Created: September 1943
Closed: February 1944
Location: Borgo San Dalmazzo (Cuneo – Italy)
Today, there is no trace left of the “Polizeihaftlager” at Borgo San Dalmazzo, near Cuneo, which functioned as a collection point for Jews (of Italian nationality or otherwise) between 18 September and 21 November 1943, and later under the control of the fascist Republic of Salo from 9 December 1943 until 13 February 1944.
Nearly 400 people left this camp, from a wide range of different European nationalities. For many of these, Borgo San Dalmazzo represented the end of attempts at escape from the Nazis that had lasted five years. From here, 352 were deported to Auschwitz, of whom no more than 12 survived, according to the latest research. Two more were sent to Buchenwald.
Amongst these “enemies of the Reich”, and of the Republic of Salo, were 148 women and 201 men already interned during the camp’s first phase of operation, and 18 women and 8 men in the second phase. Heavily represented amongst the victims were the very young: 78 would not reach their 21st birthday, and of these were less than one year old. 26 prisoners were over 70 years old, of whom three were in their 80s.
Of those deported to the extermination camps, Italians constitute only a small minority (23 out of the 354), for reasons discussed below. The rest (all victims of Nazi racial persecution), with a large number of Poles (119) and French citizens, represented nearly all the nationalities of Europe: Hungarians, Greeks, Germans, Austrians, Romanians, Russians and Croats.
The camp was located in a mountain barracks dedicated to the “Princes of Piedmont”, a short distance from the railway station at the entrance to valli Gesso and Vermenagna. Today, only two epitaphs, marking the events that took place in those months on the site, preserve the memory of the detentions and the departure of the trains for Auschwitz, after deportations to French (Drancy) or Italian transit camps (Fossoli, and on two occasions, Bolzano).
The history of the camp can be divided up in two distinct periods, though they follow closely in time.
Phase One: September – November 1943.
The events of 8 September 1943 and the collapse of the Italian Fourth Army meant that all Italian hold on the southern French areas occupied by Italy in November 1942 was greatly weakened. Between 1942 and 1943, the Italian zone, especially the area around Nice and the Alps, had offered a safe haven to many thousands of non-French Jews, who had escaped southern France and were being hounded by the Nazis’ ferocious persecution: this system was called “forced” or “assigned” residence, but it did offer the Jews general, if somewhat precarious, safety. One of these areas of residence for the Jews was the town of St.-Martin Vésubie, which eventually housed many thousands of Jews who were able to survive in relative peace until the date of the Italian armistice.
The Vésubie Valley is connected to Cuneo by two alpine passes, via military roads which followed paths of a much older layout to the hills of Finestre and Ciriegia, at 2,400 metres high. Using these alpine passes, one thousand Jews left St.-Martin on 13 September in search of safety, taking the view that the Armistice had made Italy a safe haven for them. Whole families, reaching an estimated total of a thousand people, made their way into the Gesso valley by this route and poured into the towns around Borgo San Dalmazzo (Entraque, Valdieri). This exodus is notable also for the fact that amongst those climbing the passes were children and pensioners, people hardly suited to travelling in mountains. The rest of the Jews who remained behind in St.-Martin were captured by the Nazis after their arrival and were immediately deported.
In these very days, the Nazis occupied Cuneo (on 12 September) and small groups of anti-fascists created the first partisan battalions in the area. On 18 September, an SS commando squad ordered “foreigners… in the territory of Borgo San Dalmazzo and its neighbouring areas” to present themselves to the “German Command in Borgo San Dalmazzo, in the alpine barracks”. 349 people, overwhelmingly Jews of Polish, French and German origin (but also Austrians, Romanians, Hungarians and Greeks) either obeyed the order to present themselves, or were captured and sent to the barracks, while others sought refuge amongst the people living in the valleys with the help of a local assistance network. Some joined up with the partisan forces. Amongst the “foreign” internees in the camp were, for a short time, Jews from Cuneo who had been captured on 28 September and then released on 9 November (for reasons what are not clear).
For two months, the barracks prisoners lived in a state of segregation that did not, however, feature the levels of violence that characterised life in other similar camps. Thanks to the intervention of local authorities, a minimum level of assistance was available, including vists from the vice-rabbi of Turin. Even the few successful escapes from the camp did not result in any excessive deterioration of the prisoners’ conditions. Prisoners who became ill received authorisation to transfer to hospitals in Borgo, and in serious cases, to Cuneo.
Outside the camp, an organisation to help the prisoners, and to assist the hundreds of refugees scattered across the area was created. Some of the refugees were placed with families living in the valleys, a were put in contact with an assistance network that operated from Genoa all the way to Milan and the Swiss frontier, and which relied mainly on help from local priests.
Parish priests and their deputies in mountain towns developed an assistance network, and contacts with partisan groups and “civil resistance (we should remember that, apart from Don Raimondo Viale, as mentioned in the Libro Omonimo, the deputy priest of Valdieri Don Francesco Brondello was recently declared “Righteous Amongst the Nations” in a ceremony conducted on 2 September 2004 in the synagogue in Cuneo). In this way, many Jews were able to leave the country or move out of danger towards central Italy, using false identity papers. Others remained in hiding in the Borgo San Dalmazzo area, moving from valley to valley over many months, always facing arrest or death. Others joined up with the partisan brigades.
Meanwhile, destiny was now decided for the “foreign” prisoners in the barracks. On the order of the anti-Jewish office of the Gestapo in Nice, they were taken to the train station on 21 November 1943, and from here, loaded in goods wagons, they were sent towards Drancy, via Savona and Nice. The number of prisoners (328 out of the 349 who entered the camp) was later reduced by some cases of escape, death through illness, and the fact that the prisoners recovering in hospital in Cuneo were protected (they managed to hide themselves with the knowledge of hospital personnel). A different fate awaited the 41 ill prisoners found in the hospital in Borgo, who were thrown onto the wagons with the rest.
Most of the group left Drancy for Auschwitz less than a month later, on 7 December. The rest suffered the same fate of transportation to Auschwitz on 17 December and 27 January. The work of Liliana Picciotto has identified 328 individual cases; although there are a few uncertain cases, the rest of the prisoners who were not deported (of the 349 prisoners registered on their arrival at the camp) were able to save themselves, either by escape or in other circumstances (we have already mentioned the case of prisoners recovering in the hospital in Cuneo). No more than ten people survived to see liberation.
After the deportations of 21 November, the Polizeihaftlager of Borgo San Dalmazzo, now left empty, temporarily ceased operations.
Phase Two: December 1943 – February 1944.
Within a few days of the shutting down of the camp by its German management, the Cuneo Police Department (following Police Ordinance No 5 from the RSI – signed by Buffarini Guidi) assigns concentration of the Jews in the province to the barracks at Borgo San Dalmazzo. The first two prisoners, from Saluzzo, are imprisoned on 4 December 1943. While the Jews in Cuneo and Mondovi manage to find safety, the town of Saluzzo (which also housed some refugees from Turin) suffers heavily: individuals living in hiding are rounded up, and 26 people (mainly women) are thus sent to the barracks, under the surveillance and control of Italians. This group, for which a register list exists, is not homogenous: three “foreigners” probably arrive from the group at St.-Martin Vésubie. Two of them were father and daughter (born in 1930), the youngest in 17 years old, and there are three prisoners aged over 60. On the 13 January 1944, the Cuneo Police Department decides to send the 26 prisoners (18 women and 8 men) “by special convoy to the concentration camp at Carpi (Modena), otherwise known as Fossoli. The Italian authorities thus responded to Nazi orders, who wanted to quickly gather together a large enough number of prisoners for transport to Auschwitz and so requested the arrival of the Borgo San Dalmazzo prisoners. The transport that left Fossoli on 22 February included, apart from Primo Levi, 23 of the 26 prisoners from Bogo San Dalmazzo (5 men and 18 women). Six others are registered (four men and two women).
After this transport, the camp at Borgo San Dalmazzo is finally closed down.
A tragic but emblematic epilogue to the story, which can be viewed as the end of this whole sequence of events, arises from the fate of six Jews (two Austrians, two Poles, a Frenchman and a Luxemburger) who were arrested between March and April 1945 between the towns of Cervasca and Demonte, and imprisoned in Cuneo, after arriving from St.-Martin fifteen days earlier. “Handed over to the soldiers of the Black Brigade [Brigata Nera, or BN] on 25 April 1945”, as recorded in prison records, they were murdered by machine-gun fire by soldiers of the RSI near to the Soleri viaduct on the same day, just as partisan forces prepared the liberation of the city: this was “the final massacre of Jews on liberated territory in Europe, carried out by Italian Fascists”.
(Lucio Monaco – translation by Corey Dimarco)