Umberto Consiglio, Deportee and Eye-Witness

The name of Umberto Consiglio stands out among the many names that are missing from Giovanna d’Amico’s otherwise meticulous I sicialiani deportati nei campi di concentramento e di sterminio nazista 1943-1945 [Sicialian deportees in the Nazi Concentration and Death Camps, 1943-1945] (Sellerio Ed. Palermo, 2006). Even though Franco Bertolucci set the record straight in a short note included in the dossier Gli anarchici deportati in Germania durante la Seconda Guerra Mondiale [Anarchists Deported to Germany during the Second World War] (see the site of the Biblioteca Armando Borghi in Castelbolognese), the figure of Consiglio the deportee deserves further investigation not just because of his leading role in the Italian anarchist movement before and after the war (including time spent in exile in France and the Spanish Revolution) but also because he was among the very first to expose the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.

The importance of the Report on Auschwitz published by Primo Levi back in November 1946 in the Turin-based review Minerva Medica – regarded as the first account to appear in Italy by an eye-witness of the reality of the Nazi death camps – has recently been highlighted. Making Umberto Consiglio’s account, given to his Italian comrades after he returned from the camp in Dachau near Munich, a camp which housed the prototype for about 20,000 Nazi camps (it was opened by the SS in 1933) all the more valuable. During the Second World War, Dachau processed around 200,000 people, largely political prisoners and partisans captured by the Nazis and forced to perform slave labour pending their transfer elsewhere. It is estimated that around one in four of them perished there and thousands more died in the days following the liberation due to extreme weakness and the diseases they contracted there.

Having escaped death and been liberated by the Americans on 29 April 1945, Consiglio was “repatriated” to Paris early in June 1945. On 7 September he contacted Ugo Fedeli and the comrades from the FCLAI [Libertarian Communist Federation of Upper Italy], writing to tell them that he was looking into some way of getting back to Italy, given that “just a short time ago, I felt ‘pretty good’, having previously been wrestling with the need to rebuild my physical and spiritual strength, which had naturally been quite undermined after 20 months in that macabre setting” (That letter has been conserved at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam’s Fedeli Holding, b.251)

Six months later and from Syracuse he sent Paolo Schicchi a short but effective summary of his concentration camp experiences; it was published as “The Horrors of the Nazi Deportation Camps” in Era Nuova, 1 May 1946 (Year I, No 3, pp 14-15) and thus well ahead of Primo Levi’s account. Since was “dealing with matters that one cannot understand without having first gone through them, I, who went through them, acknowledge my inability to reconstruct them, because of their enormity and because a sinister dance of hallucinating ghosts looms in my mind at the mere invocation of them.” He would confine himself to setting out “some of the more outstanding episodes that I lived through as if in a distressing nightmare.”

Arrested in October 1943 by Pierre Laval’s gendarmes and then handed over to the Gestapo, Consiglio had been shipped by train to Dachau where he soon learnt that “since we were the enemies of European civilization, of which Germany had appointed itself the watching brief, we were all doomed to suffer and die.” In particular to suffer from the slave labour carried out under SS supervision “and we were beaten, often to death, if our shovels were not full enough or if our picks did not dig deep enough.” 

We toiled through into the evening through the rain and the snow and the ice. Many died unexpectedly due to starvation or thirst.” Evening meals of two or three boiled potatoes and a slice of bread  “gave rise to scenes of unbelievable beastliness”, as they fought over “the least tiny, least rotten potato or least thin slice of bread … How could one witness such degradation without losing one’s mind or dying of shame?”

Consiglio owed his survival to his having recognized among the German “auxiliaries”, ex-deportees and ex-internees who “opted to inflict death rather than suffer it”, a former volunteer with who he had fought in Spain in the ranks of the International Brigades: “Was some glimmer of his former sense of humanity resuscitated and were his eyes unexpectedly opened to the entire infamy of his position? The fact of the matter is that he befriended me and tried to help me on the odd occasion. He was found out and hanged.”

The prisoners did everything they could to ensure that they could survive the wearisome daily routine: otherwise they became “candidates for the crematorium oven just to make up the daily quota of dead”. Even more tragic was what happened when they had no work to do. “In order to ‘occupy’ us, the guards would dream up fantastic schemes that in the end claimed the lives of at least a hundred people.” Among those schemes were ‘scientific’ experiments. “Some poor wretch would have his head pushed under water in a tank whilst the experimenter, holding a watch, worked out how many minutes or seconds he could hold out with adamantine impassiveness. Others were subjected to injections with malaria …  or with benzine, which brought death after horrendous suffering. The corpses piled up, stinking out the air because the ovens could not cope with the burning of them all. And there were those who lost their minds due to starvation and who gnawed on slices from those putrefying corpses.” The most horrendous spectacle he had to witness was that of “a young Italian partisan who was torn to pieces and killed by dogs: the victim’s screams were echoed by the contemptuous snickering of the camp commandant.”

At that point, Consiglio interrupts his account because he found it too painful to “dredge up all the terrifying episodes of all that ‘scientific’ savagery.”  He was to return to it fitfully over the ensuing years, in articles specially written for Umanità Nova and these were to be collated and reprinted. They included the thought with which he closed his initial eye-witness testimony: “In spelling out the horrors of Nazism, we do not intend to create anti-Germanism, that is, reversed Nazism; but we want to inspire reflection upon collective intoxication and highlight how borders and nationalism and their resultant wars are the greatest scourge upon humanity.” 

Natale Musarra, Sicilia Libertaria, Ragusa, May 2022, p. 5 

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.