Italy is beautiful.  It is full of historic sites, has a lush, green countryside, good food and good wine.  I am here, with my family, celebrating Passover in Milano Maritima, a resort town in northern Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.  The sea is wide and blue, the sand is soft and white and the lilacs are in bloom with a scent that hits like an exquisite smell bomb.

Milano Maritima - lilacs.jpg

The Nazi officers of Aktion Reinhard, who worked so hard for so long to murder 1.3 million Jews in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, deserved an Italian vacation – don’t you think?

By the fall of 1943, Belzec had already ceased to function as a killing center, Sobibor closed up shop after the October 14, 1943 prisoner uprising, and Treblinka, finally shut down in November of 1943, almost four months after a prisoner uprising there.  The hard-working Nazi officers were transferred to Italy – to the coastal town of Trieste, only a 250-mile drive from where I sit in Milano Maritima.

After the heavy lifting needed to murder the Jews of Poland and Western Europe, Italy was a plumb position.  Odilo Globocnik, who had been the man in charge of Aktion Reinhard, was sent to Trieste, his hometown, in September of 1943.  Compared to the recently completed task of murdering 1.3 million Jews in a year and a half, tackling the partisans and Jews of northern Italy[1], seemed like a piece of cake.  But, Globocnik thought:

“Why not invite my buddies to join me?”

The first to be awarded his Italian vacation was Christian Wirth.  You may recall that Dr. Wirth was one of the doctors at the T-4 Euthanasia Program in Germany. This was the first German experiment using gas to murder.  The gas was turned on as physically and mentally disabled people were asphyxiated.  (see blog post December 21, 2015).  In 1942, Wirth was appointed as the Commandant of Belzec.

The Treblinka uprising on August 2, 1943, put Commandant Franz Stangl out of a job.  He lost his post as Commandant of Treblinka.   His second in command, Kurt Franz (the “Lalka”), was appointed as the third Commandant.   But no worries, there was a soft bed and a glass of wine waiting for Stangl in Trieste as he joined Globocnik and Wirth.

Erwin Lambert, the architect of T4-Euthanasia Program and Aktion Reinhard, was the one who supervised the building of the improved gas chambers at Treblinka and Sobibor. He too was invited to Trieste.

The Lalka – Kurt Franz – got stuck with the job of continuing the killing operations of Treblinka after the uprising and then destroying the camp in November of 1943.  After Treblinka was turned into a serene country farm, the Lalka took his leave and hopped a train to Trieste.

These experienced murderers took over an abandoned rice warehouse, La Risiera di San Sabba, originally built in 1913.  It was first used as a prison and Globocnik appointed Wirth as the Commandant.  But Wirth’s Italian vacation did not turn out exactly as he had hoped.   On May 26, 1944, he was murdered by a partisan.

At first, San Sabba was used as a prison for captured partisan fighters, but in October 1943, it became a detention camp, from which prisoners and Jews were sent on to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.   In short order, however, murder was added to the mix.  They could not resist – it was perfect.  San Sabba had three high buildings, with cells, storage rooms and living quarters for the SS and local police.  It had a tall old chimney, attached to an old oven.   There was a lovely courtyard where Erwin Lambert built a small gas chamber.

San Sabba functioned from October 1943 until early 1945.  It was mainly a detention center – a place to gather and hold prisoners and Jews until they could be transported to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.   But with such a great set up, they fired up the crematorium, testing it on April 4, 1944.  After a few tweaks, the oven served to turn human beings into ash until the place was shut down.  Approximately 25,000 partisans and Jews were interrogated and tortured at San Sabba.  Between 3,000 to 5,000 were murdered by shooting, beating or asphyxiation in the gas chamber and their bodies turned to dust.

Just last week, as I was one of the thousands of tourists making my way through the crowded streets of Rome and Florence.  I visited the sites where the Jewish ghettos had been.  There is no longer any trace of the ghettos in either city, but our guides pointed to the place that the ghettos once stood.  They were raided and emptied of Jews in October and November of 1943.  Those captured were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In contrast, yesterday I visited Bologna.  There the Jewish ghetto still stands, though the tall gates that closed off the ghetto have been removed.  The narrow, cobblestone streets of old, remain, but it is now full of trendy, renovated apartments and cafes.  We saw the place of the Synagogue and the Via De’Guidei (according to our tour guide – Guidei is a bad name for Jew in Italian).  A few thousand Jews lived here before the war – mostly Jews who some generations earlier fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.  Today, Bologna’s Jewish community consists of a mere 200 families.

Jews from other parts of Italy were also shipped off.   It was on February 22, 1944 that Primo Levi was shipped off from Tripoli to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Over five hundred people on Levi’s transport were taken directly to the gas chamber.  Overall, in Italy, it is estimated that 10,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz-Birkenau, between September 1943 and March 1945.

As we eat our Matzah and remember the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, we pause to remember the exodus of so many from their homes during the Holocaust.  Most who were forced from their homes by the Nazis were brutally murdered and did not live to tell their story.  It is through the stories of those that survived, that we can begin to relate to the larger loss.  The Torah instructs that we must tell the story of the Exodus as if we ourselves left Egypt.  We must feel the story in our bones.

It is through the retelling of the stories of the Holocaust, especially Sam and Esther Goldberg’s story, that I hope to feel the tragedy of the Holocaust in my bones. I hope I am helping you feel it too.

Next week, I will be in Poland and will report.

Happy Passover.

[1][1] Jewish population of Italy before the war was approximately 40,000.



Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWS OF ITALY

US Holocaust Memorial Museum – Holocaust Encyclopedia: The Holocaust in Italy.



  1. Interesting and insightful as always, Karen! Kol haKavod that you’ve made time on your Pesach vacation to do more research and writing. Looking forward to the next entry. Seattle misses you!


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