Milan cathedral. Source.
First, let me recap a few facts. I was born in Milan in 1928 and lived there until I was eight, when we moved to Turin for three years. In 1939, we traveled to Genoa, intending to go to Australia. Here’s why we never got there. Our trunks were loaded onboard ship and up the gangway we went. Although we had a Polish passport as well as a valid visa to Australia, my father was soon called away and told that we couldn’t leave. The reason? The passport (not the visa) would expire ON THE WAY BACK. No matter how unlikely, the cruise line authorities didn’t want to take the chance that we could be denied entry into Australia, in which case they would have to bring us back without a valid passport. My father’s vehement arguments did not prevail and our trunks were unloaded, which is why I did not become an Aussie. My father decided to tough it out and stay in Italy, at least for a while. After three months in Genoa, we went back for a year to Milan, which was more familiar to my father. We eventually left for Ecuador in September, 1940, a few months after Italy entered the war.
In both Milan and Turin I went to a Jewish school, but I can’t say that I felt particularly Jewish before 1938. I felt quite Italian. In 1938, Italy enacted the racial laws (the Manifesto of Race), overtly because Mussolini yielded to pressure from Hitler. This condenses in one sentence a long and intricate story about how Italy went from being relatively free of anti-Semitism to having highly discriminatory laws. These laws mandated, among other things, that all the Jews who had resided in Italy for less than 20 years had to leave. By my reckoning, my father had lived there about 18 years, if that long. In addition, Jews were forbidden from holding offices or attending public schools, and were severely limited in their professions. I tell the story, without vouchsafing for the accuracy of my memory, of seeing a person on the street reading the newspaper headlines about these laws and asking: “What race are they talking about? Jews aren’t black or yellow or red.” True or not, the point is that many Italians did not think that Jews were a really distinct people. On the other hand, many Jews, especially in the professions, were hard hit. Some of my schoolteachers were ex-university professors who had lost their jobs and took on whatever work they could find to make a living. Their sentiments are well expressed by the first sentence we had to learn in our first Latin class. The teacher wrote on the board: “Homo homini lupus” (Man is a wolf to man).
Kristallnacht took place in the fall of 1938 and I am sure that my parents knew all about it. We had several relatives in Vienna who were themselves keenly aware of what was going on in Germany. In fact, my cousins Hanna and Moshe came shortly afterwards, with their parents, to Turin and stayed for a year with us. I can only surmise how far back my parents worried about Hitler, but I am reasonably sure that they kept up with the news and must have been worried all along. My father was interested in current affairs, especially as they related to the Jews. It is unthinkable that he ignored the Nazis and what was going on in the North. I assume that, like many others, he had a hard time believing that the Italian Fascists would turn on the Jews. Basically, this is why he decided to return to Milan after our Australian debacle. He was confident that in Italy “there is always a way,” by which he meant that bribery and cajoling was possible. As in all things related to their marriage, my mother was quite passive and is not likely to have had a serious role in decision-making. I imagine that my father discussed matters with her, but that she probably agreed to whatever he planned.
My memories during our last year in Italy are more vivid. Our apartment in Milan was small, two little rooms plus kitchen and bath. My father was scared enough that he didn’t venture out into the streets much. However, I continued to go to school and don’t remember having had to take any precautions. We were frequently visited by refugees, mainly from Austria, who were also afraid to be seen on the street and who played endless chess games in the apartment. There were increasing signs that the Fascists meant to cause at least some trouble to the Jews, such as deporting them to small towns. I don't believe that there were ever concentration camps in Italy, at least until it was taken over by the Germans in 1943. In this atmosphere, the sharing of facts and rumors was a way of life for this group. This surely included knowing which consul could be bribed to grant a visa that day (the “consul de jour”) and which ports one could enter without visas. These were chiefly Tangiers, Shanghai, and the Dominican Republic, but none of these were seen as desirable destinations as one could not work there. I was well aware that the atmosphere was very tense, and that everyone was scared. Years later, when I saw the movie Casablanca, some of the café scenes struck a chord with me. On the other hand, I surely did not pay constant attention to what was going on.
I have been asked on occasion how my parents reached the decision to leave Italy, but they never discussed it openly, so I can only surmise it. At that time, my parents probably knew few people who wanted to stay in Italy and must have been swept along by the exodus they were witnessing. Business was not going to be as usual. My father surely must have known that sooner or later he would lose his store. Leaving had been a major option for over a year and at times must have seemed like the only viable one. Feeling that they had little choice must have helped overcome the energy barrier required for the resolve. There is nothing in my memory to suggest that this was a difficult conclusion to reach, although surely it must have felt like a grave and scary thing to do.
What kept me most busy at that time was reading a children’s encyclopedia (Enciclopedia dei Ragazzi), a set of 10 hefty tomes. I read it volume by volume, going from A to Z and practically memorized it. It served as the font of all sorts of loose facts that are still rattling around in my brain, especially regarding history and geography. I was not exactly studious and did only above average work at school, but had an intense passion for a mishmash of facts.
My father was something of a hero because he acted the part of the “Italian expert,” knowing the circumstances and even some of the people in the police. While we lived in Genoa, he participated in helping Jews escape by boat into France. On at least a couple of occasions, he traveled with them, which was certainly a perilous undertaking. I seem to remember that these trips were all done at night, under the cover of darkness. Knowing the language and the ways of the locals would have made my father quite helpful. I knew about these activities and was appropriately scared. On the other hand, I had the feeling that my father was invulnerable, as well as infallible, which contributed to my relative sense of calm. I had no doubt that he would pull us through, as he indeed did. This must obviously have been very helpful for my state of mind.
Where is Ecuador? Source.
Getting a visa to any place had become quite difficult as almost no country was eager to admit more Jews. I wish I could tell you that I felt distinct relief at the news that we had a visa to Ecuador, but I don’t remember it. My father came home and told us that we were finally leaving and that he didn’t really know where Ecuador was (or cared much at that point). I piped up that it was on the West Coast of South America and that the capital was Quito (pronounced in Italian “kweeto,” rather than the Spanish “keeto”). Unlike in Germany, Jews were permitted to leave Italy taking both possessions and money. Our possessions were packed in a big wooden crate the size of a small room. For some reason, the crates were referred to as “lifts,” don’t ask me why. Into our lift went some of our furniture, rugs, down-filled comforters, and nine of the ten volumes of the encyclopedia. I could not part with all of them, so I carried one, I don’t recall which, with me in a small green suitcase all the way to Quito. Does this mean that my database is skewed towards certain letters of the alphabet? Incredibly, the “lift” not only arrived in Quito but also got there at about the expected time. When you think about its tortuous path, this seems miraculous indeed. Shortly after we arrived there, I found that I had outgrown the encyclopedia (or is it that I had it just about memorized?) Eventually, we sold the whole set, without regrets.
I remember having friends in Turin but don’t recall any in my final year in Milan. I also have only sparse memories of our last few days there. We must have taken a train to Genoa in order to sail to Barcelona but I don’t recall this or the process of packing and leaving the apartment. Most likely, there were no unexpected events to impress me. I wish I could tell you that I was happy to leave, as surely I must have been, but I cannot base it on actual recollections. We left in September, 1940. I was twelve and one half years old.
I went back to Italy nineteen years later and have returned several times since. In 1959, my late wife Barbara and I were spending a two-year sojourn in Copenhagen. We traveled extensively to many places in Europe, including a major trip to Italy. I purposefully left going to my native city, Milan, to the end. The reason is that I wanted to just enjoy the sights on the rest of the trip whereas going to Milan would be a personal pilgrimage and I didn’t want to mix the two. Sure enough, my godfather, Aldo Jarach, was still alive there. I contacted him and we had a lovely lunch with him and his wife.
Milan’s Sforza Castle Source.
Memories of my life in Milan came back to me on this visit. For the first eight years of my life, we had lived in an apartment in a three or four story building very close to the center of the city. I remembered it, including the address. Barbara and I found ourselves in the main square of the city, the Piazza del Duomo, and I told her that I was quite sure I could find my way to the old house. As we walked on a wide street coming off at an angle from the square, I recalled that there had been a theater on the other side of the street, which used to have a live lion in a cage in the window. Sure enough, there was a movie house albeit sans lion. We walked on and I remembered that there would be a Y in the road and that we had to go to the right, which indeed proved to be Via Cesare Correnti. As we came nearer to No. 8, we found that instead of a house, there was a big space there. I tried to find out what had happened by poking my head into shops in the adjacent houses, which were in good shape. Somebody told me that my house had been bombed out, one of the few to suffer such a fate in that neighborhood. The person I was talking to said that she had moved in recently and didn’t know much about what had happened, but she thought that the son of the old concierge was still living nearby. She sent somebody to find him and, sure enough, a man in his mid-forties showed up. He was blind, his eyelids open and his eyeball facing upwards. No sooner had he come up to us and heard me say “hello” than he blurted out: “But you are Elio!” (Ma Lei é Elio!) I had been eight years old when we left that house. He then told me where our apartment had been, that I played in the courtyard with a girl called Anna Maria, that I had wanted to become a naval engineer. I could barely hold my tears back yet we couldn’t find much we could talk about, so we left. Twenty-three years had passed since I had lived in Via Cesare Correnti No. 8.