Ines Figini was 21 when Nazi officials unexpectedly arrested her in her hometown of Como in March 1944. She had no idea what lay ahead. Neither a Partisan nor Jewish — two reasons for immediate detention — she'd gone about her life normally even after the German occupation began in September 1943. She played volleyball at the nearby Villa d'Este, which also housed convalescing German soldiers. She and many of the city's inhabitants flocked to the local movie house to see films, including Lucchino Visconti's 1943 first feature "Ossessione" ("Obssession"). The same year, Milan's La Scala staged Rossini's Barber of Seville in Como's Teatro Sociale.
But trouble was looming. On March 6, 1944, Figini went to work as usual in the city's largest textile mill, known as the Tintoria Comense, or Ticosa. Once there, she saw fellow workers busily handing out leaflets and sticking some to factory walls. The leaflet, she remembers now, complained that factory workers couldn't be expected to live on an apple and bread roll. It called on workers to protest the German presence in Como through a symbolic morning work stoppage.
At midday, when the young Figini and fellow workers tried leaving for lunch, they found Como's police commissioner and Fascist paramilitary Black Brigade standing in front of the locked gates. In an effort to quell rising resistance in northern Italy, Adolph Hitler himself had ordered the arrest and deportation anyone involved in anti-German strikes. The names of strike leaders were read off and they were immediately detained.
Though Figini barely knew the coworkers on the list, she instinctively spoke out in their defense. "It's not right," she told the authorities. "If you arrest them you arrest all of us. All or none."
Her youthful protest didn't go unnoticed. That night, police pulled her from the home she shared with her parents and sister. Assuring her parents that she'd be returning shortly, she was hauled in for interrogation. Though she knew nothing about the strike and its genesis, she was arrested. A few days later she was moved to Bergamo where her sister Anna managed to visit. As a child, Ines had often strayed from the courtyard outside their home. But her wanderings were tolerated. "I don't have to worry about you, Ines," Figini recalls her mother telling her, "You always come back."
This time 20 months would pass before Ines Figini finally returned to Como, and only after enduring hardship, humiliation, and struggling for survival in two of Nazi Germany's worst concentration camps, Auschwitz — where 1.1 million died — and the women's camp at Ravensbruck, where an estimated 92,000 perished. At 90, Figini's memories are as real as the number 76150 tattooed on her right forearm. She spoke to Alison Fottrell in Como. These are excerpts from their conversation.
What do you remember about your deportation?
The innocence of youth made me think we were being taken to work in Germany and that we would be back in a couple of months. After I saw my sister in Bergamo, we were moved on to Vienna and the following day a train took us to Mauthausen, Austria's mother camp, famous for its torturous cruelty [editor's note: Estimates suggest between 55,000 and 60,00 died in the main Mauththausen camps]. We were stripped of our clothes while soldiers looked on and laughed. It was extremely humiliating. We stayed for about five days probably waiting for other prisoners to arrive before making that famous train journey to Auschwitz.
What about the trip to Auschwitz?
I can still hear the grinding and grating of the carriages loaded with people, their eyes full of fear — it was a terrible sound. The Jewish arrived with suitcases filled with clothes and personal belongings, thinking they were being transferred to a ghetto. Instead it was a concentration camp.
When we arrived it was snowing and we could hardly think from the cold and the fear. As soon we arrived we understood that this wasn't a factory where we could work. It was like arriving in hell. The old, children and disabled were beaten and thrown on the ground... Mothers were separated from babies who had been clinging to their breasts, fathers pulled away from their children. Soldiers took the youngest and oldest, without pity, directly to the gas chambers.
We were then lined up and taken to a large warehouse where a woman who could have been a Kapo tattooed a number on my arm. I tried to rub it off. It was then I realized I was a prisoner like all the rest. I was given a red sock and a yellow sock and a coarse grey and blue striped prison uniform. The soldiers gave orders in German and those who didn't understand were beaten.
The first days in the camp were about survival. I had a spoon, which was to be kept tied to the buttonhole of my uniform so as not to be lost; otherwise there was hell to pay. Some days I was given a coffee like mixture, other days a soup made of water and cabbage or turnips.
When I arrived in the camp I was young and healthy with an active imagination and would imagine my mother's minestrone to take my mind off the taste. After I had finished I would wipe my bowl on the grass to clean it.
I drank half of the dirty water I was given each day and used the other half to wash.
There was nobody who told you "go there to wash" and so I tried to imitate the other prisoners around me. If they went right I went right and slowly discovered where the sink was.
It was a long sink with taps but there were so many people who had to use it at the same time, we rarely managed to wash our faces. We were given a shower once a month but it was so crowded and [the shower] so quick that you had to choose between your face and your feet.
There was a rectangular platform with holes fixed on a wall about 50 to 60 centimeters off the ground — these I learned were the toilets. The walls were filthy with blood and excrement and the smell was nauseating.
I remember that I almost fainted at the sight of some women who were doubled over those holes crying in pain, while others vomited. There was no toilet paper, no tissues. We were no longer human beings. The Nazi intent was to make us lose all sense of humanity.
When did you first realize that camp prisoners were being exterminated?
In my block there were 150 women, mostly Russian, Polish and Slavs. One night I was woken by the noise of engines and women shouting. We all got up and went to the window. The camp was lit up in a strange white phosphorescent light. Girls were running through the barracks trying to escape while the SS caught them and put them on a truck. It was hellish.
I tried to understand from the other prisoners what was going on. Little by little, it became clear. They were Jews being taken to the gas chambers. Whatever other questions I had were answered by the stench which spread over the camp at a certain hour each day and in the grey smoke that rose up into the sky. For the Jewish it was the "Final Solution." For me it was what awaited me if I caved in.
What endure as the most vivid memories of Auschwitz?
The sight of children with toys in their hands and tied five in a row, singing as they were lead, oblivious, to the gas chambers. And the Sonderkommando [editor's note: camp workers, often Jews working under death threat] who had to then go into the chambers and take the teeth from the bodies and cut off their hair.
I remember the SS and their dogs: they would encircle the prisoners as they lined up. I remember the sound of the kicks, of the rifles as the hit the heads of the old Polish and Russian prisoners who seemed to not know what was happening.
The soldiers were impossible to please. You said hello and they spat on you. You didn't and they beat you. My only objective was to stay alive.
After the number call each morning outside our blocks an armed soldier with a dog work us to work in the fields. There was a Jewish orchestra that played a march so we would keep the pace so that way we were easier to count.
Every day a little part of me die: My personality, my emotions, and my feelings. My mind became so tired it felt empty. I risked becoming indifferent to the horrors that I saw. What saved me was my faith in God and the conviction that I would one day go home. I decided that such a place could kill my body, but not my mind, not my soul, not my prayer. Praying to God was my biggest consolation, my hope, and my refuge.
I would close my eyes and see Lake Como, blue and peaceful, with waves rippling across it in the breeze and the boats bobbing on the shore. I told myself that one day I would walk the grounds of the camp as a free woman.
When did you first return to Auschwitz after the war?
In 1968. When I walked into the camp I instinctively found myself in front of what was once my Block 15, and felt myself go back to the girl she was then. I smelled the soup; I heard the soldiers cursing, the cries and the desperation. But I couldn't see the faces.
You spent a week in Mauthausen, almost nine months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then you were moved on again. Where?
In November 1944 I was moved from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Ravensbruck, where women and children were jailed. Here I was given a new number to sew onto my uniform. I was now 11154. As in Auschwitz, I was told to sign a letter written in German, which was then sent on to my family in Como saying I was well and working.
How did Ravensbruck differ from Auschwitz?
It was better organized. We were sent out to work in the Siemens factory by day and returned exhausted to the camp by night. It was different to digging the fields in the freezing cold as I had done in Auschwitz.
But the day came when I knew something had changed. The soldiers didn't seem to be so triumphant as before. Rumors spread that the Russians were getting closer.
Were you in Ravensbruck when the Russians liberated the camp in April 1945?
No. I had been moved out and taken on the death march [editor's note: some 20,000 prisoners were forced to march north]. We had no idea where we were going and we ended up walking for miles in the open countryside. Whoever stopped, or couldn't go on was killed on the spot. Even the SS had nothing to eat and they took potatoes from the farmers we met on the way.
One evening we took refuge in a farm. I fell asleep and when I woke up the Germans had gone. In the distance I could see some soldiers approaching and as they got nearer I was overjoyed to discover they were Italians. I could see the look of commiseration in their eyes as they offered us Vodka to toast our freedom. Shortly after a Russian soldier arrived and I ran into his arms and cried. It was May 5, 1945.
Did you manage to get back to Italy immediately?
No. Unfortunately for me it wasn't over. Before going home I got sick with typhoid but over the following months I willed myself to get better. I eventually got back to Como on Oct. 25, 1945. Everyone thought I was dead.
How did your family react when they saw you?
First some neighbors saw me, and one of them went on to warn my parents of my physical appearance. I was much thinner than when I had had to spend four months in bed to regain my health. When my father saw me he told me he had dusted down my bike the day before. My mother had been sleeping in my bedroom since my arrest. The night before I arrived a small statue of Our Lady had fallen from the shelf above her head waking her up. She immediately thought it was a sign I was going to come home.
How did you feel knowing that some of your captors escaped arrest and prosecution?
After years I realized that anger and hatred only poison the heart and cause such atrocities to repeat. For this reason I have forgiven. Freedom for me was when I freed my heart and mind of the cruelty, which tried but failed to strip me of my humanity and my dignity. Freedom is a magnificent thing.
Have you ever regretting speaking out on behalf of your colleagues on March 6, 1944?
In all honesty the answer is no. Undoubtedly those words to the Police Commissioner in front of the factory gates all those years ago have marked my existence. But I have never regretted them.
I am regularly invited to middle schools in the Como area to speak about my experiences. I understand that I have a duty to contribute to educating young people on understanding the importance of forgiveness. Often they can't accept the idea that it is possible to forgive such violence but I tell them that when you forgive you discover who you really are.
Forgiveness gives you an interior peace in the same way that hate and revenge generate damage not only others, but above all oneself.
We can't live in the past. We have to look ahead. And I say that at age 90. But we must never forget.