Halftime for the Holocaust: The Fascist Soccer Star and the Auschwitz Survivor

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Roman soccer star Paolo Di Canio is infamous for flashing the Hitler salute to his team's far-right fans. The mayor of Rome wants it to stop. He brought Di Canio and his Lazio teammates together with three Holocaust survivors.

Lazio's Paolo Di Canio has become infamous for his Hitler salutes to fans. The Roman team's fans don't seem to mind.
AP

Lazio's Paolo Di Canio has become infamous for his Hitler salutes to fans. The Roman team's fans don't seem to mind.

It's drizzling as the bus winds its way up the Capitol in Rome.It stopsbefore City Hall -- a building once home to the Roman Senate -- and the men from the bus, all wearing the absolute latest expensive Italian fashions, hurry into a side entrance.

Shlomo Venezia approaches the city hall from the other side -- on foot. He climbs up the ceremonial steps leading up to Capitol Square, designed by Michelangelo and presided over by a mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius. The 82-year-old is wearing a down jacket and a sailor's cap to protect himself from the winter weather.

Venezia, a survivor of the Holocaust, is coming at the invitation of Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni and is joined at City Hall by two additional Holocaust survivors. They are there to talk to the men from the bus -- Rome's professional soccer team S. S. Lazio. A week earlier, Rome's other team, A. S. Roma, came by for a similar visit. This week's soccer professionals sit obediently in the Gobelin Hall doing their best impression of an elementary school class. Which in a way it is -- and for at least one of the players, it's a kind of detention.

Paolo Di Canio's Hitler salute

Paolo Di Canio, captain of Lazio, has been suspended twice for saluting fans with an outstretched right arm -- the so-called "Hitler greeting." Among Lazio's right-wing fans -- the "Ultras" -- Di Canio has been their celebrated idol since. "Ave Paolo" has become a favorite chant in the Olympia Stadium where they play. On this day, though, Di Canio sits silently in the second row, listening attentively as the mayor explains why they are there.

There are a number of incidents to point to. Recently, during a match against Livorno, a swastika flag and a portrait of Benito Mussolini -- Italy's fascist leader during World War II -- were seen on display in the hardcore fan corner. Even worse, some young fans unfurled a 30 meter long banner with a verse rhyming the place name Livorno with the Italian word "forno." The word means "oven." Livorno, prior to World War II, was home to a large Jewish community.

Were Di Canio not wearing his suit on his visit to the mayor, one would be able to see the so-called "fasces" he has tattooed onto his back. An ancient symbol depicting a bundle of sticks with an axe protruding from the top, the fasces is a symbol for Italian fascism, and was used on Mussolini's personal flag. On Di Canio's right bicep, he has a second tattoo: "DUX" it says -- Latin for "leader."

Shlomo Venezia wears his tattoo on his left forearm. His tattoo reads: 182727.

Venezia is one of the last remaining survivors of the Jewish "Sonderkommando" from Auschwitz -- those prisoners who were forced to work at the gas chambers and the ovens. Shlomo Venezia says he doesn't know if there is an afterlife, but he knows all about hell. He stands up and explains what he saw: how prisoners -- children, old people, all of them naked -- were forced into the gas chambers. They often gazed beseechingly at Venezia as though he, a member of the Sonderkommando, could give them a word of hope.

Only the Holocaust basics

He only tells the Lazio players the basics. He doesn't, for example, explain everything he saw, like the newborn they once found in one of the chambers, miraculously still alive under the pile of corpses, suckling at the breast of its dead mother. He doesn't tell what happened to the newborn, either. Those are his stories -- stories that visit him in the night.

Now, before him, he sees the Lazio players, dressed in pin-stripes and expensive shoes, their hair dyed blond. It is completely silent; nobody ventures a question. Mayor Veltroni says he brought the players together with the Holocaust survivors in the heart of Rome to demonstrate that Italy's capital has no patience for fascist symbols and swastika flags. "These symbols don't belong in this city," he says.

An hour and a half later, the players leave through the side exit of City Hall and start fumbling with their phones. They look a little lost. No one says a thing. Christian Manfredini (number 68; left midfielder) takes a walk around the plaza by himself.

Then Trainer Delio Rossi joins them. He tells them "when you see a swastika, or a red flag, hammer and sickle, they represent human suffering. Then I think it's right to interrupt, maybe for a minute at least."

Lazio fans with a swastika flag.
AP

Lazio fans with a swastika flag.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, fighting under the symbol of the hammer and sickle. How to tell all this?

A promise from the players

Team Captain Di Canio, in his coat and Burberry scarf, is the last to appear. Two passersby call out to him "Paolo! Paolo!" and he grins briefly at them from behind his oversized sunglasses. He stayed to speak with the mayor. One should also talk about the victims of the Communist partisans -- "in order to practice 360 degree justice." The "racial laws" were terrible, he says later, but he wasn't going to change his ideas.

Schlomo Venezia is still standing on the landing. "They made us a promise," he says and puts his cap back on. Behind him are the ruins of the Forum. "The next time those symbols appear, they'll interrupt the game." Time will tell. The only ones who always kept their word were the Nazi Germans. That is his experience.

No, says Schlomo Venezia, he doesn't think much of soccer.

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