Holocaust survivor opens Senate as far-right to govern Italy

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Holocaust survivor, Senator Liliana Segre chairs the opening session of the Italian Senate of the newly elected parliament, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Italy voted on Sept. 25 to elect a new parliament. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME – Italy’s Fascist past and its future — which will governed by a party with neo-fascist roots — came to an emotional head Thursday when a Holocaust survivor presided over the first seating of Parliament since last month's general election.

Liliana Segre, a 92-year-old senator-for-life, opened the session in the upper chamber, subbing in for a more senior life senator who couldn’t attend. Her speech formally launched the sequence of events that is expected to bring the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which won the most votes in the Sept. 25 election and has its origins in a neo-fascist movement, to head Italy’s first far-right-led government since the end of World War II.

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Speaking to the Senate, Segre marveled at the “symbolic value” of the fact that she was presiding over the proceedings as Italy soon marks the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome, which brought Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to power, and as war rages once again in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Today, I am particularly moved by the role that fate holds for me,” Segre told the hushed chamber. “In this month of October, which marks the centenary of the March on Rome that began the Fascist dictatorship, it falls to me to temporarily assume the presidency of this temple of democracy.”

Segre was one of the few Italian children who survived deportation to a Nazi death camp, and she has spent recent decades teaching Italian schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Her advocacy led President Sergio Mattarella to name her a senator-for-life in 2018.

In her speech, Segre choked up as she recalled the Italian laws that once forbade Jewish children like her from attending school.

“It is impossible for me not to feel a kind of vertigo, remembering that that same little girl who on a day like this in 1938, disconsolate and lost, was forced by the racist laws to leave her elementary school bench empty. And that, by some strange fate, that same girl today finds herself on the most prestigious bench, in the Senate.”

Her emotional remarks brought the 200 senators to their feet in applause, including the Brothers of Italy delegation headed by Ignazio La Russa. La Russa, who once proudly showed off his collection of Mussolini memorabilia, was elected Senate speaker later Tuesday.

Taking up his post, La Russa presented Segre with a bouquet of white roses and praised her “moral” leadership.

“There is not a word that she said that didn’t deserve my applause,” he said, promising also to serve all political forces in the chamber.

The Brothers of Italy, headed by Giorgia Meloni, has its origins in the Italian Social Movement, or MSI, which was founded in 1946 by former Mussolini officials and drew fascist sympathizers into its ranks. It remained a small far-right party until the 1990s, when it became the National Alliance and worked to distance itself from its neo-fascist past.

Meloni was a member of the youth branches of MSI and the National Alliance and founded Brothers of Italy with La Russa in 2012, keeping the tricolor flame symbol of the MSI in her party logo.

During the campaign, amid Democratic warnings that she represented a danger to democracy, Meloni insisted that the Italian right had “ handed fascism over to history for decades now, " and had condemned racial laws and the suppression of democracy.

Segre didn’t refer to the party by name in her speech, but she said Italian voters had expressed their will at the ballot box.

“The people have decided. It is the essence of democracy," Segre said. "The majority emerging from the ballot has the right to govern, and the minority has the similarly fundamental obligation to be in the opposition.”

Looking ahead to the upcoming legislature, she called for a civilized debate that does not degenerate into hateful speech and respects and implements the Italian Constitution, which was drafted in 1947 by a constituent assembly of anti-fascist forces.

Segre recalled the Constitution was not some “piece of paper, but the testament of 100,000 dead who fell during the long fight for freedom,” a reference to the Italians who fought Nazi-fascism.

She cited in particular the Constitution’s Article 3, which states that all Italian citizens are equal under the law “without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion or personal or social condition.”

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