Paolo Salvatore (1899 - 1980)

the director of the concentration camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia

Inmates in Ferramonti di Tarsia

Inmates in Ferramonti di Tarsia

Testimony by Prof. Mario Rende - Perugia, 20 December 2009

Paolo Salvatore was born in Carife (AV) in 1899. He took part in World War I  and then he joined D'Annunzio's expedition as Fiuman legionnaire. In 1928 he started his career in public security and, after being in charge of several tasks, he runs as a chief of police the colony of political confinement first in Ventotene and then in Ponza.

During this first experience as person in charge of a colony for political prisoners, Salvatore he not only demonstrates a great organizational ability to best relief the inmates' conditions, but also proved great skills of humanity and compassion. Among the Ponza inmates there was also Giorgio Amendola, who remembers him this way in his book Un’isola (An Island): “When I got back to Ponza in April 1936 I found a kind officer who wanted to show off his humane understanding of our conditions. He had given up imposing the restrictions sought by his predecessors". Following this experience, for his proven skills, the fascist Ministry of the Interiors appointed him to the post as director of the concentration camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia (CS). Ferramonti was the biggest concentration camp for Jews and undesirable aliens built on purpose following the racist laws o 1938. As opposite to the other similar detention facilities scattered all over Italy, which normally contained a few hundreds people, Ferramonti hosted over 3,000 detainees, mainly foreign Jews coming from various parts of Eastern Europe and Germany. The camp remained operational for little longer than 3 years: it was "inaugurated" on 20 June 1940 and was "liberated" by the British troops in the morning of 14 September 1943. The camp looked nearly like the Nazi camps: it was made by 92 barracks situated within an area of 160,000 square metres. 

The camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia

Inmates were subject to the authority of a director who was a police commander, under whom operated some policemen and a marshall of the Polizia di Stato. These police forces were sided by a handful of fascist militias. However nothing that happened in Ferramonti could ever be compared to a Nazi concentration camp. As a British officer would write in his report, the camp of Ferramonti seemed more like a village than like an extermination facility. Let us mention some examples: all families remained united and were hosted in single barracks; in the camps there were several weddings and many children were born. There was absolute freedom of cult and some synagogues and a catholic chapel were opened. There were a school, a nursery and a library. Several different artistic, cultural, sporting and religious activities were held. There were a doctor and a small infirmary, some Chinese inmates ran an indoor laundry and also a little magazine was published in the camp. 

Many of the inmates were valuable professionals and graduates, including many doctors, painters, musicians who were often allowed to do their job both in the camp and in the neighboring villages. Very soon, an internal democratic organization based on the free and direct election of a delegate for each barrack was set up. Delegate elected a "chief of chiefs" and gathered weekly in a kind of a little parliament to discuss the topics that came update time after time. None of the inmates was ever murdered or underwent violence. Paradoxically, a concentration camp for Jews in the rural and agricultural South of Italy was in those year a clear example of democratic organization. This miracle of tolerance and human compassion was surely created by its director Paolo Salvatore.

The director Paolo Salvatore
Paolo Salvatore was not a hero in the common and popular meaning of the word, i.e. the one able to do crushing and sensational deeds, but he was rather an " ordinary hero” who silently and abiding of his institutional role managed to bring relief upon a negative event of internment, turning it into more human a wait fir better times of freedom. Bravely, with diplomatic skillfulness and cunningly  he did the best he could in hard and terrible times. This thing of doing all the "best" meant the rescue and hope for thousands inmates, whom he treated always as "guests" and never like prisoners.

No one will ever be able to deny the fact that while Jews in the same hours were treated in the Nazi death camps like never had happened before in human history and slaughtered, at the same time in Ferramonti people surely endured worries and sadness, but also tried to overcome them. In the same hours when Jewish children were split from their parents and sent to death, Salvatore took the children of his camp on board of his duty car on a drive to the village of Tarsia, where he would offer them ice cream.

Paolo Salvatore's deeds were certainly due to his naturally gentle character, but it would be a serious mistake to blur his image into the one of a generic do-gooder. Salvatore was not only a "kind and fair man", but he also proved strength, courage, personality and a great institutional and patriotic devotion to his duty, in the truest sense of the term. Many features in his curriculum vitae point more to a straightforward, determined, but also balanced and careful character, which led him to pay attention to the fact that life in the camp respect the appearance of some general rules of a concentration camp and, at the same time, to prevent inmates from undergoing violence and instead enable them to experience a certain degree of freedom and democracy. Paolo Salvatore thus was, and should remembered as, a hero of ordinary, daily normality, an official linked more to the honor and love of his homeland than to ideologies or parties. His behavior meant a way of hope and continuation of life despite the darkness for all Ferramonti inmates.

The absence of fanaticism and shallow racist indoctrination is confirmed by all pieces of testimony of those who have seen him in action. On the contrary, he firmly opposed some fascist fanatics who would have liked the camp to be run very differently. Salvatore was not certainly an "anti-fascist", but his attitude and way to run the camp have nothing to do with the racist and anti-democratic ideology of fascism. Paolo Salvatore managed, by weaving a series of always loyal relations with the inmates, to keep a balance between a respect of the appearances and an honest anti-racist attitude that still strikes us. Cunningly and with a lot of different devices he always opposed any Nazi demand to move many of his guests to their camps. For instance, a former Ferramonti inmate, Albert Alkalay, in his book The Persistence of Hope recounts an iconic example of how Salvatore always tried everything possible to rescue some inmates from deportation to Germany. With the complicity of the camp surgeon, he had infected with para-typhus inmate Mirko Davicio, a communist inmate who was wanted by the Gestapo, so that he could keep him inside the camp infirmary and have a good reason not to let him be moved. Another book written by a non-Jewish former inmate of Ferramonti, Greek Constantinis Zotis, I am still Standing, tells how Salvatore, talking with a group of fellow nationals of Zotis' in the Greek barrack, openly said that the Jews were there to be shielded from the Nazis. Salvatore was simply a Man.

The camp and the population of Tarsia
Another interesting trait of Salvatore's personality was his choice not to isolate the Ferramonti camp from the population of Tarsia, the small village in the middle of the valley of the river Crati, in whose territory Ferramonti is included. Lager inmates included numerous professionals who, above all when they were medics or nurses, had very close ties with the local population All cultural or sport events of  the camp were attended by citizens of Tarsia.

An useful trade-barter set up between the inmates and the local peasants, and it was essentially not hindered by Salvatore, who brought relief and improvement to the food conditions in the camp. Tarsia and its populace really proved remarkably tolerating: the weddings and births that occurred in the camp were regularly transcribed in the Registry of the City Hall as if they were citizens of Tarsia, while the Jewish dead were simply buried within the Catholic cemetery, among the loculi of the very inhabitants of Tarsia, and not in separate areas. Such burials are still visible in that cemetery as a testimony to a racial and social tolerance that the Tarsian populace of those times clearly demonstrated. It is an example which is still hard to find nowadays. A tolerance that undoubtedly Paolo Salvatore helped foster and keep.

Paolo Salvatore
As it often happens in the tales of such "ordinary heroes", Paolo Salvatore received no recognition for what he could do in Ferramonti, no honor, no street named after him: Italy simply forgot about him. Not so did however those who got to know him and could leave a testimony. Averoff-Tossizza, one of the most important figures in Greek modern history who was Minister more times, was interned in Ferramonti and had with Salvatore extremely cordial relations. When the translation into Italian of a book of his concerning his experience as a prisoner in Ferramonti was published, he retraced Paolo Salvatore and gave him a copy of the book with an extremely significant dedication, in which he defined Salvaore as "a man wh has been able to honor the name of Italy in gloomy times".  I do not think there are many such cases of prisoners  "stigmatizing" their jailers that way. 

The episode that caused Salvatore to be dismissed from the camp little before its liberations by the British allied forces remains iconic and charming: the director of a concentration camp for Jews who came to blows with a fascist soldier who was guilty for unjustly hitting a Jewish inmate with a punch!

As a conclusion, Paolo Salvatore must be considered as part of the many Righteous who in dreadful times have managed, not out of a vague sense of being a do-gooder, but by making brave personal choices, to change for the better the fate of thousands people Salvatore's choices turned the biggest concentration camp of fascist Italy into a place that the historian of the university of Cambridge, Professor Jonathan Steinberg, defined as “the greatest kibbutz of the European continent' and that the very Jerusalem Post, in an article dedicated to Ferramonti, described as an “unexpected paradise". A unique and bright example in  the whole tragic and painful history of the Holocaust.

Albert Alkalay, The Persistence of Hope Rosemont Publishing, Danver, 2007
Giorgio Amendola, Un'isola, Rizzoli, Milano, 1980
Carlo Spartaco Capogreco, Ferramonti. La vita e gli uomini del più grande campo d'internamento fascista, 1940-1945, Giuntina, Firenze, 1987
Mario Rende, Ferramonti di Tarsia. Voci da un campo di concentramento fascista, Mursia, Milano 2009
Costantin Zotis, I'm still standing, 1stBookLibrary, 2001

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