A relatively new and still not completely finished memorial at the Central Station of Milan
that commemorates the deportations of the Jews of the Milan region to concentration camps
during the Nazi
occupation of northern Italy
in the latter phase of WWII
. It's a very unusual and highly visual kind of memorial – and well worth the detour and arrangements required to see it.
More background info:
During the run-up towards WWII
, and in its first few years up to 1943, Jews had at first been comparatively safe in Italy
and those territories under Italian control. Mussolini
's fascist regime was initially not as racist and genocidal towards the Jews as Hitler
's Nazi Reich
That does not mean, however, that there wasn't any anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews in Italy. Partly to appease his powerful ally in the the north Mussolini did make concessions in that respect. So in Italy, too, Jews were removed from government offices, they were forced to register, and generally suffered from increasing repression, based on Nuremberg-like racial laws from 1938 onwards.
There were also concentration camps
in Italy and their inmates included Jews as well. But Jews were not the specific target of the systematic mass murder as was the case in Nazi Germany
and its occupied territories in WWII.
In fact, the Italian military on several occasions refused to co-operate with Nazi Germany in this deportation of Jews, both at home and in Italian-occupied regions in southern France
and in western Croatia
(cf. especially Rab concentration camp
). This obviously caused friction between the two allied Axis powers, and high-ranking German Nazis complained that Italy didn't show a proper understanding of the “Jewish question” (and its “final solution
” – which by mid-1943 had already been largely completed).
When Italy finally ousted Mussolini
and capitulated to the Western Allies in September 1943 (as US
troops had already landed in Sicily and were working their way north), the German Nazis took matters into their own hands. Shortly after the German occupation of the northern half of Italy
began (cf. Resistance Museum
and Ardeatine Caves
), so did the efforts to finally send the Jews of Italy to the death camps
And this also applied to Milan. Jews were rounded up and imprisoned, in Milan
especially in the large San Vittore prison, and then deported by train. These deportations began at Milan's central station in December 1943. For this purpose the Nazis adapted what had been a postal train loading facility underneath the main tracks, which included a rail carriage elevator. That way the loading of Jews was kept largely from public view.
While the first two transports went directly to Auschwitz
, the later ones first took their human cargo to transit camps such as Fossoli
, before carrying on Auschwitz (where most deportees were sent straight to the gas chambers). A few transports also went to other camps (Bergen-Belsen
), especially from October 1944. Of those who ended up in Auschwitz, only 27 survived.
's train station is in itself an example of fascist “intimidation architecture”. It was first conceived in 1912, but not actually built until 1925-1931 (with obvious stylistic adaptations).
After WWII, the deportation centre under the tracks was largely forgotten, but the site remained in place. It was not until 2007 that a foundation was set up to work for the creation of a memorial at the site. Actual construction began in 2010, and the first core part of the memorial was inaugurated in January 2013. More work is planned/ongoing. Eventually there's supposed to be a library and research centre and some more commodification
is said to be planned to accompany the present memorial space.
What there is to see: They make it very clear from the outset that this is not a museum, but a memorial – exclamation mark! What they mean by that is that they do not follow the usual museum exhibition approach of providing lots of information on static text panels or screens, nor are there many artefacts on display.
Instead the whole thing works primarily on a visual, sensual (including auditory) level, and the info is provided by live guides. You can, in theory, also just go and see it without a guide. A leaflet in English is available at the reception desk to help with a bit of background info.
Yet without a live guide you still really miss out on much of the informational aspect. Even with the leaflet and if you've done your homework in advance, there are still various little details you wouldn't get without them being pointed out to you on the spot.
This starts right at the beginning as you enter the site. Here you are greeted by a huge wall of rusty metal which spells out the word “INDIFFERENZA” – 'indifference'. The story behind this is that it was the one word chosen by a Holocaust
survivor from Milan
to represent the whole story of the persecution of Jews in Italy and the eventual deportations. The fact that the ordinary people of Milan were so indifferent to all this, clearly created the most lasting memory.
To the left of this you can see the groundwork and metal frame structure of the future library and documentation centre. It will be years before that is finished.
The original steel doors are all standing wide open, the open space filled with glass panels. This is to symbolize the new openness in dealing with the topic – and to let light in (and the dark out, as it were).
The main part of the memorial begins beyond the reception desk.
The first main stop is at a screen onto which film footage from the time is projected, mostly about the construction of the station and how the postal station and the train lift worked (see background
). The screen is semi-translucent so that you can vaguely see some of the interior of the station infrastructure beyond.
Then you come to the heart of the memorial: part of an actual deportation train, that is: four authentic cattle cars of the type used in the deportations. Our guide claimed they were the only such authentic carriages in any Holocaust
memorial, but as far as I know that is not really true – there are various other such carriages elsewhere too, including Auschwitz
itself and even Yad Vashem
. Some may be replicas, but others will also be originals.
What really makes the difference here, however, is a) the fact that there are four of these carriages (thus actually creating an impression of a train), b) that they stand on actual rails at an actual station platform, and c) the sound:
Whenever a train departs from the main station one level above, you hear the roar it makes rolling out overhead. When it comes from the track directly above it is really quite scarily loud, but even when a train departs from the other end of the station tracks you still get a noticeable sound effect and even a physical rumble under the soles of your feet.
This I found was the most directly emotionally poignant element of this memorial. Given all the symbolism and heaviness of dark history around, such a rough industrial-age sound suddenly takes on a quality that sends shivers down your spine.
You can enter one of the train carriages, where some wreaths and flower bouquets have been put down in a specially illuminated corner. As you stand here you can try to imagine what it must have been like for such a small space being crammed with around 80 people … and just a bucket in the corner as the only “sanitary facility”, no food or water, and almost no air to breathe. And that for journeys that would last days on end. No wonder so many didn't even survive the transport.
Beyond the deportation train installation you can see the original train elevator part. Ironically, at the far end the preserved original sign reads “VIETATE TRANSPORTE PERSONE”, i.e. ' transportation of people forbidden'. Yet it was from precisely this spot that the Nazis did
's Jews to the east.
The destinations of the various transports are spelled out on the floor: the first two went straight to Auschwitz
, later ones went either to the transit camp of Fossoli
(from where most deportees would continue to Auschwitz eventually too) or to concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen
On the other side of the train is a huge wall of names – a very wide screen, actually, onto which names are projected by video. The mass of names form the static background while individual names flash up in larger script to highlight them (and thus symbolically give them back some individuality that the mass deportations had deprived them of).
At the end of the memorial circuit is a Reflection Room. This you enter on a walkway that spirals into a central circular chamber. In this a single skylight lets in enough light to highlight a single piece of rail set into the floor.
The only bits of commodification
beyond the purely visual (and auditory) was a plan of the memorial with just a short text on a panel at the beginning of the circuit. The text is in Italian and English and states a kind of mission statement (including that it is NOT a museum!).
In the gloom by the deportation train installation I also spotted some further, non-illuminated info panels (in Italian only). But I was informed by my guide that these were about to be taken down, to give the focus on the memorial-and-not-musuem full force. Only a panel with a timeline looked like it was to remain in place.
Parts of the space between the main memorial and the reception area is also set aside for temporary art exhibitions. At the time of my visit these were video installations by an artist with the name Carpi – which I found remarkable, as that is also the name of the town next to which the Fossoli
transit camp was built, and where there now is a museum of deportation
All in all, I found the Milan Shoah Memorial very impressive – and that in a way that is very idiosyncratic and very different from any other of the many Holocaust
memorials I've seen around the world. Absolutely recommended! Worth the little bit of extra effort it takes to get here and to pre-arrange a tour. Do go!
a couple of miles to the north-east from the inner centre of Milan
, at the north-eastern end of the huge Central Station building, underneath the tracks just where they comes out from beyond the domed steel-and-glass roof. The entrance is on Piazza Edmond J. Safra (Via Ferrante Aporti 3).
Access and costs: quite restricted still, and also quite a bit off the usual tourist trails; not cheap, though not unreasonably priced.
Details: To get to the Shoah Memorial you could first make your way to the Central Station and walk it from there – all the way along the eastern side of the station and the elevated railway line. The Central Station naturally has its own metro station (lines M2 and M3), so it's easy to reach on public transport. Though on the M2 the next stop, Caiazzo, is actually more convenient for the entrance to the memorial. Almost equally near is the M1 station Loreto.
A much more scenic alternative to taking the metro is going overground using tram line 1 – which starts just west of the Duomo
in the heart of central Milan
. They run those quaint antique cars on this line, with wooden benches, pretty lights and other old-fashioned little details that make riding line 1 a tourist attraction in itself.
Tram line 1 goes past the Central Station on a parallel street a couple of blocks to the east. The best stop to get out for the Memorial is Viale Brianza, which is halfway between the railway and Piazzale Loreto, so is also convenient for having a look at this historic spot (see dark combinations
Opening times vary quite a bit, especially seasonally. In the summer season Mondays (general access) and Sundays (by reservation) appear to be the preferred days, and the memorial is open from 10 a.m. and closes at either 7 or 8 p.m. (last admission an hour before closing). I'd say it's vital to check ahead in any case. See memorialeshoah.it – it's in Italian only, but you can work it out (if necessary use online translation); the section you want is “orari, informazione e contatti”.
The regular clientele is (school) groups anyway, so instead of just trying to turn up spontaneously, it would be much better to simply contact the memorial in advance, and in time, and try to arrange a tour independently (contact: prenotazioni(at)memorialeshoah.it). That's what my wife and I did, and they were happy to arrange a tour in English for us on a Thursday afternoon an hour before the regular group tour (in Italian) started. It didn't cost any extra, just the regular fee:
Admission: 10 EUR (adults), including a free guided tour if you time it right or make arrangements in advance.
Time required: About an hour by guided tour. Much less if viewing the memorial independently and unguided.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Milan
If you've made it up here to the (not so central) Central Station then you may want to take the opportunity to also go to nearby Piazzale Loreto
– a large square a few blocks to the east. It was infamously the site where the dead bodies of Mussolini
, his mistress and some other fascist comrades were hung upside down from a petrol station in April 1945 so that the people could hurl (physical) abuse at them. The petrol station has gone and the appearance of the square has been altered significantly since then, but it is still a historically important enough spot to pop by.
Another place that is connected more directly to the topic of persecution and deportations of Jews is the Carcere di San Vittore
– the prison where most of these Jews were held before being loaded onto the trains. It is still a prison, so you can only have a look from the outside (it's a suitably grim sight to behold!). Again see under Milan
And, obviously enough, you should also take a look at the rest of the Central Station itself. You can tell quite quickly that it was a building designed/finished under fascist rule – typical marble-clad 'intimidation architecture', where size really does matter a lot (namely to make you feel small and insignificant). In addition there a few telltale adornments such as the stylized winged lions at the head of the platform where the station roof ends – you can see one right next to the entrance to the memorial up at platform level. In the grand vestibule hall I also spotted a relief that, bizarrely, depicts a dragon that is just devouring a child! Spooky. I have no idea what the significance of this is.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
There's nothing of general tourist interest in the more immediate surroundings of the memorial – so it's best to head straight back to central Milan
- Shoahmemorial 01 - under Milan Central station
- Shoahmemorial 02 - entrance
- Shoahmemorial 03 - sign
- Shoahmemorial 04 - single keyword
- Shoahmemorial 05 - no longer closed doors
- Shoahmemorial 06 - building site of the future library
- Shoahmemorial 07 - into the finished memorial
- Shoahmemorial 08 - plan
- Shoahmemorial 09 - deportation train
- Shoahmemorial 10 - inside a carriage
- Shoahmemorial 11 - projection
- Shoahmemorial 12 - train lift
- Shoahmemorial 13 - on the train lift
- Shoahmemorial 14 - ironically the sign says no transporting of people
- Shoahmemorial 15 - first transport went to Auschwitz
- Shoahmemorial 16 - later transport to Mauthausen
- Shoahmemorial 17 - transports to Fossoli transit camp too
- Shoahmemorial 18 - names
- Shoahmemorial 19 - tracks
- Shoahmemorial 20 - reflection room
- Shoahmemorial 21 - leaving
- Shoahmemorial 22 - Central Station detail
- Shoahmemorial 23 - the monumental Central Station
- Shoahmemorial 24 - finished under Mussolini
- Shoahmemorial 25 - scary detail
- Shoahmemorial 26 - main station hall