Running for the past, athletes trek to Holocaust race in Rome
With 80-year-old Holocaust survivor and Munich Olympian Shaul Ladany, the Run for Mem took participants past historical Nazi persecution sights throughout the city
On October 16, 1943, 45-year-old Settimio Calò left his wife Clelia and their nine children comfortably asleep in their apartment when he snuck out at dawn, hoping he would be able to buy some cigarettes — a rare treat in Nazi-occupied Rome.
When he got home a few hours later, he found the place in Via del Portico D’Ottavia, the heart of the former Jewish Ghetto, completely empty. The Nazis had raided the neighborhood and rounded up over 1,000 Jews. Of them, only 15 men and one woman survived Auschwitz. All Calò’s children, including little Samuele, just a few months old, were murdered.
“Today many people have forgotten about the Holocaust. The number of survivors was already small immediately after it, and 72 years later very few can still tell their stories firsthand. This is why doing it when I have the opportunity is an imperative for me,” Holocaust survivor and Israeli racewalker Shaul Ladany says in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.
Ahead of International Holocaust Memorial Day, Ladany — who was at the 1972 Munich Olympics and survived the horrifying terror attack on the Israeli delegation — was the guest of honor at an event in Rome aimed at promoting Holocaust remembrance and the awareness of its importance.
“Run for Mem,” a non-competitive road race past sites related to the history of the Holocaust in the Italian capital, took place on Sunday, January 22.
Via del Portico D’Ottavia, where the Calò family was arrested along with so many others, and which today remains at the heart of the Jewish life in the city, was the epicenter of the race. The little square behind the Great Synagogue named after the date of the Nazi raid, Largo 16 Ottobre 1943, served as the start and end point.
About 1,500 people took part in the initiative, which was organized by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, with support of Maccabi Italia (a branch of the renowned international Jewish sports organization) and the Rome Marathon.
“This year we chose a new, maybe even brave way to mark Holocaust Memorial Day — a sporting event,” President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni said, opening the race.
“People happen to run every day, but today we have to take with us the milestones of our history and remember that the path ahead of us starts from the one influenced by past events. Sometimes people fall and are hurt. They have made us fall, they have hurt us, but we have gotten back to our feet and we have started again, as individuals, as a people, as a community, as Italians, as Europeans,” she concluded.
“Run for Mem” also received the support of over two dozen Jewish, civil, government and sports organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, the European Jewish Congress as well as Prime Minister of Italy Paolo Gentiloni.
Among those who attended were members of the Italian government, undersecretary for European Affairs Sandro Gozi, Italian runner Franca Fiacconi, Imam Yahya Pallavicini and Israeli ambassador to Rome Ofer Sachs.
The high interest for the event especially moved Ladany.
“I must say that I was really pleased to be invited to this event and impressed by the work done by the organizers, including the fact that there were so many journalists and so much interest around it. A lecture could have never drawn as much attention,” Ladany points out.
The 80-year-old racewalker opted for the longest route of 10 kilometers (6 miles), finding some similarities with the Jerusalem Marathon.
“The Jerusalem Marathon, with so many ups and downs, is hard, but the landscapes are wonderful. Same here in Rome. Amazing views, the Colosseum, the Forum, but a tough one, especially because the stone-paved streets were far from being smooth,” he said.
Ladany, who is a professor emeritus of industrial engineering at Ben-Gurion University, also recalled a time in Israel when there were no marathons at all.
“Today there are several, with thousands of participants. When they held the very first one from Hadera to Zichron Yaakov as an Olympic trial in 1956, there were maybe 10 or 12 participants, myself included. Shortly after, they started to organize racewalks. I have been racewalking ever since,” he said.
The two routes offered by “Run for Mem” (the shorter of which was 3.5 kilometers) took the runners around the city, passing by streets and buildings which witnessed the Nazi cruelty, as well as sites that speak about the courage of those who risked their lives to help people in need.
Participants, who all wore t-shirts bearing the slogan “Race for Remembrance, Looking Ahead,” ran by the Regina Coeli prison on the Tiber river, where Jews and political prisoners were detained.
They also passed by the building on Via Urbana where Father Pietro Pappagallo lived. The hero had helped victims of the persecution and resistance fighters until he was arrested and killed by the Nazis in the infamous Ardeatine Caves massacre of 1944.
The longer route passed by the building in Via Tasso that served as SS headquarters and which today houses the Museum of the Liberation.
The shorter one cut through the small Tiberina island, where physician Giovanni Borromeo hid hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Many of them were diagnosed with the fictitious “K. disease,” which kept German soldiers, afraid of contracting contagious diseases, at bay. Borromeo was recognized as a Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2004.
“The sites featured in this road-race symbolize the history of the persecution, devoting attention also to what happened to Roma people, political opponents and members of the gay community,” commented Maccabi Italia president Vittorio Pavoncello, speaking to Sky News Italy.
The “Run for Mem” itinerary also included the Via degli Zingari, where a plaque commemorates the oppression of the Roma people.
Speaking from his hotel in Rome, Ladany, who was sent to Bergen Belsen with his family as an 8 year old, explains how being a survivor has influenced his life.
“It shaped me to be ambitious, to set high goals. Out of the first eight years of school, I only attended four, in four different languages. Therefore, my first goal was to graduate high school. Then it was to become an officer in the Israeli army, to get a degree, a second degree, a PhD, a position as a lecturer, professor, tenured professor. And simultaneously, to become an Israeli champion, set a world record, take part in my first Olympic Games, and then in my second,” he said passionately.
His second Olympic competition was in Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by the Palestinian terror group Black September. Ladany managed to get out of the building.
“Munich was just yet another situation where I found myself in mortal danger and I survived,” he explained. “I think that another consequence of my experiences during the Holocaust, when I lost 28 members of my immediate family, is that I am not afraid of anything.
“This does not mean I am not cautious, but I’m not afraid to die. For example, when the Six Day War broke out, I was studying in the United States. I came back at my own expense to volunteer in the army, and not because I like the military life. I felt it was my duty to defend my country.”
Asked what role sports and athletes can or should play in influencing the world, he explained that there are those who like to speak up, and those who don’t.
“When asked, I personally always expressed my opinion, even if it meant going against the mainstream view,” he said, remembering how after the massacre at Munich, he opposed the withdrawal of the team because he felt it would give the terrorists what they wanted.
“I also think it was right that the Olympics went on. When Baron de Coubertin started the modern Olympic Games, he had in mind the ancient ones which marked a moment of truce between the different Greek city-states. Nowadays, many things have changed. There is the doping, the money… However, this should not change,” Ladany says.
At the end of the “Run for Mem” all participants crossed the finish line together. What better could embody the idea so dear to de Coubertin that what counts is not winning, but participating, than a Race for Remembrance?