Evil ditches, devils, demons, circles of hell, eternal pain and forgotten people. These are some of Dante’s words and expressions which recur in the descriptions of the Nazi Lagers as recounted by the survivors: the Lager is a hell on earth which the survivors are able to describe by borrowing the language of Dante. The categorical imperative of ‘the obligation to testify’ has therefore found a voice through Dante’s Divine Comedy, which has provided the victims with the vocabulary necessary to name events and realities otherwise indescribable. These ‘right words’ are, in fact, the focal point of the study carried out by Marina Riccucci, a professor of Italian literature at the University of Pisa. She has been working on this theme for around two years and by the end of 2019 will have published at least three works, one of which with her pupil Sara Calderini in the “Italianistica” journal.
The study takes into consideration non-literary texts such as diaries, letters and oral recounts of those who were interned in extermination camps. This is a huge heritage which includes, for example, “Un mondo fuori dal mondo”, an investigation carried out by the DOXA institute in 1971 among the Italian ex-deportees from various extermination camps, but also a number of specific interviews conducted by Riccucci with Senator Liliana Segre, Mauro Betti, a political dissident interned in various camps who sadly passed away last year, and Goti Bauer, the oldest living Italian woman to have survived Auschwitz.
“The thing which strikes you the most“, says Marina Riccucci, “is the great difficulty the witnesses have in telling their stories and the most common phrase is ‘no words can express it’: at the same time, however, when these people are able to put a name and face to what they have seen and undergone, it comes naturally to them, almost like a reflex action, to resort to the image of Dante’s hell, regardless of their level of education; Dante is referred to as a collective linguistic patrimony, with no literary pretense, driven by the need to find a code - the right words.”
For the survivors, therefore, in many cases the concentration camp is like Dante’s world beyond the grave and for this reason when they refer to it, they invoke the images created by Dante, using the very words of the poet of the Divine Comedy.
In order to describe the arrival in the lager, witnesses often borrow the words from the third ring of Dante’s Hell, which say “Lasciate ogni speranza o voi che entrate (Abandon hope all ye who enter here)/… / Per me si va nella città dolente, (Through me you pass into the city of woe) / per me si va ne l’etterno dolore, (through me you pass into eternal pain) /per me si va tra la perduta gente (through me among the people lost for aye).” In addition, they appear to feel the need to repeat terms like ‘bolgia’ (ditch) and ‘Malebolge’ (Evil ditches), or expressions such as ‘voci alte e fioche’ (voices shrill and faint), ‘pianti e altri guai’ (lamentations and loud cries), and ‘girone infernale’ (circles of hell) and when they talk of the moment of liberation they say they have returned ‘a riveder le stelle’ (to rebehold the stars). They have no intention of citing or professing to a literary culture. The survivors constantly feel a pressing need to find the right words to describe the unthinkable.
“The concentration camps recur in the words of the witnesses like a concrete realization of a perverse and evil fantasy, just like the one proffered by Dante, the best and most representative example,” concludes Marina Riccucci. “The difference is that the divine justice expounded in Dante’s poem is literally turned upside down: in the Lagers, in fact, it was the innocent victims of delinquent persecutors who were tortured and killed. We must never forget that what the survivors saw and endured is a real life world with executioners and condemned victims, where millions of people found themselves damned without ever having committed a crime. This is what must be remembered, so that nothing so atrocious ever happens again.”