Lampedusa, Already Forgotten: Victims Buried In Obscurity After Vows Of State Funerals

Coffins lined up side by side in Lampedusa
Coffins lined up side by side in Lampedusa
Andrea Malaguti

LAMPEDUSA — Yesterday, they buried those remaining of the 385 victims from the Oct. 3 shipwreck off Lampedusa. There were no flowers. No gravestones. None of the ceremony that so many had promised.

That first day, as the death toll mounted, various political leaders, including Prime Minister Enrico Letta, had called for some kind of official state funeral to mark the worst such recorded tragedy of its kind, as would-be immigrants from Africa died trying to reach the shores of Italy...of Europe.

But two weeks later, those promises that had been so easy to make in the moment of dismay had just as easily been forgotten. For the funerals here, and elsewhere, there was no TV coverage. No President of the European Commission in attendance, or even the Italian Foreign Minister.

It was dark and cold on this tiny island, just like the sea that swallowed its victims, mostly Eritreans but Syrians too — and returned them swollen, in tatters, without an identity.

It’s the perfect end to a non-story, made up of non-men, non-women, and especially non-children. They’re just numbers lowered down at random into the stomach of the universe. Wasted. Without any distinction.

Five of them, the luckier ones, were buried in a cemetery on the main island of Sicily, where the town of Sambuca di Sicilia made a part of its graveyard available to them. The mayor of the town, Leo Ciaccio was there, along with about 20 refugees — half of whom were survivors of this latest tragic accident.

Who were these five? Who knows. We only know that they needed to be put in the ground quickly, before diseases set in, local doctors had warned. There was a proper funeral ceremony for those five, with priests and mourners. The attendees were dressed in black, rocking back and forth in pain, crying for the loss of their compatriots. In another town, where another 85 were buried, proceedings went much faster, with many more corpses to be dealt with, the coffins lined up side-by-side.

“I’ve never, ever seen so many together,” the graveyard caretaker says. There were no namecards to tell them apart; just numbers. With a marker it was written on the wall: here, on the left, are numbers 6, 23, and 98.

A shame

“What has Italy become?” asks Enzo Billaci, a lifelong Lampedusa resident and local fisheries official.

Indeed, the country is not even the true destination of those who died off her shores, a place where the living don’t even want to be identified, with the real dream of escaping to Sweden or England. Only the dead are forced to stay. “When I saw the mechanical arms of the ships carry off the white coffins of the children, two by two, my heart broke,” says Billaci. “I’m ashamed.”

Even the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusy Nicolini, is contrite. “If they had told us they would be taking away the coffins, we would have arranged for these people to have if not state funerals at least national funerals,” she says.

The public farewell — without caskets, without bodies, but with an Italian flag — will be held Oct, 21 “in the presence of government representatives,” says a statement from the Ministry of the Interior. It will take place in Sicily, many miles away from Lampedusa — after the victims have already been laid to rest, an attempt to pretend that there is mercy.

“Lampedusa has respect for those who come. When I saw the coffins, I thought about all those we have saved over the past 20 years. Thousands of them. I wonder if the Interior Ministry has the same respect,” whispers Mayor Nicolini. She’s exhausted. She stays on the pier with her eyes focused downward for five minutes, not speaking.

A scream

Some of the coffins were donated to the victims. An unknown lucky few ended up in the private tombs of some families. They are ordinary Italian citizens who thought, if the state doesn’t do it, we will.

We traveled back to the main island of Sicily on Thursday, where there was a priest and imam together for another ceremony in the city of Gela. Here, the victims were buried facing Mecca, in among all the Christians of the cemetery. One mourner, a woman in her sixties named Mufid Abu Taq, looked on as the bodies were lowered into the graves. “These people came from the sea with the hope to live,” she says, “but running away from war they met death.”

Abu Taq is a large woman, who exhaling with a sort of low, continuous moan. But then, without warning, she begins screaming, a scream that carried the decades of her life for all to hear.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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