Duquesne University

Michael Aaron Wright

A Director’s Reflection: “Be the Difference – Never Again”

The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno (Italy)

Early in 2016, I received a phone call from a friend and fellow U.S. study abroad program director in Florence who told me of an American friend of his, Elizabeth Bettina, who had written a book about Jews being saved in Italy during the Holocaust, even in her family’s village near Salerno that had been the site of a Jewish concentration camp during World War II. He had been using her book in his curriculum and she was coming to Italy, interested in visiting the two American war cemeteries in Italy, including the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, just south of Rome near Anzio.

Elizabeth arrived in Rome and I accompanied her down the Tyrrhenian coast on a beautiful spring morning. As we drove towards the cemetery in Nettuno, I embarrassingly admitted that I had never visited the cemetery where 11,000 U.S. American service members were entombed or memorialized.

Melanie Resto, Superintendent of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery created special tours for us. As we entered this sacred, giant site that was studded with 7,860 gleaming marble crosses and Stars of David tombs, sheltered by the towering umbrella pines of Rome, we moved with our guide through the 77-acre property hearing the harrowing stories of the young men and women who laid at rest and how many these soldiers had never received visits from their loved ones at their graves after the war.

sicyly rome american cemetery nettunoElizabeth and I were moved beyond words. As we drove back to Rome, Elizabeth spoke of her vision for U.S. American students to visit these cemeteries during their semester abroad and to learn the stories of those who had given their lives for freedom. She called this the “Be the Difference – Never Again Project”. A light bulb went off in my mind, thinking that this might be the perfect project for our Intercultural Awareness course and to create a more meaningful collaboration for our Duquesne University college students and their intercultural partners at the Rome-based Einstein-Bachelet High School.

Since November 2016, Duquesne University students in Rome and the Einstein-Bachelet High School students have researched soldiers’ stories, created homages, and helped to put together Memorial Services at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery. We want those who have family who is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery to know that young Italian and U.S. American students are taking the time to learn the stories of those who sacrificed to help free Italy. We hope the bringing-to-life of their stories will create an urgency for peace in these young people at a time when there is war again on the continent of Europe. This is the “Be the Difference-Never Again” project for us at Duquesne in Rome.

The Museum of Memory and Peace, Campagna (Italy)

Elizabeth Bettina’s book, It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust, began with a little-known secret about her grandmother’s village near Salerno in the south of Italy. The village was home to a concentration camp for northern European Jews during WWII. The incredible story of this little village is the symbiotic relation of salvation between the villagers of Campagna and the oppressed Jews. Both groups end up saving each other! An incredible story of light in a time of extreme darkness. As Walter Wolff says, a former Jewish prisoner in the Campagna camp, “Bad times, good people.”

I was fascinated by this story, especially with my budding friendship with Elizabeth. As I continued to work in my mind how we might be able to add the village of Campagna to our short weekend-long Academic Excursion to the Campania region, the urgency became even greater when the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre happened in Pittsburgh, PA in 2018. It just so happens that Duquesne University’s home campus is in Pittsburgh and staff and families of students at Duquesne knew the dead in this tragically violent and hateful attack on peaceful people. It was time to add another piece to our “Be the Difference-Never Again” project, to add to the examples of oppression and violence from World War II the ability to see a people oppressed, while understanding how we can be the difference today if we will courageously act for what we know is right and good. This ultimately leads to peace and justice.

Using Bettina’s text in our Intercultural Awareness class, students create presentations to be given to their peers at the Museum of Memory and Peace in Campagna, the site of the former internment camp. It has been part of our Ancient Campania Academic Excursion since 2018 and students often reflect on how much they love the village and how touched they are by the extraordinary story of this village.

sicyly rome american cemetery nettuno studentsTo responsibly counterbalance this isolated story of good in Campagna, we also take students to the former Jewish Ghetto of Rome, where they learn about the Jewish Roundup that took place by the Nazis in October 1943. Only 16 from the community of the nearly 2,000 that were sent to the death camps in Poland returned after the war. It decimated the Roman Jewish community and brought the terrible reality of deportation to Italy.

The “Be the Difference-Never Again” teaches students to act when there is injustice and to never be a bystander. This is an important message for Duquesne students with antisemitism and the normalization of hate for other groups on the rise in our day and age.

Share the Candle and...

"If you are not indifferent - things can be different."
"We must remember - not to forget."

Elizabeth Bettina