The Hour of History

Hope in the Hands of Three Women

Fear is our dominant feeling today and it is precisely for this reason that if we want to regain hope, we must try to look to the past.”  Amitav  Ghosh, an Indian writer, said this a few days ago in an interview.

It is perhaps in this perspective that Sam Mendes’ film 1917 and Liliana Segre’s speech to the European Parliament on Remembrance Day gave me hope (which is why I am writing this text and why I suggest watching calmly the speech and maybe even the film.

The First World War, the Second, the hell of the Holocaust marked the history of this continent (and not only) no more than 75 and 100 years ago. The British and Germans lined up and fought on the French front, as the film recounts. Millions of people left their lives in the trenches, in attacks in lands of desolation and death. And so, all of Europe was a war-insulated front.

1917 is a long portrait of destruction and inhumanity that, like a carpet, covered our lands for so many years. With Tom and William, the viewer shares the urgency of saving the most advanced battalion, which has fallen into the German trap. The enemy wants to kill me, and if I have no other choice, I must kill him too.

One can never be grateful enough for not having to deal with that instinct, which, until 75 years ago, any young person born in Europe, like me, could not avoid. And in the rest of the world, even today, hundreds of thousands of people can’t avoid this feeling.

75 years ago, a 15-year-old girl was forced by the Germans to march from Auschwitz to death fleeing the Russian advance. A few months later, the war was over. In recounting the experience, Liliana Segre , quoting Primo Levi, speaks of the four Russian soldiers at the gates of Auschwitz, taken aback by the “astonishment at the evil of others: astonishment at the evil that people who are not crazy, and who are your brothers, have planned for you”.

The evil of the Holocaust is a black hole in the consciousness of the history of our continent and of our countries. It is a tragically thought evil, not only an instinct for power and survival, like that of war.

Liliana Segre’s words in Brussels are also well thought. Her posture, her white and elegant hair, her precise and decisive words represent an ascent from that evil. It is memory that does not leave the reins loose to the oblivion of evil.

But there’s one aspect that makes 1917 and her speech find comfort inside me. In both cases, it is in the presence of a woman that hope is reborn, that life does not tire of doing something new.

In the midst of William’s journey to the front, in the darkness of a destroyed city, you suddenly find yourself in the warmth of a room: the fire of the fireplace, the cry of a newborn, the tenderness of a woman who loves a child not conceived but welcomed. In the darkness of men’s night, committed to (not) dying and killing, a woman gives life (hers) to a new life.

Liliana Segre, going away from Auschwitz, on her way home, to her bourgeois life, could not fail to descend into the devastated and destroyed cellar of her soul. In her duty to testify, in her responsibility not to leave a rein loose to oblivion, she became a grandmother. 

“I became the grandmother of that little girl who marched to death, who searched in the dunghills, who no longer cried, who sought the common word. That little girl there is not myself and I am my own grandmother. Well I’m a grandmother to myself too and it’s a feeling that when I talk in schools and jump out, the little skeletal desperate girl. And I can’t stand her anymore.” 

In recounting, in recounting her past to us, Liliana Segre is like the woman with a newborn. She gives her life for a new life. She becomes the grandmother of that little girl whom she can no longer bear, accepts her, wishes her the best, welcomes her and takes her with her. This is for us, for the future of history, of our continent, of the whole world. Become a grandmother and evil wins, which otherwise in addition to destroying the little girl, would destroy her and the part of us that cannot help but know and remember, to know and still have hope.

And it was another woman, even if she was never able to become a woman because killed as a child in the Terezin camp, who gave the words for the final remarks of Liliana Segre’s speech. It is a wish for life and hope. For memory and responsibility. 

A little girl drew a yellow butterfly flying over barbed wire.

This is a granny’s message that I would like to leave to my ideal future grandchildren.

That they may be able to make the choice. And with their responsibility and their choice, may they always be the yellow butterfly that flies over the barbed wire.”

A grandmother, a mother and a little girl. And the world is entrusted in their hands and their words. It now almost seems understandable why God entrusted himself to a woman’s “yes”.

The Author

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