A hazy summer darkness has descended upon Milan, Italy’s second-largest city. The last of the night’s trains are rumbling out of the central station, but in the cavernous expanse below, a completely different kind of activity has been set in motion.
The area—containing hidden rail loading stations designed for cargo and mail—was where thousands of Jews were deported to Auschwitz by German and Italian forces, most never to return.
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Now, retrofitted as a Holocaust memorial and museum, the place has recently become the temporary home of Eritrian, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Syrian refugees—most of them Muslim—fleeing to the safety and prospects they hope to find in Northern Europe.
Many of the refugees will remain for just one night before boarding the trains above to where they hope to be greeted by family and friends who have already taken the trip. Others will remain a second night, though almost none will remain in Italy.
Upon arrival, the refugees are given towels and toiletries, and shown to a shower area that was built just for them. But first, they enjoy a nourishing hot meal, prepared and delivered by the volunteers of the Chabad-affiliated Beteavon (“Good Appetite”) soup kitchen.
Most have not eaten properly for days. Since it is currently Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting during daylight hours, the freshly prepared meal is the first food many of the refugees will have had since the night before. Many have expressed their appreciation for the kosher meals, knowing that it conforms to their religious standards as well.
Rabbi Yigal Hazan, who oversees the kitchen, says the Jewish community’s involvement with the refugees is based on the biblical commandment to “love the stranger, for you, too, were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”
“We ourselves were refugees running from people who wished to kill us, ” states the rabbi. “In this very same spot, we are now helping others who find themselves strangers in a strange land.”
‘In the Very Best Way’
Similar sentiments were expressed by Roberto Jarach, vice president of the memorial and former president of the local Jewish community.
“As soon as we learned that there were refugees passing through Milan needing a place to stay, we began considering how we could house some of them, ” says the 71-year-old, whose father was community president before him. “At that time, we had large school groups passing through the museum every day, and it was not feasible. Once school let out and attendance has gotten smaller for the summer, we immediately drew up plans to accommodate nearly 40 refugees every night.”
Jarach had an area partitioned off for the refugees, and outfitted it with beds and a shower (there were already ample toilets and sinks). He says that partnering with Beteavon—which already distributes meals to homebound and disadvantaged people, as well as on the streets at public places—was the logical next step. “I’ve observed the fine work of Chabad here in Milan since the 1960s, and I knew that they could be depended on to do everything in the very best way, ” he says.
A significant part of the logistics and coordination is being done by Sant’Egidio—a Catholic group—and the person who spends the night with the refugees is a Moroccan Muslim, who reports that he normally finds a few members of every group with whom he can communicate in Arabic.
Jarach says that more than 1, 000 refugees sleep all over Milan every night, mainly in public shelters. To his knowledge, the Holocaust memorial is the only privately operated site. “We’ve now gotten communication from Germany, from people who’ve stayed here, thanking us, ” he says. “They appreciated the clean towels and fresh food, the things we do to make their stay as pleasant as possible.”
Local volunteer Riki Karmeli says she has been to the Holocaust memorial twice to deliver food she cooked together with other volunteers. “They come very late at night, ” she says, “so I have not actually seen them either time, but perhaps it is best that way. Everyone deserves dignity and privacy.”
By Menachem Posner