choice for good in perhaps the harshest chapter in modern history. No matter what orders came from the fascists in the north, no matter which army was coming through, the locals in charge of Ferramonti refused to participate in a system of suffering and violence. Their refusal put their own lives at risk, and it saved many lives and many worlds. Next time you are in Italy, be sure to head down south and see the concentration camp unlike any other, where people chose joy and love over suffering and hate.