Showing posts with label Jews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jews. Show all posts

12 November 2022

Piero Terracina - death camp survivor

Roman lived to be 91 after being freed from Auschwitz

After initial reluctance, Terracini told his harrowing story many times over
After initial reluctance, Terracini told
his harrowing story many times over
Piero Terracina, the man thought to be the longest survivor among the Jews rounded up for deportation in Rome after Nazi occupation during World War Two, was born on this day in 1928 in the Italian capital.

Terracina was taken to the notorious Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where almost one million Jewish prisoners were killed, but was spared death and eventually liberated in 1945.

After a long and difficult recovery he returned to Rome and lived to be 91.

For the last almost 30 years of his life, so long as his health allowed, he devoted himself to maintaining awareness of the Holocaust in the hope that such horrors would never be repeated.

Terracina enjoyed a relatively uneventful early childhood. Although many of Rome’s Jews still lived in the area of Rione Sant’Angelo to which they had been originally confined by papal decree in the 16th century, the Jewish community in the early part of the 20th century enjoyed the same status as any other Italians in the city.

Piero was the youngest of four children born to Giovanni Terracina and Lidia Ascoli. His father was a fabric merchant.

Things began to change in the autumn of 1938 when Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship introduced laws to enforce racial discrimination and segregation in Italian society, aimed mainly at the Jewish population of mainland Italy and the native Africans in the Italian colonies.

The entrance to the preserved Auschwitz complex,  where Terracina accompanied many visitors
The entrance to the preserved Auschwitz complex, 
where Terracina accompanied many visitors
Mussolini had originally been comfortable with Jews being part of Italy. Indeed, one of his mistresses - a propaganda advisor to his Fascist party - was from a middle class Jewish family. But his attitude changed as he became more influenced by Nazi ideology in Germany.

Terracina’s family had their assets seized. Piero was expelled from his mainstream Italian school and had to continue his education in a school for Jews only. The family’s circumstances were much reduced, but they were able to live in a restricted way.

However, that all changed in 1943. By then, Mussolini had been overthrown by the Fascist Grand Council, placed under house arrest but then rescued by German paratroops and given a safe haven in northern Italy. Rome and the rest of central and northern Italy was occupied by Nazi troops.

The Germans began to round up Jews as they had in the rest of occupied Europe. When Nazi squads entered the Roman ghetto in October 1943, Terracina and his family managed to escape, avoiding the fate of more than 1,000 of their neighbours.

They went into hiding but in April of the following year their whereabouts were revealed to the Germans by an informer and Piero and his family - his parents, a sister and two brothers, an uncle and his grandfather - were all arrested.

Terracina, already in his 80s, surrounded by teachers and students on a school visit
Terracina, already in his 80s, surrounded by
teachers and students on a school visit
Imprisoned initially in Rome, they were moved to a prison camp near Modena but after a few days were crowded into railway wagons and taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in Poland. Piero was spared the gas chambers only because he was considered strong enough physically to be given labouring jobs; the rest of his family died within hours of their arrival.

Despite his weight dropping to just 38 kilos (just under six stones), Piero survived and escaped in January 1945. With the area under attack from the advancing Russian army, he and his fellow captives were moved from the Auschwitz camp and were being marched towards another location when the approach of a Russian platoon caused their Nazi guards to flee.

In the face of biting cold, Terracina and his comrades returned to the Auschwitz complex, now abandoned, to shelter until they were found by the Russians.  Recovery was long and painful, involving stays in a hospital in Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, and in a sanatorium by the Black Sea. After a year, he returned to Rome.

For the next three and a half decades, Terracina quietly rebuilt his life, completing his education and developing a career in management. He was reluctant to speak about what had happened to him but was eventually persuaded of the importance of telling his story.

Thereafter, he devoted himself to keeping alive the dreadful memory of the hell he and millions of others had endured, speaking to politicians, historians, journalists, members of sports teams and in particular students, whom he often accompanied on trips to Auschwitz. The older he became, the more powerful was his presence on these trips.

Terracina died in Rome in December 2019. His funeral included a procession from the Tempio Maggiore, Rome’s main synagogue, which overlooks the Tiber near the Isola Tiberina, to the Campo Verano memorial cemetery.

The imposing Tempio Maggiore, 
Rome's main synagogue
Travel tip:

Rome’s Jewish quarter is beautiful but, given its close proximity to some of the city’s major tourist attractions, often overlooked by visitors. Situated in the Sant’Angelo Rione, east of Campo de’ Fiori and southwest of Piazza Venezia, the former ghetto occupies an area adjoining the Tiber river, next to the bend where the water flows either side of the Isola Tiberina. The centrepiece is the Tempio Maggiore, completed in 1904 and built in an eclectic style with influences of Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture. There are Roman ruins including the Portico d'Ottavia and Teatro Marcello. The streets nearby are packed with restaurants, many serving traditional Jewish cuisine.

The Isola Tiberina in Romeis said to be the smallest inhabited island in the world
The Isola Tiberina in Rome is said to be the
smallest inhabited island in the world
Travel Tip

The Isola Tiberina, situated in the bend in the Tiber that wraps around the Trastevere district, to which it is connected by the Ponte Cestio, is said to be the smallest inhabited island in the world. A footbridge, the Ponte Fabrico, allows access from the other bank of the river.  The island was once the location of an ancient temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, and in modern times the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, founded in the 16th century. The 10th century Basilica of St. Bartholomew is also located on the island, which is just 270m (890ft) long and 67m (220ft) wide. During the Nazi occupation, Jews hid in the wards of the hospital after the head of the institution deterred SS officers from searching it by putting out the story that he was struggling to contain an outbreak of a deadly and contagious disease.

Also on this day:

1892: The birth of World War One flying ace Giulio Lega

1905: The Giro di Lombardia cycle race is contested for the first time

1920: The Treaty of Rapallo is signed

1948: The death of composer Umberto Giordano

2011: Silvio Berlusconi resigns as prime minister


24 October 2018

Sir Moses Montefiore - businessman

Italian-born philanthropist who made his fortune in London

A late 18th century photograph of the Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore
A late 18th century photograph of the
Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore
The businessman and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who made his fortune in England and became a prominent supporter of Jewish rights, was born in Livorno on this day in 1784.

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family, his grandfather, Moses Vita (Haim) Montefiore, had emigrated from Livorno to London in the 1740s, but regularly returned to Italy, as did other members of the family.

Moses Montefiore was born while his parents, Joseph Elias and Rachel - whose father, Abraham Mocatta, was a powerful bullion broker in London - were in Livorno on business.

Their son was to amass considerable wealth in his working life, accumulating such a fortune on the London stock exchange he was able to retire at 40, but in his youth his family’s situation was so perilous he had to abandon his education without qualifications in order to find a job.

First apprenticed to a firm of grocers and tea merchants, he left to become one of 12 so-called ‘Jew brokers’ in the City of London.  His early days in the city were not without setbacks, notably when a major fraud in 1806 caused him to lose most of his clients’ money and cost him his broker’s licence.

A drawing from a magazine shows Moses Montefiore as a young man
A drawing from a magazine shows
Moses Montefiore as a young man 
He bought a new licence in 1815 and his big break came after Henriette, the sister of his wife Judith Cohen, married Nathan Rothschild, who engaged Montefiore's firm acted as stockbrokers.

Nathan Rothschild headed the family's banking business in Britain, and Montefiore became his business partner.

In that capacity, Montefiore helped found the Alliance Assurance Company, the Imperial Continental Gas Association (which pioneered gas lighting for homes), and the Provincial Bank of Ireland.

Montefiore retired from his business in 1824, deciding to use his time and fortune for communal and civic responsibilities. He became known as a philanthropist and a zealous fighter for the rights of oppressed Jews all over the world.

Besides visiting such countries as Italy, Russia, and Romania on behalf of the Jewish people, he also made seven journeys to Palestine.

In 1827, he helped secure the release of a number of Damascan Jews who had been falsely accused of using Christian blood for religious rites and persuaded the Turkish sultan to extend to Jews the same privileges enjoyed by aliens.

In Russia he convinced Tsar Nicholas I to rescind a decree of 1844 that had ordered all Jews to withdraw from the western frontier areas of Russia.

Montefiore's London home was at 99 Park Lane in the Mayfair district
Montefiore's London home was at 99 Park
Lane in the Mayfair district
Back in London, he became a governor of Christ's Hospital, an independent educational establishment also known as the Bluecoat School, and in 1837 was elected Sheriff of London. 

He was knighted in the same year by Queen Victoria and received a baronetcy in 1846 in recognition of his services to humanitarian causes on behalf of the Jewish people.

He was president of the British Board of Deputies from 1835-1874, with one brief interruption. Despite his position, he did not play a prominent role in the Jewish emancipation struggle at home, preferring to help oppressed Jewish communities abroad.

In 1831, while keeping his home in Park Lane in London, Montefiore bought a country estate with 24 acres of land on the East Cliff of the then-fashionable seaside town of Ramsgate, previously the home of Queen Caroline, when she was still Princess of Wales.  He purchased some adjoining land and commissioned his cousin, architect David Mocatta, to design a private synagogue, known as the Montefiore Synagogue.

Montefiore died at East Cliff in 1885, at the age of 100. He had no known children and his principal heir in both name and property was a nephew, Joseph Sebag Montefiore.  His great, great nephew is the historian, author and TV presenter Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The beautiful Terrazza Mascagni is a feature of the  waterfront in modern Livorno
The beautiful Terrazza Mascagni is a feature of the
waterfront in modern Livorno
Travel tip:

The port of Livorno is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence, with a population of almost 160,000. Although it is a large commercial port with much related industry, it has many attractions, including an elegant sea front – the Terrazza Mascagni - an historic centre – the Venetian quarter – with canals, and a tradition of serving excellent seafood.  The Terrazza Mascagni is named after the composer Pietro Mascagni, famous for the opera Cavalleria rusticana, who was born in Livorno.

The plaque commemorating the life of Sir Moses Montefiore is near the Jewish synagogue in Liverno
The plaque commemorating the life of Sir Moses Montefiore
is near the Jewish synagogue in Liverno 
Travel tip:

A plaque commemorating the life of Sir Moses Montefiore can be found in Piazza Elia Benamozegh in Livorno, the location of the city’s synagogue. Livorno was once home to one of the largest Sephardic communities in Western Europe, second only to Amsterdam. The 16th century Florentine leader Ferdinando I Medici, who governed Livorno, allowed the city’s Jews to govern themselves, without being confined to a ghetto. Although the Jewish settlement in the city had clear parameters, there were few limits imposed on the community, which by the 18th century numbered more than 4,000, almost 15 per cent of the the city’s population.

More reading:

The story of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi

Salomone Rossi, the leading Jewish musician of the late Renaissance

The good samaritan of Rimini Alberto Marvelli

Also on this day:

1913: The birth of the acclaimed baritone Tito Gobbi

1925: The birth of composer Luciano Berio


11 April 2016

Primo Levi - Auschwitz survivor

Celebrated writer killed in fall in Turin

This photograph of Primo Levi was taken in around 1950
Primo Levi: a photograph taken
in about 1950
Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote a number of books chronicling his experiences of the Holocaust, died on this day in Turin in 1987.  He was 67 years old and his body was found at the foot of a stairwell in the apartment building where he lived, having seemingly fallen from the third floor.

A chemist by profession, Levi died in the same building in which he was born in July 1919, in Corso Re Umberto in the Crocetta district of the northern Italian city.  Apart from his periods of incarceration, he lived in the same apartment, a gift from his father to his mother, almost all his life.

His death was officially recorded as suicide, the verdict supported by his son's statement that his father had suffered from depression in the months leading to his death.  He had undergone surgery for a prostate condition and was worried about the failing health of his 92-year-old mother.

Some of his friends, however, doubted that he would have taken his own life and believed he had fallen accidentally.  They argued that while other survivors never recovered from the mental scarring, Levi had emerged with "soul and psyche intact" and retained a hopeful and positive outlook.

Many of Levi's books were autobiographical and drew upon the atrocities he witnessed in the notorious concentration camp, where he was spared death because his chemistry skills were useful to the Nazis. His first book, If This Is a Man, which described daily life in the death camps in harrowing detail, was published in 1947.

Sometimes known by another title, Survival in Auschwitz,  If This Is a Man was the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy which was followed 16 years later by The Truce and 12 years after that by The Periodic Table.

The latter was hailed as his greatest work, an account of his life from his childhood to his postwar employment as an industrial chemist, each story bearing the name of a chemical element to which he felt each episode was symbolically connected.

Primo Levi was a descendant of Jews who had settled in Piedmont after being expelled from Spain. He studied chemistry at the University of Turin, managing to remain there despite the Mussolini regime imposing a ban on Jews from institutes of higher education and graduated in 1941.

He found work in Turin by giving a false identity but as the city became more dangerous he left to Milan, where he was taken on by a Swiss-run pharmaceutical laboratory that was not subject to the new race laws, returning to Turin after Mussolini was deposed by King Umberto III in 1943.

A view of the Crocetta district, where Levi lived almost all  his life in the same apartment. (Photo: Gianpiero Actis)
A view of the Crocetta district, where Levi lived almost all
 his life in the same apartment. (Photo: Gianpiero Actis)
His father was by now dead and he found his mother and sister had fled to the family's holiday home in the mountains.  After Mussolini, imprisoned by the King, was freed by the German forces occupying northern and central Italy, Levi joined Italian Partisans fighting German and Italian Fascist forces.

Betrayed by a Fascist informer, he was soon captured, after which he was sent initially to an Italian prison camp near Modena and then shipped by train with hundreds of other Jews to Auschwitz.

Levi was given a job in a synthetic rubber factory at the Auschwitz complex.  He was liberated by the Russian Red Army in January 1945, fate having probably saved his life a second time.  Shortly before Russian troops arrived, the Germans had attempted to march the Auschwitz inmates to another location and many of them died en route. Levi was stricken with scarlet fever, however, and left behind.

It took him almost nine months to get back to Turin.  He met his wife, Lucia - with whom he would have a son and a daughter - at a Jewish New Year party in 1946 and eventually settled into a job at a paint factory outside Turin.  At first, the limited train service meant he had to stay in a dormitory at the factory during the week, returning to Corso Re Umberto only at weekends, but the time gave him the opportunity to write.

At the time of his death, the novelist Philip Roth said of Levi:

''With the moral stamina and intellectual poise of a 20th-century titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible.''

Travel tip: 

The paint factory in Settimo Torinese where Levi worked from 1947 to 1975 was abandoned in the 1990s but reopened in 2014 as a museum and cultural center for Holocaust memory.  It includes an exhibition prepared by the Holocaust Memorial Museum at Auschwitz and an exhibit on Levi’s life located in the office he used when he worked as the plant manager.

The house is typical of those in Crocetta, a prestigious residential district
A typical house in the Crocetta district
Travel tip:

The Crocetta district of Turin, through which Corso Re Umberto runs from north to south as one of the main thoroughfares,  is located just to the south of the historic city centre and is considered one of the most prestigious residential areas in the city.  It is famous for a large outdoor market that is held every day and is notable for many good restaurants.

More reading: