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from issue no. 08 - 2006

Returning to those places, urged by gratitude

by Pina Baglioni

Some days before our meeting with Sister Rita Mancini, the mother superior of the Augustinians, which took place in mid June of this year, a man and a woman stopped in front of the large entrance door of the convent of Santi Quattro Coronati. They were Davide Viterbo, Professor of Mineralogy at the University of Eastern Piedmont, and his wife.
Before knocking, Professor Viterbo looked around as if somewhat lost. Certainly, it had been more than sixty years since he had been there before, and he had been only five years old. With all his family. His memories were understandably a little confused. So he had called his sister Amalia, in Turin, to get more information. And once the confirmation arrived that this was indeed the place he was looking for, he had asked to be received by Sister Rita. He wanted to see again the place where, in 1943, he, his father, mother, three other brothers and sisters and the maternal grandparents had found refuge after fleeing Turin because of the racial persecution. And so to thank the “heirs” of those nuns who had protected them sixty years before with great love and willingness. In the hope, perhaps, of finding someone still alive.
Along with his thanks Professor Viterbo left the nuns a testimony written by his sister, Amalia Rossetto Viterbo, describing the odyssey of their family, forced to leave everything to save themselves from the Nazi-Fascists.
We phoned Mrs. Amalia Viterbo to ask her permission to publish it. She gave it. And, overcome by emotion, she told us that before dying her mother had asked her never to forget those nuns. «Send them a gift every year at Christmas», Mrs. Amalia, a teacher of literature, retired now for some years, told us. «My mother strongly exhorted us never to forget what the nuns of the Santi Quattro and the Daughters of Our Lady of Mount Calvary, they too resident at that time in the great complex of the Basilica of the Santi Quattro, had done for us. They took care of the deaf and dumb girls. My father and grandfather slept in the cloister. I and the rest of the family, however, were hidden in the convent facing, with the sisters of Mount Calvary. Indeed the mother superior of those nuns, Sister Maria Artemia, had given us her room. The thing that struck me most and that I still remember now is the great dignity of those women. Especially Mother Rita Saporetti, the superior of the cloistered nuns. What culture, what spirituality! And she was also really likeable! She had the capacity to live through those tremendous days while working, praying, taking part in beautiful liturgical rites, and sharing the little there was with us».
The testimony published here begins in 1938, the year of the anti-Jewish laws and the flight from Turin to Rome. And it concludes with April 1945, when it was finally possible for the Viterbo family to return home.
In recalling the Roman “sojourn”, following the liberation of the city on 4 June of 1944, Amalia Viterbo, who meantime had gone to live with her family in Via Pierluigi da Palestrina, describes the visits of two exceptional relatives: her greataunt, Rita Montagnana, sister of her grandmother, and her husband, Palmiro Togliatti. The Secretary of the Italian Communist Party and his wife, she too an authoritative exponent of the Party, founder of the flagship newspaper of female emancipation Noi donne [We women], « had settled in Rome after the long stay in the Soviet Union», Mrs. Amalia recounts. « 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 about episodes from his life».

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