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Indifference

A timely piece by Roger Cohen, op-ed writer for The New York Times:

“Indifference” is the word engraved on the stark wall at the entrance to Milan’s Holocaust memorial, housed beneath the central railway station from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. The premises vibrate when trains depart overhead, as if mirroring the shudder the place provokes.

A survivor of the deportation, Liliana Segre, whose father, Alberto, was killed at Auschwitz, suggested that “indifference” was the most appropriate word to greet visitors to the memorial, which opened in 2013. Nobody had cared when, from 1943 onward, Jews were hauled through the elegant avenues of Milan to the station. They were unloaded from trucks and packed into wooden boxcars made to transport six horses but used for some 80 doomed human beings.

So it was perhaps inevitable that when Roberto Jarach, the vice president of the memorial, was asked if he could help with Milan’s refugee crisis, he saw that word flash through his mind. As hundreds of desperate refugees converged daily on Milan’s central station — opened during the rule of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — the memorial could not show “indifference.”


“I immediately came down here to measure the space we have,” Jarach told me. “These people hardly know where they are.”

And so, for a few months now, camp beds have been set out every night to the left of the main entrance. In all, about 3,500 people have been sheltered, mainly Eritreans, but also Syrians and Afghans, part of the largest movement of refugees and migrants since the end of World War II.

Children are given toys and crayons. Adults get a new pair of shoes: A pile of discarded footwear testifies to their popularity. A jury-rigged pipe provides a shower in the washrooms. When I visited, 38 refugees had spent the previous night at the memorial. They come in the evening from the station, where municipal authorities and an organization called Progetto Arca have set up a processing center. They sleep near the Indifference Wall. They leave the next morning, usually headed north toward Germany.

There is no direct analogy between the situation of millions of refugees today and the Jews who were deported from Milan’s Platform 21 (as the memorial is also known). The refugees are fleeing war — not, in general, targeted annihilation. They are victims of weak states, not an all-powerful one. Their plight often reflects the crisis of a religion, Islam — its uneasy adaptation to modernity — not the depredations of a single murderous ideology.

Still, there are echoes, not least in that word, indifference.


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