· Vatican City ·

Pope Francis visits Holocaust survivor Edith Bruck in Rome

A light in the darkness

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26 February 2021

“I have come here to thank you for your testimony and to pay homage to the people martyred by the insanity of Nazi populism. And with sincerity I repeat to you the words that I spoke from my heart at Yad Vashem and that I repeat before every person who, like you, has suffered so much because of this: forgiveness, Lord, in the name of all humanity”.

The Holy Father is about to stand up to say goodbye. He has been conversing with Edith Bruck for over an hour, but before leaving, he wishes to explain the reasons that spurred him to move and to repeat the concept which is at the basis of his latest encyclical letter: “We are all brothers and sisters, even though at times Cain forgets this as occurred in the 1900’s”. “Yes it happens often still today”, Edith sighs looking at Francis and adds: “How long will it happen this way?” The Pope returns her glance and replies: “You are fighting for this... and it is no small thing”. The image that often comes to mind in this long conversation is that of a drop in the ocean, a small thing, but the immense ocean is made of an infinite number of small things.

But let us rewind the tape and go back a bit to the beginning because perhaps not all stories have an ending (this one for sure) but they always have a beginning. And everything begins from here, from the pages of “L’Osservatore Romano”, of last 26 January. Commissioned by Giulia Galeotti, head of the Cultural Service, an interview by Francesca Romana de’ Angelis with Edith Bruck appears on the cover of the weekly insert “QuattroPagine” (Four pages). The Pope reads it and is impressed by it and lets me know that he would like to meet this woman. I buckle down and organize a visit for Edith Bruck at the Vatican and I communicate this to the Pope who calls me and says: “Director, you did not understand, it is not she who has to come here, I will go visit Ms Bruck in her home, if possible”. Well, what could I say: By reversing the order of the factors, the result certainly changes! I reset everything I had done and I reorganize the Pope’s visit to Bruck’s house.

And here we are: The Holy Father and I on an already spring-like Saturday afternoon, in a crowded street in the centre of Rome. We climb the two floors that lead to Edith Bruck. She is there on the threshold and almost cannot speak. “I am moved and honoured”, she tries to say, but the most comprehensible words (the rest are “sighs too deep for words”) that repeatedly come from her and from the Pope are “thank you”. She thanks him for being here now, he thanks her for having always been there, bearing witness with her presence, with her words, with her life. Edith apologizes for all the crying and trembling and struggles to recompose herself and to show the way for the Pope along the long corridor that leads to the living room where her dearest ones are gathered: Deborah, the daughter of her sister, Judit, also a survivor of the horrors of the lager (“if we had not embraced and encouraged each other, we would never have made it”), with her husband Lucio, and then the other nephew, on her husband’s side, Marco Risi (the director son of [Italian film director] Dino), and Olga, the Ukrainian woman who has been accompanying Edith for 20 years, and finally, Francesca Romana, the journalist of L’Osservatore Romano from whom all began.

The moment on the threshold was the most emotionally intense one and, as often happens, it did not require “verbalizing”: the gestures and the silences, indeed the sighs expressed the power of that encounter. “One is never prepared for the beautiful moments in life”, Edith later commented, once we were seated on the couch, almost as if to justify herself for the happy and moving “disorder” with which she received her guest, “in the same way that we are never prepared for the bad moments”, she added. And the Pope agreeing, promptly replied, “that is how it is and then there is the surprise of what springs forth from inside, from our heart”.

The surprise is the timbre, the hue that can be read on the faces of the few people in this living room who find themselves experiencing, almost incredulously, a moment that is special because of its splendid normality and simplicity. First there is the exchange of gifts because the Pope did not come empty-handed but wished to bring two small presents: a menorah, the seven armed candelabrum, and a book, the Babylonian Talmud in the Italian-Hebrew bilingual version. Edith and her “family” are moved by the sensitivity and “return [the gesture]” with a table laden with cakes and sweets, all of them “hand made”, as Olga says with a touch of pride, adding, “whoever comes to this house, always wants to return”.

Who knows if the Pope will ever return to this house. He certainly came to stay here, to stop and meet these people. And the conversation is sweet, slow, a “space” in which everyone participates. At a certain point, Deborah cites Borges, a great Argentinian poet and a great “conversationist” because Edith’s niece lived in Buenos Aires for many years and she extends to the Pope (in Spanish) the greetings of a mutual friend, Rabbi Daniel Goldman. The Pope lights up and begins to tell old and funny anecdotes that tie him to his Jewish friend. The climate is precisely like this, light, like that of a pleasant family reunion, with the Pope enjoying and appreciating the ricotta cake (much to Olga’s joy) and Edith showing him family photos. Francis is attentive and shows that he already knows many of the details of that dramatic family history. He has read the book Il pane perduto (the lost bread), and he often anticipates Edith’s words which recall those five “points of light” that enlightened the abyss of horror in which she had fallen at the age of 13 when she was deported to Auschwitz. “That episode of the comb touched my heart”, the Pope says to the moved astonishment of Edith and the others.

That comb was given to the then 13 year old by a cook at Dachau, who first asks her name (I replied by saying my name. I had not done that in a long time, for the first time again, I perceived that I was a person with a name, not a number) and then says to her: “I have a daughter who is your age” and “looking at my head of new-grown hair, he pulled a small comb from his pocket, and gave it to me. It was the feeling of finding myself before a human being after a long time. I was touched by that gesture that was life, hope”. The Hungarian woman of almost 90 years of age and the Argentinian Pontiff continue to recall the events in La luce nel buio (Light in the Darkness): the first in chronological order that symbolized life for young Edith was when a German soldier forcefully separated (with strikes from the heel of a his rifle) her from her mother who was destined for the gas chamber; next when a German soldier threw his mess tin at her to be washed, but left some jam for her at the bottom; and when another one gave her some gloves, tattered and with holes, but precious to her; and lastly when, as part of a group of 15 young women who had to carry jackets for the military to a station that was located eight kilometres away, she threw some of them away because she did not have the strength to walk with that weight. A German soldier noticed this and lunged against her but her sister Judith struck him making him fall to the ground, and at that point the soldier did not shoot because he had been struck by their courage and spared them.

There are always “signs” scattered throughout life, at times they are indecipherable in the moment in which they are experienced, but they carry a distinctive sign. For the Pope, this sign is often tenderness, that strength “that changes people”, and then he adds almost sighing to take stock: “How much courage, how much suffering”. But Edith is almost like a river in flood, to the point that sometimes she pauses and asks us to interrupt her otherwise she might overflow with words. In the end however she wishes to state that: “After all, it went well for me. Even if now it is as if I could feel all the suffering of the world”. The two agree on the importance of recounting, of remembering. Both the good and the bad. “There is a very important book that was released a short time ago, Sindrome 1933, by Siegmund Ginzberg which is a read that I would call “urgent” because it reflects, and in some way explains, how all this evil could have been possible. And thus how it could repeat itself”.

The Pope returns to the theme of grandparents which is very dear to him, the need to listen to the stories of the elderly, to enter into dialogue with them and he quotes the prophet Joel: if the old will dream, the young will have visions. And he cites Nonna Rosa and the story about the table that still impresses him today: “There was once a family who always had lunch together, including the grandfather, who however was no longer able to eat without dribbling over himself and making everything fall, and getting dirty and dirtying ... until the father decreed that the grandfather would eat alone at the kitchen table, so that the rest of the family would be able to invite friends over without any embarrassment. A few days later the father saw his young son busying himself with nails, hammer and wooden boards.... ‘What are you doing?’, he asked him: ‘I am building a small table for you, where you can eat when you will grow old’”.

Among laughter and admiration, Bruck seems to become saddened and, filled with worry, she confides that she is afraid about “this health crisis, I would not want us to reach the point of having to choose who to cure and who to reject. The point is that we should be cared for at home”. And as the Pope recalls the ever present risk of the throwaway culture, Edith’s memory turns to events relating to her husband, Nelo Risi, and to those last ten years, marked by senile dementia and Alzheimer’s. “It may seem strange but they were happy years”, Edith says. “I continued to talk with my husband, to be close to him, hand in hand. The doctors told me that he would die in a few days, and we went on like that for more than ten years”. “Because you loved him”, the Pope adds.

It is beautiful to tangibly grasp the feelings that unite the members of this family gathered around their elderly Aunt Edith. The Pope addresses everyone, the conversation expands, many things are talked about, young people, the elderly, the fact that a child dies of hunger every minute while at the same time enormous amounts of money are spent on weapons. “Selfishness is the problem”, the Pope says. “Holding out one’s hand is inexpensive but selfishness blocks this gesture, it addles the hand that would have been ready to reach out to the other”.

At a certain point, we end up on the topic of cinema. Marco Risi talks to him about the masterpiece of his father Dino, Il Sorpasso “which had great success in your land, so much so that my father immediately made another film, in Argentina, Il Gaucho”. “But I saw Il Sorpasso, a great film! All those curves along the road, that coming and going, a powerful image of life”. Marco Risi is pleasantly surprised and comments on the bitter ending (which De Sica would have wanted to be different): “At the end the young man dies, innocence dies and cynicism remains; it was 1962 and it is almost a prophesy of the changing Italy”. The Pope reveals himself to also be a film expert: “The fact is that for years I used to amuse myself by going to the cinema and I saw practically all the Italian movies of the postwar period, those with Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi, Fellini’s first films; I remember having seen all his films up to La Dolce Vita. Then, around those years also because of my ever increasing commitments, I lost a bit of touch with Italian cinema. I was even more fascinated by the films of Bergman, like The Seventh Seal, a great director. However, I remember Il Sorpasso well, it was powerful ... all that drama narrated in the span of only 24 hours”. Between the astonishment and with encouragement, Marco Risi speaks to him about the new film he is making which tells the story of elderly people enclosed in a retirement home, and the arrival of two young people who are forced to be there to carry out social service as atonement for their criminal sentences. A difficult and intense relationship ensues. Francis is very curious. For him this topic of dialogue between generations is fundamental: we have to be able to learn from history and therefore, we need storytellers. Edith Bruck resumes this theme to speak about new and ever old fascisms and of the importance of going to visit schools to tell what had happened. And here the Pope strongly affirms his gratitude to Edith, for her witness with her words and even before that, with her life.

And thus, we have rewound the tape, but in the heart’s furrow of those who were present, much more than the simple words we have tried to recall and fix in memory, was recorded.

Andrea Monda