Home > Archives > 08 - 2006 > Through the eyes of a little girl
from issue no. 08 - 2006


Through the eyes of a little girl

The story of a Jewish family in Turin saved by the Augustinian religious of the Santi Quattro Coronati told by one of the daughters, who was eight years old when she was hidden in the ancient monastery

by Amalia Viterbo

I was born in Turin on 18 August 1935: my mother was an elementary school teacher and my father a dealer in untreated hides. Three other children followed me: Laura (1938), Davide (1939) and Silvio (1946).
Despite the racial persecutions and the dangers of the war, my childhood was fairly serene because of the tranquil and reassuring family atmosphere that my parents managed to create around us children.
I remember well that in the Fall of 1938 mamma had to leave the school because she was Jewish; daddy, instead, continued his independent work, and traveled a lot, but when he was at home he was very close to us and played with us. When I was about three, he gave me a present of a bicycle with training wheels and taught me how to pedal in the hallway of the house: I was so happy to see him get on to my little bicycle and laughed myself sick.
Soon after the outbreak of the war the bombings of the city began; the sirens sounded in the heart of the night and we all had to abandon our warm beds to seek refuge in the cellar: more than once daddy and mamma, after having wrapped us in a blanket, carried us asleep in their arms to the refuge.
The glass of the windows was blacked out so that the pilots of the planes would not pick out lights; often however the pressure wave caused by the bombs reduced the windows to fragments, and because replacements could not be found, plywood had to be used instead, and very soon appeared in all the window frames in the city.
A view of the cloister of the Santi Quattro Coronati in a period photograph

A view of the cloister of the Santi Quattro Coronati in a period photograph

In 1941 I was six years old, but as a Jew could not attend the public school in my neighborhood. Therefore my parents enrolled me in the first grade of the Jewish school. Every morning with daddy I took tram number 13, catching it in Via San Donato, not far from my home. My teacher was Miss Bianca Amar who also taught us Hebrew: she was very good and fair and also even if I was only with her for one school year I always preserved a wonderful memory of her. It gave me great pleasure to see her again after the war, and particularly during the last period of her life when she was a guest in the Jewish Rest Home.
In 1942 the bombings intensified and daddy, who was miraculously saved from an air attack on the train in which he was traveling (his carriage had stopped in a tunnel), decided on evacuating from our Turin home to Il Fé, a little place in the Lanzo valley. The grandparents didn’t want to move and remained in Turin, but the air raids became ever more frequent and devastating; from Il Fé we could see the glow of the incendiary bombs. Mamma was very worried about the survival of her parents and one day went back to the city with me and almost forced them to escape from Turin. From that day until the end of the war grandma Gemma and granddad Marco lived with us.
I should have attended the second elementary, but I was prohibited from sitting with the other pupils because I was Jewish. The local teacher was very kind and understanding and came especially for me every Saturday afternoon from Precaria, where she lived, to Il Fé, two kilometers away. She assigned me the homework for the whole week and explained the lessons to me; I don’t remember her name but her goodness and patience are imprinted on my mind. I don’t remember either how I was then allowed into the third elementary class.
The winter that year was particularly cold; all of us wore big nailed shoes so as not to slip on the sheets of ice that formed on the paths.
Other relations joined us at Il Fé: grandma’s mother, whom we called “grandma great”, two young grandchildren of hers and our cousins, Ugo and Franco, a sister of my father’s, aunt Gina, with her daughter Editta and son Bruno, married and father of a small boy. Great grandmother, despite her age, went out every day and used a fur muff to protect her hands from the cold. She was a woman of very strong character and knew how to impose herself. I remember that she almost always spoke in dialect and enriched her conversations with old sayings, such as “sacucin d’Ulanda!” if by chance she was irritated. But grandma great, Ugo and Franco stayed only a short time with us and then moved to Mattie in Val di Susa.
In the village we all knew each other and relations were very good: the children of the peasants and of other evacuated families from Turin were our playmates, we were very close and we amused ourselves with little. For example we designed clothes from the large leaves of the chestnuts, we drew on the walls with pieces of talcum or brick that we found on the paths. We also liked to grind the talcum or the brick to get that white and red powder that we used as face powder. Living in the country, we children born in the city also learned to know nature and domestic and wild animals very well. We passed the days serenely and the war did not threaten us.
But everything changed in 1943, particularly after 8 September. German soldiers patrolled everywhere, and the oasis of Il Fé also became dangerous because the search for Jews was very intense. Daddy understood that it was necessary to flee as soon as possible toward the south of Italy, where the Anglo-American troops, after landing in Sicily, were making their way up the peninsula. The first idea was to reach Naples, but the plan came to nothing because transport was impossible. It was then decided to go to Rome, where both mamma and daddy knew trustworthy people. Since there were seven of us, the cases and bundles were many and cumbersome. At all events the journey by train went smoothly even if it seemed interminable because of the numerous stops that sometimes lasted several hours. The tract of the Gothic Line in Tuscany took a very long time to get through because the Germans had concentrated men and weapons there and every train of theirs had precedence over ours. We stopped a very long time in Florence, and from the train window saw the German soldiers shaving, eating their rations, smoking.
On the evening of 16 October we finally reached Termini station in Rome, and even though tired by the long journey, my parents decided to spend the night on the train.
It was a brilliant idea. In the city the rounding up of the Jews was underway in full force. As is sadly known, some thousands were deported to Germany and few of them returned.
German paratroopers during a
round-up in a street in Rome in spring 1944

German paratroopers during a round-up in a street in Rome in spring 1944

The following morning we went to the Massimo D’Azeglio hotel very close to the station. The fear transformed into terror when the maid, called by the porter in order to help us carry the baggage, seeing grandma Gemma, happily exclaimed: «Ciareja, Madam Levi, don’t you recognize me? I was behind the counter in Costa pork butcher’s in Via Cibrario». Grandma replied to the greeting with a wisp of voice and made a sign to shut her up. The surname Levi is one of the best known, to the Germans also, as indicating a Jew; when we were in the room, grandma explained everything to the unknowing maid, who apologized.
For obvious reasons we didn’t stay long in the hotel; the moves were fairly numerous until we were taken in by a convent of nuns. Many people helped us, in particular Professor Onorato Tescari, who was known in Vatican circles. He presented us to the mother superior of the convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati, and a sister, Maria Artemia, offered us her room, where however daddy and granddad couldn’t stay because of lack of space. They passed their nights in a chapel next to the section of the convent where the cloistered nuns lived.
Professor Tescari was a tall man, thin of body, with grey hair and blue eyes. He was a man of wide ranging classical culture and loved Saint Augustine in particular, whose works he had translated. He was rather reserved, but very affable. Through professor Tescari, who had kindly got us permission, I went with mamma’s to visit part of Vatican City of which I remember little, whereas I was impressed by the Swiss guards with their multicolored uniforms and sharp lances.
During the day in the convent Daddy and granddad joined us and we went out with them until curfew. When it rained or it was very cold we stayed in the convent: we were allowed everywhere, from the huge kitchen to the workrooms where the deaf and dumb sewed, from the laundry to the chapel where a young and beautiful sister taught us children prayers.
There was also a large vegetable garden with fruit trees; in one corner they had built the pigsty and I remember very well how happy we were looking at the piglets suckling, and watching the big pigs when the sister with the bucket of swill approached the gate.
During the early period of our stay in the convent we still had the identity documents on which were stamped “of Jewish race”. When we learned that the SS did not respect the inviolability of the monasteries, the mother superior, in the cloistered section, Sister Maria Rita, a woman endowed with great intelligence, busied herself for our safety and, through numerous contacts, got us documents with false names. The grandparents took the name Mancini, we that of DeSanctis; place of birth Naples, residence Caracciolo seafront. The maker of the false papers was a simple, but courageous, police brigadier, Signor Ampio.
After the capture of some Jewish families hiding in the monastery of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, my parents were also afraid and, with the help of the sisters, sought a more secure hiding place in case the monastery of Santi Quattro Coronati was also raided by the Gestapo. They had my mother put on nun’s clothing and we were shown a manhole hidden by a wardrobe.
One evening we were seized by panic because mamma and daddy had not yet returned and the curfew deadline had already passed. Furthermore the portress of the convent came panting to tell the mother superior that the Germans were about to come in. In a second we left our room and went down the manhole: our hearts were pounding and the anguish increased with every minute. My parents had not returned and we thought that they had been taken. After about an hour we heard the wardrobe being pushed aside and we thought we had been discovered; instead it was the sisters who came to tell us that the danger was over and my parents were back. Our faces relaxed and we hugged each other. By good fortune the portress had made a mistake because she had mistaken blackmarketeers selling coffee for Germans.
When we were in the convent we often went to the Colle Oppio gardens where we played tig , but woe betide us if we trampled on the flowers or plants! Immediately we were scolded and summoned by our parents or grandparents, who feared that the municipal guards might pass and fine us, or that they would ask us for our documents which were false. And indeed it was in Rome that grandma Gemma, always patient and good, gave me a smack - the only one – because I had run across the street.
Naturally that year I didn’t go to school; we changed residence again and moved to a large apartment in Via Pierluigi da Palestrina, near Piazza Cavour. The house belonged to a Fascist family who had moved to northern Italy. In one room they had locked away what they couldn’t carry and we children were very curious to know what lay beyond that door, but they had taken the key away. Compared to the limited space of the room in the convent, the new residence seemed a paradise to us and we could run in the long hallway and play games. Some we invented ourselves: I remember one in particular which took place in the dining room.
We would climb one by one on a chair at the head of the table, we then walked down the table and when we arrived at the center, right under the chandelier, we bent down, crossed our arms on our chests and said “da bade, dabù”, then we got down on to the chair placed at the other end of the table and so on until we got bored.
Living in that house we were much freer to play than in the public gardens, because of the fears of parents and grandparents of some transgression of ours that, as I’ve said, might force them to present their false papers. One day we were alone in the house, grandma Gemma and I, the doorbell rang and I went to open it. It was the guard from the town hall who was handing out ration books. I called grandma and the guard asked: «What’s your name, Mrs.?» Grandma had momentarily forgotten the false surname, but, even though overcome by fear, she had the presence of mind to say to the guard: «Excuse me a second, I left a pan on the stove». So she turned away, went and got the identity card, read the surname, then returned and said: «I’m Mrs. Mancini». The guard gave her the cards and left, not having noticed anything. Once the door was closed, grandma had to sit down because her legs were trembling, her heart thumping fiercely and her cheeks on fire.
A street in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome in a photo of the time

A street in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome in a photo of the time

The months passed and the Anglo-Americans advanced very slowly. Finally they landed in Anzio, not far from Rome, and we thought we would soon be free. The shelling could be heard, but the German resistance was tenacious. Food began to get scarce and prices on the black market rose to the skies. Daddy had brought money with him but the lengthening out of the war had reduced our resources to a pittance.
One ate little and badly because everything was scarce and the card gave one the right to laughable rations; only on the black market could one buy all sorts of food, but the prices were beyond our possibilities. In Tor di Nona there were various people who sold under-the-counter stuff; they had an extraordinary organization and rarely did the police manage to catch any, because when the cry came from afar: «It’s raining, it’s raining!» it meant that some policeman was in the vicinity. Immediately all the spivs and goods disappear into doorways and business was suspended until the danger had passed. Then, as if by magic, they reappeared with their offerings and trading began over again.
It was necessary to devise some system to get together a little money: mamma went to sell bobbins, needles, pins on the street, but the income was minimal. A friend of my father’s found out that the German military command had to transport hides to the north; daddy offered to accompany the driver and to find a buyer, showing an uncommon courage to provide for his family. The business succeeded perfectly and daddy returned without much difficulty and with a nice wad which allowed us to survive until the Liberation.
The allied troops were ever closer to Rome and no food was coming into the city. We ate locusts, hard black bread; there was no electricity and acetylene or carbide lamps were used, that gave out little light and much smoke. There was no public transport anymore; it was as if the city were besieged.
At the end of May of 1944 the German troops fell back towards the north, many were wounded but not all of them found places on the trucks or in the army cars, because a lot of these had been destroyed in the fighting. To replace the fallen or seriously injured, Hitler had no hesitation in sending very young 16-17 year-old lads, still not shaving, to the front, but with the same arrogance as their adult companions. Luckily there were not too many serious clashes in the city; only in the outskirts did the Germans try, but in vain, to stop the Anglo-Americans. The soldiers of the Wehrmacht were in disarray: I saw them ragged and tired as they abandoned Rome.
One day granddad was moved to take pity on those very young German soldiers and speaking in their language approached a group of them stopped in the garden of Piazza Cavour for a brief pause and gave them money so that they could quench their thirst.
A memory from well before then: one day my mother, my sister and I were on the tram, there were also some German soldiers on board and one of them, when he saw little Laura with her blonde curls, approached and caressed her, and said that she reminded him of his little girl whom he had not been able to hug for a long time. Even if the soldier’s gesture was a tender one, my mother was terribly frightened because the German military induced terror not only because of the weapons they carried, but especially for their rigid, harsh behavior and because of their language, so metallic and imperious. Even now, when I hear German I get the shivers and if someone wants to sell me a German product, I refuse to buy.
On the evening of the 3rd of June cries reached us from the street. We didn’t understand. Then it sounded as if they were saying: «The robbers, the robbers!» Instead they were shouting: «The Americans, the Americans!» The following morning we saw the procession of tanks and we were all wild with joy. What a difference between the German soldiers and the well-fed, well-dressed and well-armed Anglo-Americans! They threw chocolate bars and other treats that nobody had tasted in such a long time to the rejoicing crowd.
Little by little life came back to the city. Mamma got a post as teacher in the public elementary school and I, a year behind, attended the third elementary while my little sister Laura began the first. But the return to Turin was not yet possible and the worrying for relatives who had remained there was very great since we had had no news of them for a long time.
Mamma, using her limited knowledge of English, spoke to many Anglo-American soldiers and we became friends with a black American soldier who often came to visit us and brought us many good things to eat. He was called Johnson, he was tall and robust and without effort his powerful hands could lift two of us children and whirl us as if we were on a roundabout. We were very fond of him; unfortunately he was sent to Normandy, where he died in combat.
Daddy started working again with the clients from the south, not always without danger despite the Liberation. The most serious moment was when, in one of his many journeys for work, he was arrested by the Military Police and put in prison for some days. It was a traumatic experience that devastated daddy; his hair turned white instantly as if he had suddenly aged by ten years. The facts were as follows: daddy and a friend were in a truck and were returning to Rome. Near Terracina some American soldiers with a jeep blocked the truck, they forced Daddy and his friend to get out and obliged them to follow them with shouts, pushes and slaps. They were drunk and maintained that the truck was traveling too fast and that, despite repeated signals to stop, the truck had continued on its way. Daddy and the friend protested at the way they were being treated, but the soldiers wouldn’t listen to reason and took them to their command headquarters: they were locked in a cell and kept there for some days. Daddy had believed he would never have to suffer mistreatment again and this was an injustice from the very Americans whom he considered liberators. For him it was a grave blow that had repercussions both psychologically and physically. He said that the Germans, even though much hated, had never treated him as harshly as the Americans, in whom he had placed so much hope for a better world.
We had the pleasure of seeing again Aunt Rita Montagnana, a sister of Grandma’s, and her husband Palmiro Togliatti, who had settled in Rome after the long stay in the Soviet Union. Rita and Palmiro came to visit us sometimes and we went to their house. She was always smiling and very active: she concerned herself particularly with women and their emancipation, and had also founded a newspaper Noi Donne [We women]. Palmiro had a very aloof aspect, and at first sight seemed cold and detached, whereas, especially with us children, he was amenable, took us in his arms and told us fairy tales and stories of episodes from his life
In any case, we had the pleasure of seeing again Aunt Rita Montagnana, a sister of Grandma’s, and her husband Palmiro Togliatti, who had settled in Rome after the long stay in the Soviet Union. Rita and Palmiro came to visit us sometimes and we went to their house. She was always smiling and very active: she concerned herself particularly with women and their emancipation, and had also founded a newspaper Noi Donne [We women]. Palmiro had a very aloof aspect, and at first sight seemed cold and detached, whereas, especially with us children, he was amenable, took us in his arms and told us fairy tales and stories of episodes from his life. We also made friends with a Piedmont soldier stationed in Rome, Bruno Barbero, whom we continued to see for long years afterwards in Turin, where he was married and had opened a printing shop.
With the liberation of Rome, which in my memory was identified with the arrival of the Americans, religious functions began again at the Temple. We went a few times and all of us from Turin were stunned by the amount of gestures, almost theatrical for us, of the arms and the legs, made both by the faithful and the Rabbi. The rite in Rome was different from that in Turin. I continued to look around me in wonder: what a difference between the composed behavior of the people of the Temple in Turin and the curious gesticulation of the Roman Jews!
When we were living in Via Pierluigi da Palestrina, I went out almost every day with granddad Marco and we took the same route by the Tiber, Castel Sant’Angelo, Saint Peter’s Square. Granddad knew that there was a point in the colonnade that surrounds Saint Peter’s from which instead of seeing different columns, you saw just a single row, and it was he who found it. If there were cigarette butts on the ground we gathered them, and then at home granddad used the tobacco to make hand-rolled cigarettes.
During the war many of the people that I knew died and some my relatives also, some deported without returning, others because of mishaps and illnesses. But here I want to recall in a particular way a person who in those years was very close to us children: Lena. She was perhaps sixteen years old when she came to work for our family in Turin. I was very fond of her and considered her a sister. She was patient especially with my sister Laura who was only three years old and very capricious and intolerant. Lena was also very hard-working and strong despite her slender body. I remember that to clean and polish the parquet she used what was known as the galera, a heavy metal rectangle attached to a wooden handle; we children loved to stand on the base and hold on to the handle to have ourselves swept from one room to another by Lena.
When we evacuated from Turin to Il Fé, faithful Lena followed us; my parents entrusted to her care everything that they couldn’t take from Il Fé to Rome. We separated from her in October 1943 certain of seeing her again at the end of the war. Instead she was killed by machine-gun fire on a train she had taken to visit her family in Saluzzo. She was only twenty years old.
When in April 1945 all of Italy became free, we returned to Turin in a private car belonging to a Venetian noble, Count Bragadin. That journey was memorable because everything imaginable happened to us. On the bends leading to Radicofani we had to be towed by a cart. The roads were often pitted and the tires burst frequently and someone had to be found to fix them. The car was somewhat old, and even though quite large, it was overloaded with people and baggage; therefore progress was slow and we took several days to get to our destination. The count/driver, after deposing his lover in Bologna, wanted to drive straight to Venice, but father reminded him of the commitment made in Rome and forced Bragadin to take us to Turin, which we saw with great excitement even if it had been severely damaged by the bombing.

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