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Ferramonti: The story of David Henryk Ropschitz

21 Gennaio 2021
Ferramonti: The story of David Henryk Ropschitz Foto: Yolanda Bentham Yolanda Bentham
It was July 5, 1940 when my father, a young Jewish doctor, was called by the Genoa police headquarters. It was the moment he had always feared. He entered Ferramonti on 6 July 1940. By Yolanda Bentham

It was July 5 1940 when my father, a newly qualified young Jewish doctor, was summoned to the Genova questura. It was the moment he had been dreading. He had lived under the sword of Damocles since the racial laws of November 1938 which had rendered him stateless. He could not leave Italy nor was he allowed to practice as a doctor. He was, according to the Fascist racial laws of the time, an enemy alien.

So he was sent to Ferramonti, arriving on 6thJuly 1940.

David Henryk Ropschitz was born in 1913, in Lemberg, Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the youngest of 10 children. As the pogroms and racial attacks against the Jews intensified, Morris and Sophia Ropschitz moved their family to Vienna, where David grew up and completed his education. He followed four of his siblings to Italy, studying medicine at the University of Genoa from 1931. One brother already had a medical practice in Alassio, two sisters had married doctors and were living in Bordighera and Viareggio, while another brother had graduated in Law from the University of Padua. So moving to Italy, a country he had grown to love through his siblings, was an obvious choice for my father, as was the career of medicine, such a typically Jewish profession!

When my father arrived in Ferramonti in July 1940 the camp was in a very primitive stage of construction with no proper sanitation and only 3 or 4 camerata. Initially there were only males in the camp but over time large groups of internees arrived from Europe and beyond, women and children among them, changing the character of the camp dramatically and conditions gradually improved.

The Parrini construction company initially engaged to drain the marshlands of the anopheles, the malaria-carrying mosquito, would continue building for another year to complete around 100 camerata, some built for family occupancy, the rest single-sex dormitories each housing around 30 internees. 

What made life in Ferramonti bearable despite the heat, the hunger, the uncertainty, was the humane treatment by the camp Commander, Paolo Salvatore, whose kindness and compassion has been noted on so many occasions. Whether taking children for an ice-cream or for rides on his motorbike, allowing internees to visit neighbouring Tarsia to do jobs for the local population, or granting them autonomy within the confines of the camp, Salvatore’s attitude to his “prisoners” was one of protection rather than exploitation. 

And so over the next three years as the war in Europe continued, several thousand Jews fortunate enough to escape, came to Ferramonti turning it into a bustling cosmopolitan community. Synagogues, cafes, a school, a church, appeared over time; musical recitals, art exhibitions, concerts, plays, football matches, took place. As Amgot wrote when the camp was liberated in September 1943, “the cultural and intellectual level of the camp was far superior to the average community of the same size in the USA.”

My father left the camp when it was liberated and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps of the British Army in Taranto. He came to England after the war where he worked for many years as a psychiatrist, having been inspired in Ferramonti by Ernst Bernhard, the renowned psychoanalyst.

Towards the end of his life, my father looked back at those three important years in Ferramonti and put pen to paper to share his story. Sadly he died in 1986 leaving the work unpublished.

“Ferramonti: Salvation behind the barbed wire” was finally published in January 2020 and is currently undergoing translation into Italian. My father’s love for Italy and the Italian people never faltered. He would have been overjoyed to know that one day it might be read by the Italian people.

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Ernst Bernhard
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Ernst Bernhard

Ferramonti di Tarsia (Cs)

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