Red house

Casa Rossa is a large 2 storey building, counting over 30 different rooms, situated about 5 kilometres from Alberobello (included in Unesco’s World Heritage List). It’s a very interesting location, close to archeological sites (grotta Mozzone), crossing important historical roads (e.g. Conversano-Taranto), and also close to the alabaster cave that was used to build the Transatlantico columns of Palazzo di Montecitorio in Rome.

It acted as boundary between the cities of Taranto, Monopoli and Mottola. Some old oak trees were used as reference points to guide travellers. Towards the end of 1800, Francesco Gigante, a controversial local priest allegedly too “friendly” towards southern Italy bandits, donated his entire fortune to create a school of agriculture (will is dated 2/12/1887). The school was founded in 1896. According to Gigante, “the school’s aim was to form skilled farmers and honest citizens. It had to endow them with theoretical knowledge combined with practical skills and had to be organized as a boarding school, open to strangers”.

For the first 40 years of 1900, Casa Rossa played an important role in creating several generations of rural workers. It had close links with the national government, including during the years of fascism. From 1919, it also acted as a refuge for war’s orphans coming from Bari and Brindisi.

Casa Rossa hosted the School of Agriculture from 1906 to 1930, the elementary school from 1916 to 1938, the Technical School of Agriculture form 1932 to 1938. At the end of 1939 the School was transferred to Alberobello, because of budget cuts. But the activities of the farm associated to the School continued to be carried out at Casa Rossa.

From July 1940, following Italy’s decision to enter the world war, The Home Office used Casa Rossa as the longest standing concentration camp. According to the fascist authorities, Casa Rossa was ideally placed for this role, because it was an isolated and easily controllable building.

Several European and non European citizens were deported there from 1940 to 1949. Between 1940 and 1943, Casa Rossa was populated by people coming from British colonies, jews from Germany, Poland and Czech Republic, politically “dangerous” Italian citizens and creation jews. Among them, of note is the presence of English comedy writer Arthur Spurle.

Several artists, especially from Germany, populated Casa Rossa in this period. They left drawings, and musical scores. Also, professionals such as architects, engineers and doctors often offered their services in exchange of food and clothes. Some of them were then transferred to Lazio and successively deported into German lagers (even after the armistice was signed).

Between 1944 and 1946, in the middle of the transition towards democracy, mainly ex fascists were kept at Casa Rossa.

Between 1947 and 1949, at the beginning of the cold war, a lot of refugees and displaced people coming from all over Europe populated Casa Rossa. Among them, prostitutes, orphans, former Italian citizens from South Tyrol who had opted for the Austrian Nationality. The most prominent intern was a Lithuanian painter, Viktor Tschernon, who frescoed the chapel adjacent to Casa Rossa. An interesting movie, “Donne Senza Nome. Le Indesiderabili”, was inspired by this period. Geza van Radvanij directed the movie, which benefited from an exceptional cast of actors.

Hence, during this period Casa Rossa was used for different purposes, ranging from refugee camp, to concentration camp and jail. In 1969, Italy’s President Giuseppe Saragat approved the new statute of the Gigante Foundation, which was transformed into a school foundation. From 1970 to 1979, the foundation signed contracts and deals with different Italian Departments, to host professionally oriented training courses.

Elisa Springer, who survived Aschwitz, visited Casa Rossa on February 21st 2001. She launched a public appeal to restore and protect the building, in order to keep the memory of such tragic events alive.

On November 11st 2002, the Hebrew Association Keren Kayemeth Leisrael donated to the City of Alberobello an olive tree coming from the surroundings of Jerusalem. The tree was planted close to the Church of Santa Lucia, with a plaque carrying a message in both Italian and Hebrew. The message thanked the people of Alberobello for their hospitality during the period of racial persecutions. The plaque is the only tangible trace of anti-Semitic persecutions in Puglia during the years of fascism.

From 1954 to 1977, Casa Rossa was effectively rented out and used as a school for teaching different curricula. In 1957, the School of Agriculture was named after Renato Moro, father of the prominent Italian politician Aldo Moro. On December 5th 2007 Casa Rossa has been declared an historical building from local authorities.

The variety of nationalities, cultures, religions and political beliefs of the people staying at Casa Rossa during all these years, make this place unique. Therefore, it seems natural to think of this place as a Memorial Museum of Shoah in Southern Italy. But also as a Centre promoting Peace and Cultural Dialogue between Continental Europe and the Mediterranean area, against deportation, discrimination and war.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Casa Rossa is placed in the wonderful City of Alberobello.