Transit

The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 1, no 1 (2018)
ISSN 2612-0496

Transit

Robert S. C. GordonUniversity of Cambridge

Robert Gordon works primarily on modern Italian literature, cinema and cultural history. He is the author or editor over a dozen volumes, including a major study of the writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (Pasolini. Forms of Subjectivity) and several books on the work of Primo Levi (e.g. Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues, Auschwitz Report, The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi). He has also published on the wider field of postwar cultural responses to the Holocaust, in the book The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010, the co-edited collection Holocaust Intersections and a special issue of the journal Quest. He is co-editor of Culture, Censorship and the State in 20th-Century Italy and his work on cinema includes the book on Pasolini, the BFI Film Classics volume Bicycle Thieves, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries, and articles and essays on Holocaust cinema, early film and literature, ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’, and censorship. He is also the author of a general account of modern Italian literature, A Difficult Modernity: An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Italian Literature. He has taught at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2015.

Published: 2018-12-31

Fig. 1 The Camp of Fossoli. Historical archive of the city of Carpi, Modena, ethnographic section.
Fig. 1 The Camp of Fossoli. Historical archive of the city of Carpi, Modena, ethnographic section.

These notes have their origin in the conceptualization of a conference and research project centred on the mid-20th-century prison camp at Fossoli, outside the town of Carpi (Emilia, central Italy), a camp which was in operation in various forms and periods from the 1940s to the 1970s. The foundation responsible for the maintenance and valorization of Fossoli and other memorial sites linked to it in and near Capri, including the remarkable museum/monument to the deported in the town centre (BBPR, 1973), wanted to launch a series of research initiatives led by its academic advisory board (Comitato scientifico), which would re-establish and re-invigorate the importance of Fossoli in the town, the region, in Italy and in Europe, inserting the history and site of Fossoli into a wider debate and discourse, supporting high-level historical research but looking also for impact and resonance in the present day. The board’s discussions centred, then, on a key question: what does it mean today to propose Fossoli as a site of remembrance and of research; how does Fossoli fit the archive and the map of the contemporary?

In answering these questions, first considerations inevitably centred on Fossoli’s role as part of the history of the Holocaust, since in early 1944 the camp was taken over by the occupying Nazi forces in central Italy, in collaboration with Italian Fascists who had been managing the camp until then, and it became the principal national holding site in Italy for arrested Jews as well as resisters ready for deportation to the concentration and extermination camps of central and eastern Europe. This phase of Fossoli’s history, its best known, links it into the complex European history of the Shoah, as well as pointing to the often ill-understood or misremembered ways in which Italy entered into that history; as well as tying this reality into the local communities and networks around such camps, which made the entire system function in practice. Fossoli and the Shoah is a key history in its own right, with further research and documentation still to be carried out across all these layers and networks; but it has also taken on a resonant symbolic role in Italian memories of the Shoah over the long post-war period, not least because of a few pages of remarkably powerful writing dedicated to it in Primo Levi’s first work of Holocaust testimony, If This is Man (1947; 2nd edition 1958), as well as in a handful of poems, where he describes his weeks spent in Fossoli between 20 January and 22 February 1944, and his subsequent deportation from Fossoli to Carpi station and from there by train to Auschwitz.1 Those pages contain some of the most moving and also sensitive reflections on what is lost in the hours and days before deportation and they mark all subsequent work of memory and research on Fossoli; to cite just one example, the historian Liliana Picciotto Fargion entitled her account of Fossoli during the Shoah with a phrase from Levi, L’alba ci colse come un tradimento (Dawn caught us like a betrayal).2

The documented and symbolic role of Fossoli in the history of the Holocaust stands alongside its representative status as one of the hundreds of sites in the Europe-wide network of Nazi (and Fascist) camps, of varying kinds and varying levels of function, imprisoning various population groups, and deploying different degrees of murderous violence and torture; from extermination camps, to concentration, holding, deportation, work, and prison camps and indeed combinations and mixtures of these, not to mention the extensive patterns of mobility of prisoners between them. This complex network is the reality captured in David Rousset’s pregnant phrase, coined as early in 1947, the univers concentrationnaire.3 Along with sites such as Drancy, Westerbork, Mechelen, Gurs, Bolzano, even Theresienstadt in certain respects, Fossoli fits within this “universe” most properly under the category of the Durchsgangslager, or transit camp.

Fig. 2 New York. Ellis Island. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Fig. 2 New York. Ellis Island. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Fossoli, however, like most other concentrationary sites, was not built for nor did it exist only in its Nazi configuration, nor was the entire system as closed, watertight or invisible to the surrounding world as it might seem in some contemporary and later accounts. Indeed, the attempt by both perpetrators and bystanders to maintain the fiction that it was closed off—that most outsiders had ‘no inkling’ of what was happening there—is what makes the early sequences of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), when he visits with ageing witnesses the woods and river around Chelmno with survivor Simon Srebnik or the train station at Treblinka, in places that now seems oblivious to their history, so poignant and necessary. Fossoli’s functioning as a transit camp was, in other words, embedded in a wider network of wartime, occupation, Republic of Salò Italy, which in turn was one branch-line of the continental networks of the camp genocides.

Fossoli in 1944, and the entire network it was part of, was furthermore a manifestation of the idea and practice of the concentration-camp which has its own long history, stretching in its modern iteration at least as far back as the late 1800s (Cuba, South Africa) and existing across a vast, indeed global geographical space, as Nicola Labanca and Michela Ceccorulli have shown in a recent survey.4

Finally, like most of the camps sites used within the Nazi system, Fossoli’s own local history expands well beyond the months of Nazi control, in a long and complex trajectory of multiple use and re-use, both structured and improvised, and indeed of lengthy periods of disuse and abandon. Fossoli’s history has been well studied, although the force of the memory of its Nazi (Nazi-Fascist) period has inevitably obscured all other parts of it.5 It was opened in 1942 as a Fascist prisoner-of-war camps for Allied soldiers captured in the Africa campaign; it was subsequently used also as an internal Fascist internment camp for Jews and for anti-Fascists (part of the national network of Fascist camps that have only recently been recovered in their full articulation through the research of Carlo Spartaco Capogreco and initiatives such as the ‘Campi fascisti’ online project),6 before being taken over by the Nazi SS and turned into a holding, transit and deportation camp for Jews, political prisoners and forced labourers. At the end of the war it was briefly used as a prison camp for interned Fascists, before being reclaimed as a camp for war orphans by the Christian community of Nomadelfia, led by Don Zeno Saltini. Later it became a camp for refugees from Yugoslavia, the so-called Villaggio San Marco. Before, after and between these periods, the site was variously expanded, reduced, dismantled, rebuilt, reclaimed as farmland, in disuse, until finally it now stands within an unfinished trajectory of development as a memorial, museum and education site. All these phases and functions, the site as locus of imprisonment and death, which is then repurposed, stripped and re-shaped, and in part lost, are part and parcel of its history.

The camp’s site and history—for Fossoli as for so many others—are balanced between the horizontal—its role within the history of the Holocaust or within other temporally delimited historical “events”—and the vertical—the longer history of “the camp” as phenomenon and a place that operates in both space and in time. The fluid changeability of all these dimensions can be usefully subsumed under an idea, drawing on but extending the category of the Durchgangslager, of transit.

Fig. 3 New York. Ellis Island. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Fig. 3 New York. Ellis Island. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Transit offers a means of merging different models, patterns and sites, and different histories, into a new configuration that offers a distinctive and illuminating perspective on key aspects of the modern. This is significant not least because the category of “the camp”, represented by everything from Auschwitz to Guantanamo, has been elevated in recently political theory to something like the emblem and essence of a certain modernity; a notable and influential instance was Giorgio Agamben’s epigrammatic assertion, in his Homo Sacer project, that the camp is “the nomos of the modern”, something like the degree zero of the norms and laws of exclusion, the biopolitical discipline, and the state of exception deployed by the modern state.7 The proposition is a powerful one, which has found terrible contemporary geopolitical and historical resonance but the problem with the elevation of this idea of the camp to such high symbolic status, for all its undoubted force, is that it risks reproducing the enclosed focus, the assumption of system and planned perfectibility that was one of the self-sustaining myths of the system itself, including of the Holocaust and its early post-war interpretations. It reflects essentially an industrial and capitalist model of efficient production (of control, degradation and death). By shifting our ground and perspective sideways, from the enclosed site and system of the camp to the complementary category of transit, of camps as sites of nodal points in a network of movement, and of the dynamic of transit across space and time as intersecting with different single camp sites, we can open such sites outwards to their inherent dimensions of mobility, migration and unplanned contingency. These are further dimensions of the modern, built on fluidity, liquidity and inherent instability.8 Transit shifts the focus to dynamics of suspension, liminality, and is therefore more sensitive to the voided status of the refugee and of statelessness, something akin to the figure of the pariah, all essential elements in the reflections of Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism.9

If Arendt was writing in the aftermath of the war, with her own very personal experience of exile and loss in mind, it is undoubtedly also the case that the mobility and contingent danger of the refugee’s experience points forward powerfully and directly to our immediately contemporary, late modern anxieties about transit as migration and population movement. Globalization, porous borders, migration and the fierce backlash against it are defining vectors of the current moment and it is plausible to propose that a notion of transit in space and time, in history and our present can help illuminate these. Contemporary migration or transit, like most other migrations in history, works through a simultaneous push-and-pull dynamic; it begins in an idea of movement to freedom, prosperity, safety and thus in some sort of dream of remaking, a subjective imaginary of a new self; but it is also rooted in escape from, in response to risk, fear, hunger and violence. This double dynamic is remarkably powerful, propelling widespread reformations of global socio-economic reality, especially accelerating in periods of deepening economic and ecological instability. The mass movements of people that results flows at different speeds, through different channels and technologies, propelled by different internal (and often illegal) economies and in different groupings, but they all inevitably coalesce into both routes and sites, stop-start dyads of transit. Sites of transit are temporary spaces where for shorter or longer periods, populations are variously held, processed, recorded bureaucratically or simply obliged to wait between phases of onward movement (or indeed failure and return). Under this conception, sites of transit are bottleneck spaces, where the flow of people along transit routes stalls temporarily, but they are also something like mass-production processing sites, where “new” citizens are produced.