ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An 89-year-old Holocaust survivor is the target of hundreds of daily death threats in Italy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on how these threats show that anti-Semitism, racism and hate speech are not just ideas from Italy's past. They are under debate today.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In 1943, 13-year-old Liliana Segre was deported to Auschwitz with the number 75,190 tattooed on her arm. After the war, she says, most people didn't want to hear about the Holocaust. She became a grandmother at age 60 and realized she hadn't done her duty to inform younger generations about the horrors of the genocide, and she began to meet with schoolchildren to describe life in a Nazi death camp. Her work drew public attention. And last year, Segre was named senator for life, acknowledging her as Italy's historic memory of the Holocaust. A TV interviewer this month asked what that meant to her.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LILIANA SEGRE: (Through interpreter) Inside, I always was that little child, suddenly banned from going to school, who became invisible to the world around her. Eighty years later, she becomes senator for life. I can't find words to describe my emotion.
POGGIOLI: But greater visibility made Segre a target of online anti-Semitic vitriol, some 200 attacks a day. Segre responded to the rising nationalistic and anti-immigrant sentiment by calling for the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate hate speech, racism and anti-Semitism. The vote passed but all right-wing parties abstained, arguing it would limit free speech. Segre was stunned.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEGRE: (Through interpreter) I thought a proposal against hatred in general, which we are all witnessing, would be an ethical, moral issue. I felt like a Martian in the Senate.
POGGIOLI: Five days after that interview, the Milan police office announced Segre had been assigned two security agents following a surge in online threats. Ruth Durughello, president of the Rome Jewish community, says that's a sign of society's seven decades of failure in education.
RUTH DURUGHELLO: This is a real crisis for all of us, of all the system, of all the democracy. This means that she must be protected from the hate as it was in the past.
POGGIOLI: Rome's old Jewish ghetto is one place where signs of the past are very visible.
In front of many doorways, small, square, brass plaques are nestled among the cobblestones. They're called stumbling stones that read, here lived. At number 9 Via Portico d'Ottavia, there are 12 stones with each resident's name, date of birth and date murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
Next door is a kosher restaurant, La Taverna del Ghetto. Owner Angelo Di Porto says what happened to Segre makes him ashamed to be Italian. It's also, he says, a warning.
ANGELO DI PORTO: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, history teaches us that when Jews are under attack, that leads to prosecutions, dictatorships and misfortunes for society as a whole. Therefore, non-Jews are the first ones who should be worried about what's happening here.
POGGIOLI: One person who's worried is Paolo Berizzi, author of books on the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism. Contrary to other countries that had totalitarian regimes, he says Italy never came to terms with its past. He blames postwar democratic governments for believing fascism was dead and buried.
PAOLO BERIZZI: (Through interpreter) Fascism can be reborn at any time and in any part of the world under new forms, not with black shirts.
POGGIOLI: Fascism, says Berizzi, expresses itself in new, liquid ways, sometimes hard to identify, but in the end, very visible.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMOCK'S "SCATTERING LIGHT")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.