The school of Jewish profuchi in San Benedetto, DP Camp Cremona.I received an e-mail last New Year’s Eve from a young architect, Angelo Garioni, of Cremona, Italy. Angelo was researching the history of the displaced persons camp in Cremona that had once been a Catholic monastery. From my book, My Silent Pledge, he’d learned that my surviving family members had lived in the Cremona DP camp from 1945 to 1948. He attached some recent photos of the ruins of what had once been the Cremona DP camp and asked if I would answer some questions about our life in the camp.
Angelo had begun his research three years earlier about the evolution of three Catholic Monasteries: San Benedetto, Corpus Domini, and Santa Chiara, which were part of the complex until the French revolution. Later, the compound was turned into an army base until the end of the war in Europe, when it became an UNRRA refugee camp for Jewish Holocaust survivors.
I sent him the information that he requested and a few photos from Cremona that showed how Catholics and Jews had worshipped in the same buildings. Not long after, while en route to Tel-Aviv, I booked a stopover in Milan to visit the grave of my father in the Jewish cemetery there.
Angelo had requested an interview with me on Skype but, after learning I’d be in Italy, he suggested that he pick me up in Milan and we drive together to Cremona. The Cremona library was already planning some programming around my visit, part of the community’s research into the DP camp.
Library staff wrote a note to me saying: “It was important for us to learn more about the history of our town and to teach the next generation the memory of the Holocaust.”
The library also created a brief documentary called “Cremona Remembers the Family Zoltak”, which I found almost overwhelmingly emotional.
The librarians told me that for International Holocaust Memorial Day they were planning a joint program with the Jewish Foundation for Cultural Heritage in Italy that would feature my journey, as well as the refugee phenomenon, the phenomenon of crossing borders, the Children’s Home in Sciesopoli (Selvino) and the history of the DP Camp of Cremona. My son Larry decided to join me in Milan and Cremona.
We were told that I would have the opportunity to address some 300 high school students at an event moderated by Ilde Bottoli, also in charge of a program that takes 500 students on an annual Holocaust educational trip. The day would include a guided tour through the former DP Camp.
Anticipating the activities for the day, my mind returned to the lowly quarters my parents had had in the camp, where my father died in December 1945, at the age of 42. I was excited but anxious, glad to have my son with me.
In Milan, I found many friends were planning to join me in Cremona. Larry and I met Angelo and began our voyage to Cremona, 100 kilometres away. At the outskirts of the city we crossed the river ‘Po’. As we entered the ‘Biblioteca’ we were warmly greeted by the two librarians and introduced to others waiting to welcome us. I presented the library with two copies of my book and was shown a full page of the local newspaper, La Provincia, which featured photos of my family taken 70 years ago at the camp and details about my visit.
Later, following Ilde Bottoli’s introduction, I provided my testimony which followed with a question and answer period, all conducted in Italian. After a community lunch, we were officially welcomed by Cremona Mayor Gianluca Galimberti.
On his return home, my son Larry posted on Facebook: “My father after surviving the horrors of the Shoah settled in a DP camp in Cremona, awaiting emigration to Canada. While in the DP camp, the people of Cremona welcomed him and the 1,200 other refugees (Jewish Survivors), from war-torn Europe. On our return there yesterday we were greeted by the townspeople, who welcomed us with open arms. We were then taken to an assembly of 200 Catholic teenagers and 100 adults… I was amazed at the knowledge and the poise of these children…”
Leaving Cremona, I felt very emotional. The warm welcome from the librarians, historians, students, and many ordinary citizens brought me to tears.
When I thanked Mayor Galimberti and the citizens of Cremona for their compassion, affection and respect towards us refugees in the DP camp, he responded: “No, no, it is I who thank you and the other refugees. Your presence in the camp was responsible for turning the bad and sometimes very bad people of Cremona into good human beings.”
As I returned home to Montreal I am still left with a sense of wonder, thinking to myself, Did all of this really happen?
Sidney Zoltak is co-president of the the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants (CJHSD)