Holocaust-surviving lawmaker opens Italy's Senate, even as the far-right takes office

Senator Liliana Segre, a Holocaust survivor, chairs the opening session of the Italian Senate of the newly elected parliament on Thursday. [Gregorio Borgia/AP]

Italy's Fascist past and its future 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 general elections last month.

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 Brothers of Italy party, which won the most votes in Sept. 25 elections 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.

Speaking to the Senate, Segre marveled at the "symbolic value" of the coincidence of her role and the historic moment that Italy is witnessing. She noted that she was presiding over the Senate 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, which is the Senate of the Republic."

Segre was one of the few Italian children who survived deportation to a Nazi death camp, and she has spent recent decades telling Italian schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Her advocacy led President Sergio Mattarella to name her a senator-for-life in 2018 as Italy marked the anniversary of the introduction of fascist-era racial laws discriminating against Jews.

In her speech, Segre choked up as she recalled that those laws 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."