Piero Terracina, described as the last survivor among the Roman Jews who were deported from the Italian capital to Nazi death camps during World War II, has died at 91.
Terracina died on Sunday, Rome’s Jewish Community said.
As a 15-year-old, he escaped the roundup by German occupying troops of Rome’s Jews in 1943 and went into hiding with his family. But a few months later, as his family marked Passover in April 1944, he was arrested and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps with his family, where his parents, three siblings and other relatives perished.
Terracina’s recounting of the horrors of the Holocaust to young people won praise from Italian leaders. In addition to speaking at forums, he accompanied Italian students to the Auschwitz memorial in Poland to educate them about the Holocaust.
President Sergio Mattarella hailed Terracina as a “tireless witness to the memory of the Holocaust.”
Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, hailed Terracina as a “true light in these dark times,” which she described as being marked by words of hate and denial of the Holocaust.
Among others paying tribute to his efforts was Gov. Nicola Zingaretti of the Lazio region including Rome and the head of Italy’s Democratic Party. His testimony, Zingaretti said, “became the mission of life.”
On Jan. 19, 1945, Terracina was forced to march, along with other remaining prisoners at the Birkenau camp, by Nazi officers. But during the march, the German troops fled to escape approaching Russian soldiers.
Terracina recalled how he and other freezing companions then sought refuge in the abandoned Auschwitz death camp.
“The cold was terrible and the miserable blanket that we had froze at our mouth, becoming a block of ice,” La Repubblica quoted him as saying.
Even before many Italian Jews were hauled off to death camps by Nazi occupiers, the country’s small Jewish population was already suffering under Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, whose regime, in 1938, enacted anti-Jewish laws. Among other things, the laws banned Jews from holding public positions, including teaching, and forced Jewish-owned stores to put signs in their windows identifying them as such.
Jewish students in public schools, including Terracina, were expelled. He continued his studies at a Jewish school.
There has been a surge of anti-Semitic incidents in Italy in recent years.
This year a police escort was assigned to another Holocaust survivor among Italian Jews, Liliana Segre, who received death threats and hundreds of anti-Semitic insults. She is a senator-for-life, an honor accorded her in 2018 for her years of speaking to Italian schoolchildren about the horrors of the concentration camps.
“With Piero Terracina, a silent brotherhood linked us, words weren’t necessary between us,” Segre said. “And now that he isn’t here any more, I feel even more alone.”
*The article appeared in The Times of Israel via AP on December 9, 2019.