I was a lymphatic. My mother was told that a thin, spidery, pale eight-year-old like me couldn’t be anything else. At that time, in the mid-nineteen thirties, the belief in body types was as ingrained in Europe as it currently is in some quarters (although the Internet tells me that “lymphatic” nowadays denotes the opposite body type). At any rate, what you do for that condition is to feed the child prosciutto, a great cure for lymphaticism. Never mind that prosciutto is as unkosher as it gets, my mother favored my physical well-being to the spiritual. Fortunately, then, as now, I liked paper-thin prosciutto, with or without melon wedges. Notwithstanding, my mother kept a more or less kosher household. Ambivalence of this sort was typical of my parents, and was caused by a wavering between the Jewish traditions and the desire to assimilate into Western culture. They were not alone in this, as most of the Jews in Western countries were living through a similar process.
My mother was a pretty poor cook, and, for a Jewish mother, had little interest in food. We always had a maid who doubled as nanny. The one I remember was from the country, as most of the servants tended to be. I have a photo of her and me in the courtyard of the Sforza Palace in Milan, showing that she was quite tall. She would sneak me into the church she attended (I assume, unbeknownst to my parents). I once managed to lose my teddy bear there, but, after a frantic search, she eventually found it in a confessional booth, conceivably absolved of his sins. Although the servant did most of the cooking, we ate a fair amount of Jewish food, which my mother must have made. An example is what my parents called "stuffed derma," which was made by taking the neck of a chicken (ugh!) and filling it with a dumpling-like stuffing containing, among other things, chopped hard-boiled eggs. The whole thing was boiled and cut across in slices. We ate lunch (our main meal) in the dining room. The tabletop sat on a large square pedestal and I discovered that I could reach a space between the underneath of the tabletop and the pedestal, which was handy for depositing food I didn’t like. I would just drop what to me was inedible, especially the derma, down into this shadowy space. This worked like a charm, but eventually there were lots of little flies, which prompted my father to discover the cache of rotten food inside the pedestal. I remember my surprise at not getting beaten.
Jewish tombstones in my father's shtetl (hometown),
Stari Sambor (then in Poland, now Staryi Sambir in
Ukraine). By permission from Eric Altenberg. Source.
My parents came from a typical Polish Jewish background, both from shtetls (small towns) in the Southern part of Poland, in Galicia. Their families would now be called Orthodox, although in the shtetls there was no other choice. I know little about my ancestors, other than some family myths about being related on my mother’s side to a whole string of important rabbis. In more recent times, that side of the family has done well. It includes at least one important Jewish historian (Arnold Wiznitzer), an Israeli general, my distinguished molecular biologist cousin Hanna Engelberg-Kulka, and others.
My maternal grandfather, Jakob Wachsmann, made a nice living in Vienna publishing books consisting of compound interest tables. I still have some of these books, but they don’t make for very good bedtime reading. Before there were calculators (leave alone computers), they were used to look up how much the interest was, say, on 1000 schilling after 7 1/2 months at 5.25% interest. We visited Vienna a few times and I remember that my family lived in a fancy apartment house they owned near the grand-sounding shopping street, Mariahilfer Strasse (Mary’s Helper Street). I wish I knew what my grandfather had done in the shtetl and what got him into this obscure but profitable business. His son, my uncle, was said to have been a gifted engineer who published a couple of technical books (which I also still have). He did himself in, due to a broken heart, it is said.
For my father’s side, I have a sort-of-genealogy dating back to the 16th century. I do not place much trust in it because the descendants are not listed continuously. It was commissioned by a family member in the thirties while traveling in Poland and is full of adulatory references to famous scholars. Still, I would like to think that my family included illustrious rabbis, gaonim, and other kinds of notable scholars. Both families, paternal and maternal, left the villages because that region of Poland became a World War I battleground between the Austrians and the Russians. They surely didn’t need much of an excuse to leave that part of the world.
My mother was largely the product of sophisticated Vienna. She had spent some twelve years there and had become thoroughly immersed in Central European culture. She spoke refined German without an accent and learned Hebrew at a Zionist institute, the Herzl Gymnasium. Her Hebrew pronunciation was exemplary, the sort spoken by the founders of modern Hebrew (but soon to be mutilated into the current usage). Her spoken Hebrew was so unusual that later on in Israel people would almost line up to hear such a pure version of that language. She served as the Hebrew teacher for the Jewish kids in Quito (where we later ended up), which is likely the reason why I never learned much of that language myself. My mother was quite liberal, both by personality and experience, and religion to her was more of a tradition than a spiritual matter. She believed deeply in Zionism, and in Quito served as president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO).
My father had a thinner coating of Western culture. He did not have the linguistic facility of my mother and his speech was somewhat unrefined. I was told that as a child I said: “When mommy speaks, the words come out round but daddy’s come out square!” In some ways, my father was cultured, but seemed to be uncomfortable showing it.
Mainly, he was adventuresome. Migrating to Italy after World War I was in itself an unusual thing to do. Young Polish Jews went to Austria, Germany, or the United States. At that time, Italy was as unusual a destination as the headwaters of the Amazon. The number of non-Italian Jews in the country was perhaps 10,000, not much more. When he first got to Italy, my father traveled as a salesman. During this phase, which lasted a few years before he settled down and married my mother in 1926, he experimented with various spiritual beliefs, including Theosophy or Anthroposophy, I’m not sure which. These are now somewhat obscure factions, but I believe they were quite popular in the 1920’s. They certainly weren’t connected to Judaism in the least, but they must have appealed to my father’s craving for unconventional answers. Eventually, he returned to the fold, embracing Judaism more as a social than a spiritual matter. He cared a great deal about being a respected member of the community and almost constantly preached to me on the importance of having a “good name.” He once told me that he wouldn’t see anything wrong if Judaism were to disappear, as long as all other religions did too. An interesting concept that, atheism for all or for none.
My father was quite impetuous and irascible. Here is an early memory: I used to love to eat boiled potatoes cold (and still do, with a little salt). One day, when I was perhaps three years old, I started to scream aloud that I wanted “raw” potatoes, which is what I called them (“patate crude”). My yelling awoke my father from his nap and, mad as hell, he went into the kitchen and came back with a raw, unpeeled potato, and stuck it in my mouth. Much later in life, I learned that my mother had run back to Vienna six months after getting married. The reasons given were that Milan was no Vienna, but above all, that my father’s behavior included losing his temper in public places such as restaurants. He went back to Vienna and obviously persuaded her to return to Milan.
He could also be very fatherly, protective, and much concerned for my well-being. We used to go on bicycle rides together and, on Sunday morning, ceremoniously went to a special stand in the city to buy bananas. Although I remember often being in fear of him, I remember that he inspired trust and authority. In the words of Goethe, “From father I got my build and my earnest way through life; from mother dear, my nature, and the passion to tell stories.” ("Vom Vater hab ich die Statur, des Lebens ernstes Führen, Vom Mütterchen die Frohnatur und Lust zu fabulieren.")
What did my father do for a living? Early in his life in Vienna, where he spent a few years at the onset of World War I, he went to a technical school to learn drafting. During the war, he enlisted in the Austrian Navy, which now sounds like a joke, Austria being landlocked. However, at the time, the Austrians commanded part of the Adriatic coast and had something of a real navy. My father was assigned to a small ship and, according to a service book I still have somewhere, was once put in the brig for insubordination towards a cadet, but was also once awarded a medal. Legend has it that the medal was given because while on watch he spotted some floating objects that turned out to be casks half full of wine. After the war, he tried to work as a draftsman in the office of an Italian Jewish patent lawyer, Aldo Jarach. This didn’t last long, but they kept in touch and Jarach became my godfather. See, I had an Italian godfather! After traveling around Italy, my father settled down in Milan and sold Swedish vacuum sweepers and floor-waxing machines. He had a shop at home, where workmen repaired the machines. One of the employees built me a toy submarine, which consisted of a tube with cones soldered at the end and a propeller that was wound up by rubber bands inside. I took it to a park where there was a pond, let it go, and it sank almost immediately. No jokes about the Italian Navy, please.
I am not sure why my father moved us to Turin when I was eight, but it was certainly for business reasons. He opened a store that sold raincoats, then called “paletót” in Italian, which were still something of a novelty at the time. In the winter, he also sold ski clothing, which allowed him to take the family to Sestriere, a ski resort in the Alps near the French border. There he rented a horse-drawn sled, which he festooned with ads and paraded through the town with me on board. That part was fun, trying to learn to ski was not. I felt cold, despite the ski clothing from my father’s store, and was pretty clumsy and never learned the skill.
We lived comfortably in Turin, in an apartment house in the suburbs. It was quite spacious and modern for the day. The store must have been doing rather well and we lived a nice middle class existence. We always had a maid. My memories of Turin center on the neighborhood where we lived. Around the age of 10, I joined a small group of kids who lived nearby. There was an empty lot next door with a half-finished building. Left behind was a wooden molding used in construction, roughly in the shape of a sled. On snowy days, we dragged this up a small mound of rubbish, perhaps 10 foot high, and “sledded” down the slope. More exciting was that there was a park nearby with grassy areas bordered by metal wire. We soon learned to break this wire, which may have been 1/4 inch in diameter, into four-to-five foot lengths. There was trolley line nearby, and we left the ends of the wires on the track for a passing trolley to flatten into something like a spear head. We played with these until somebody got hurt.
Hanging on the wall of my office is a diploma I received in primary school. It says that I was awarded a Second Degree, whatever that is, in the fourth grade. The edge has a lovely design of flowers, urns, books, a lyre, a sprig of laurel leaves tied together with a ribbon with the words: “Scholarship, Work, Order, Diligence.” Prominently displayed at the top is the seal of Fascist Italy and below, in Hebrew, the words “Talmud Torah” (school) and the Star of David. The year on the diploma is 1938 and 5699 on the Jewish calendar. My teacher’s name also appears, Quinzia Amar (not that I remember her).