In his 18th-century library are the layers of our brief age. Bruno Segre, the partisan and advocate, works here. A 98-years-long life spent like a novel, including bullets blocked by a metal cigarette case, working in Turin during the times of Natalia Ginzburg and Cesare Pavese, the very first cases in defense of conscientious objectors and the battle for civil divorce. In his long life, Bruno Segre has seen it all. We spoke with him there.
Let’s start from Turin and how the city has changed over the decades.
A huge change. I remember a small and friendly city, with gas lamps in the town center. It then became large and chaotic. Now, it is becoming more attractive, similar to what I experienced as a boy. There have been changes in the culture, in the cities and in the moral values: If you wanted to kiss a girl here in Turin, it took months of courting. Now, that’s not the case: Everything has become faster. It has always been a cosmopolitan city. A cosmopolitan and industrious city that put work as a moral supremacy. I confronted Fiat: I extricated labor benefits in favor of workers from the Agnelli family, who had done little to accommodate the new workers, coming from the South and other places, in the second half of the 20th century. The City of Turin shouldered the costs to provide civilian benefits to these people (transport, hospitals, schools, etc.).
And who were the Agnelli?
They owned the city.
What were the racial laws in Turin?
I was struck by the indifference of the people. In Italy, there were about 40,000 Jews. Many occupied university chairs. Some were philanthropists who gave generous donations to the city’s institutions. There was a kind of collective humiliation. A famous café downtown posted the sign: “Here the Jews are not welcome.” Many companies had to close or change their names. I noted a widespread selfishness; people took advantage of the marginalization and discrimination of Jews to take their place. Even worse was the expulsion from schools. When they implemented the anti-Semitic laws, Jewish students were able to complete their courses at the university (I graduated with Einaudi), but they were not allowed to enroll in other university courses. Conversely, the German Jews had to immediately cease their studies without graduating. This reflects the subjection of fascism under the orders of the Nazis. The fascists emerged out of ignorance and stupidity. Many Jews did not know of their status. They realized it only when they were persecuted.
Why did you join the Resistance?
I have always been anti-fascist. When I was a boy, I was kicked out of the classroom because I declared I was against the war in Ethiopia. In the winter of 1942, I was jailed three months at the Nuove jail, for charges of defeatism.
What triggered the arrest?
In 1942, I had written the only anti-racist article ever printed in Italy, on the Turin’s magazine L’igiene e la vita [“Hygiene and life”]. The magazine was suppressed at once. Life at the Nuove prison was terrible. That winter was the coldest of the century. The glass panes on the cell windows were broken because of the bombing. Then, “General Winter” blocked the advance of the German tanks in Russian territory. They treated us like animals. On Sunday they threw us pieces of meat pulled from a sack with a fork. In 1944, they shot me. I was captured on the way to Asti, and they wanted to know how come I had a German permit. But first they hung me out of a window and shouted: “You either talk or I’ll throw you out.” I did not say a word. Below people were strolling. Besides, I truly did not know who had given me that permit in our clandestine headquarters.
How was the end of the war?
People danced in the streets. The Anglo-Americans and French were selling their propaganda publications. There were great hopes of renewal. I wanted to kill the former fascist priest Gino Sottochiesa, who had written newspaper articles against the Jews on Nazi newspapers, fomenting anti-Semitic propaganda. Luckily, I did not find him. He had hidden in a convent.
Who did you meet in Turin in the 1950s?
I presented Pimo Levi’s book, La Treuga [“The Truce”]. He was a melancholic loner. I was friends with Carlo Levi, Cesare Pavese and Leone Ginzburg. Carlo Pavese used to say that Levi was a bit exhibitionist. Natalia Ginzburg was my classmate at the Alfieri high school. At school, she wrote erotic poems. She stood out for her intelligence.
Why did you started defending conscientious objectors?
I met Aldo Capitini the late ‘40s. We were introduced by the young Sardinian Pietro Pinna, who had refused to take up arms. I defended him on Aug. 31, 1949, before the Military Court of Turin. It was a sensational trial; journalists came from abroad. Since then, I have defended hundreds of objectors in every Military Court in Italy because I was convinced that nonviolence is a strength, not weakness. I did the same with the judgments for divorce. Today everything is normal. History needs breaking points at times.