Alessandro Cassin interviews Andrew Viterbi and Erna Finci Viterbi
“Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Erna and Andrew Viterbi met in Los Angeles after World War II, got married, started a family and achieved outstanding personal and professional recognition. Their stories, apparently distant yet complementary, are emblematic of the fate of the more fortunate among Italian and foreign Jews who found themselves in Italy between 1938-1944.
Italy was both the country that turned its back on Andrew’s family, as well as the country that offered a respite to Erna’s, in flight from Nazi-Fascist dominated Yugoslavia. It was at once a place of betrayal and persecution, and a place where Jewish “refugees could be treated with dignity.
Sixty-eight years after the end of the war, the Viterbis (today Board Members of Centro Primo Levi) look back and reminisce on what happened to them in Italy.
Alessandro Cassin: Over the years you have been interviewed often, and have given many speeches in which you touched mainly on your stellar career.
I would like instead to take this opportunity to focus more on your childhood, your parents’ decision to come to the US and the impact all of it had on your life.
Andrew Viterbi: I only have few memories of my early childhood in Italy, but I am very much aware on how the events of those years have shaped my life.
AC: What do you remember or what have you learned later about your family’s life in Bergamo?
AV: My father and mother had what was considered a bourgeois existence: they were not wealthy, but they lived well by Italian standards of the time. They had a nanny for me, a cook, and I believe a housekeeper, so that my mother was not busy with housework or cooking when I was born. Later she took cooking lessons from Prinetti, a chef who I thought for a long time to be a famous one. At home they spoke with the same respect of both Artusi and Prinetti. Artusi was the author of the famous Italian cookbook “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene”, while Prinetti was simply a local cook, though I must say he taught my mother well. On Sundays the help would go back to their villages, and we usually took an excursion. What stuck in my mind is that since my mother did not cook on Sundays, we had caffe latte and cookies. I also remember liking very much my nanny, who was very young; my mother liked her less…
AC: Bergamo had only a very small Jewish Community….
AV: A tiny one… there were maybe 60-70 of us. My father had moved there when he won a competition for a position in the local hospital.
He was eager to start the profession. His own father, after failing in business and losing money in the stock market, had fled to Istanbul, leaving his children struggling.
AC: Because of the racial laws of 1938 your father lost his job at the hospital and your family left Bergamo…
AV: We left for Genoa on the first week of January 1939. My father, Achille Viterbi, who was the head of ophthalmology at the hospital in Bergamo, was asked to leave because he was a Jew. Only years later I learned from some documents that he was given six months to leave, which would have meant up until March. In any case, we sold the household goods and everything we had in a hurry – I presume well below the market price- and left for Genoa. In Bergamo we had lived in Via Manzoni 4, which was later renamed Via dei Martiri Fascisti.
We stayed half a year in Genoa’s beach district at Lido D’Albaro. Fittingly for a European middle class family, my parents allowed themselves a brief vacation before emigrating. I have some vivid memories from our time in Genoa. I remember the blackouts: one evening, we had to find our way home through the darkened streets by following the fireflies.
AC: Did your parents consider themselves anti-Fascists?
AV: Neither of them had been politically active. The only sign of political dissent that I am aware of was my mother’s refusal to give her wedding band to the Motherland in 1936, when the colonial war in Ethiopia broke out and Mussolini urged the women to give their gold rings. My parents were certainly not Fascist enthusiasts…
AC: What was your mother’s maiden name and where was her family from?
AV: She was called Maria Luria Viterbi. The Lurias were a banking family from Casale Monferrato, in Piedmont.
AC: In going to Genoa, did your family intend to embark for the USA?
AV: Yes, once my father had lost his job, they were trying to reach the USA. We had a cousin, Alberto Finzi, already in New York, which was seen at the time as the safest place, a place to start over. The problem was getting visas to the US.
AC: In 1939 the Fascist authorities were actually encouraging Italian Jews to leave the country permanently …
AV: The Fascists were glad to see the Jews who had the means leave. My father left us in Genoa and traveled to Naples to obtain visas from the American consulate. He was able to obtain one for himself, but not for the family. Eye doctors (along with a number of other professionals) were needed in the USA, and Roosevelt had made provisions for Italians in those professions residing in Switzerland to obtain visas. Through acquaintances, my father was able to fake having resided in Switzerland and finally obtained the precious visas for all three of us.
AC: Were you aware of your parents’ preoccupations?
AV: I was only four years old, but I certainly realized that our lives were rapidly changing.
AC: Did you leave from Genoa?
AV: We had obtained tickets for the Normandie, a transatlantic ocean liner that was due to depart from Le Havre on September 1st, 1939. But rumors reached my father that the Nazis were preparing something big for that date, so we left earlier and sailed aboard the De Grasse on August 15th instead. Thank God we did: the war broke out in September and the Normandie never left.
AC: Do you remember the crossing?
AV: I recall neither arriving in New York, nor my first glance at the Statue of Liberty, but I have vivid memories of being on that ship. On board we had met the Volterras, like ourselves an Italian Jewish family escaping Fascism. They were not related to the famous mathematician Vito Volterra, I think they came from Bologna. My parents befriended them; Mr. Volterra was a doctor as well. They had two daughters, roughly my age, with whom I played on the ship’s decks. We imagined we were throwing the Pharaohs (i.e. Hitler and Mussolini) into the high waves.
AC: What was the mood of your parents during the trip?
AV: I cannot really say. My father was always outgoing, quick to make friendships. Losing his job, colleagues, friends- really his whole world- must have been a tremendous weight. My mother was more reserved, but for her too it must have been very difficult.
AC: While children seldom remember specific facts and chronology, they do recall specific interpersonal dynamics, words, turn of phrases…
AV: My parents certainly tried to be loving and reassuring, yet I was aware that we were escaping. Among my father’s recurrent phrases there was “la batosta” (the blow) referring to the racial laws and “l’iniqua salutare pedata” (the undeserved, healthy kick).
AC: Do you have memories of the early days in New York?
AV: We arrived on August 27th and by early September I was enrolled in school. I remember feeling lost at first: I did not understand a word of English! I stayed in New York from age 4 to 6, when we moved to Boston
AC: How did your father adapt?
AV: He did have moments of depression and discouragement, but mostly he faced the situation with courage and determination.
He was 58 years old at the time, and as soon as we got to the US, he began studying again. His Italian university degree was not recognized, and he needed to get a license in order to practice.
AC: Did your mother have occasions to socialize?
AV: By pure chance, in New York my mother ran into Giuliana Ravenna who remained her best friend for the rest of her life. Giuliana was married with Manlio Goetzl. They were from Trieste, he was an engineer. Because his Austro-Hungarian origins, the Fascists had stripped him of his Italian citizenship. Giuliana was in her twenties, my mother was in her forties. They met on Riverside Drive, when my mother was taking me for a walk: Guliana had a two-year-old daughter in a stroller and a newborn one.
I spotted a bench and told my mother, that I could sit in the sun and she in the shade (or the other way around): Giuliana overheard us speaking in Italian and approached us. Initially the two women were kind of sparring: they recognized how much they had in common –young children, language, recently arrived in the US- but did not know how to relate, they were lacking a code… until they finally worked out that they were both Jewish, which to them was an essential thing.
AC: Where did you live?
AV: We lived in a walk-up apartment on West 107th street, while Giuliana and her family were up on 153rd street, also on the West Side. After about a year during which we saw a lot of each other, Manlio, who was an electrical engineer, was offered a job with General Electric in Syracuse. We were sad to see them go, and we sublet their apartment that was much larger. Actually for a short while I think we all lived in that apartment together. We kept in touch, they had five children, three of which I am still in contact with. After two years we moved to Boston.
Erna Finci Viterbi: You did not mention how you were sent behind the blackboard in school!
AV: Oh, yes. Each day when I got home from kindergarten I would cry. The reason was that my teacher did not understand me, nor I her, so her solution was to punish me by sending me to stand in a corner behind the blackboard! My mother discussed this with Giuliana, who immediately said: “I will go with him to school and let that teacher have it… I will pull the hair of that witch!”
My mother could not have complained to the teacher herself, she was hard of hearing and it took her a long time to master English. She learned how to read and write fluently, but not hearing well, speaking remained always difficult for her. This episode cemented their friendship.
AC: How was your new beginning in Boston?
AV: I had completed kindergarten and first grade in New York, I knew how to read, but in Boston they thought of me as a recent immigrant and did not admit me into second grade. My father was furious, so he and my mother home schooled me and made me skip second grade.
EFV: Your mother always talked about teaching you the multiplication table.
AV: She did!
AC: So you took first grade twice and then moved to third grade?
AV: I think so.
AC: Why did your parents choose Boston?
AV: We moved there in September 1941. It was easier for my father to get a license to practice medicine in Massachusetts. Boston is where I grew up, and I have perfect recollections of that city. In Bergamo he did not need a car, so he never learned. He arrived in Bergamo in 1905, when people moved around with horse carriages, later he used taxis when he needed to, but everything was really within walking distance. Because he did not learned how to drive, he needed to work close to home, so his office was down the block from our house, both were on Commonwealth Avenue, the house near Fairfield and the office near Gloucester.
AC: Do you remember that house?
AV: Yes, of course. I actually go back to see it on a kind of pilgrimage almost every year. It was in a handsome six floor brick apartment house from 1915, surrounded by brownstones. We lived on the third floor. We did not have views, but the house faced Commonwealth Avenue, which is lovely, lined with trees, with a park in the middle. I never had my own room, it was a one-bedroom apartment. All in all I have good recollections of the period in Boston, it was a good place to grow up. That first year I fell in love with the atmosphere of the holidays, its “pomp and circumstance”. There was Halloween, followed by Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, and on each occasion there were more and more beautiful decorations… There must have been the same in New York, but I remember it making such an impression on me only in Boston.
AC: What else made an impression?
AV: Only a few months after we arrived, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I remember the day distinctly. We all had to go to the Federal Building which had been the Customs House. At the time, it was the tallest building in Boston, and the FBI had their offices there. We were considered enemy aliens, so they fingerprinted us and most importantly they confiscated my father’s Kodak camera. Had we had any, we also would have had to surrender short wave radios and firearms, but we did not have them.
I always like to mention the story of Guido Segre, a former Italian Consul in Boston. He was a Jew from Piedmont, much more observant than us. He had been Consul General of the Italian Kingdom in Boston before the Racial Laws, had been called back to Rome in 1938, and finally returned to Boston where he had contacts and friends. He and his family lived in a nice brick house. As the war broke out he followed the rules and presented himself at the police headquarters in Brookline and turned in his handgun to a startled policeman who did not know what to do with it… So when in doubt, he put him in prison! Segre contacted his lawyer, who promptly got him released, but the story remained paradigmatic and a source of laughter among us.
AC: What did Segre do after the war?
AV: He was reintegrated into Italian Diplomacy and was posted as Consul General in Paris. My uncle Gino, who had spent the war years in Italy, went to see him in Paris.
EFV: Zio Gino was working for Chanel, in the perfume department…
AV Guido Segre received Zio Gino in his office and famously told him: You see my desk? It belonged to Richelieu!
Guido Segre passed away only a year later.
AC: In the early years in Boston, did your parents socialize mostly with Italian émigrés?
AV: Yes, their friends were primarily Italian Jews. Their circle consisted of about ten Jewish Italian families, most of whom returned to Italy after the war. Among the ones that remained was Anna Yona, a first cousin of Primo Levi, whose maiden name was Foa. She and her husband David Yona, an engineer, had fled Turin in 1940. In Boston during the war Anna began hosting an “Italian Hour” on the radio. After the war, her cousin, Primo Levi, sent her a manuscript; she translated a chapter of what would later be published as Survival in Auschwitz.
The Yonas had another cousin, Eugenio Fubini, who later became DDRE (Director Defense Research and Engineering) a high position equivalent to Assistant Secretary of Defense.
AC: After the war, as many returned to Italy and this tight-knit group dissolved, it must have been difficult for your parents…
AV: Of course, they missed the friends who left, but my parents were not very social, and by then quite comfortable in Boston.
AC: Were your parents tempted to go back to Italy themselves?
EFV: Not his father, perhaps his mother would have considered it…
AV: Yes, mother might have been tempted. At the time we did not discuss the possibility, my father had resolved to stay. Today I think that had the hospital in Bergamo called him back, had they made a reparatory gesture, perhaps he would have felt differently. Over the years I read a lot about the dilemmas of Jewish Italian professors who had been called back. I remember my father saying: “ If they call me back as Head of the Department, but also keep the person who took my place, I will have no real authority”.
Still I think that had the people in Bergamo had the courage to make an overture, it would have meant a great deal to him. The truth is that Italy never apologized to him, no one apologized for taking away his career, his whole life there…
EFV: In Bergamo they would not admit that they were responsible for making life impossible for the Jews, they could not apologize about something they refused to take responsibility for…
AV: And yet they were responsible. But since they too had suffered from the war, they did not want to see the suffering that they in turn had inflicted…
AC: Your father had gone from heading a hospital department in Italy to a small private practice in Boston; was the practice successful?
AV: He got by. During the war he had developed a small clientele among the Italians who lived in the North End of Boston. They were nice, simple people who had mostly immigrated around the turn of the century, or in any case before the restrictive immigration laws of 1924.
One of the reasons that allowed my father to develop this clientele was that most of the young doctors had been drafted, leaving a vacuum. In the post war years, as the American doctors returned home, things got more difficult for him.
AC: As your parents faced economic difficulties, did they ever seek assistance from the Jewish Community?
AV: Never. My father used to say: “ For the Italians we are Jews, and for the Jews we are Italians”… We had very little contact with the Jewish Community in Boston. One thing I remember was that Consul Guido Segre obtained for us membership free of charge at a Synagogue in Brookline, Ohabei Shalom Congregation, where I received some religious education for a few years. Later when my father’s practice was more established, they expected membership dues, at which point my father gave it up. Particularly since he was not religious at all, it seemed like an extravagant expense.
AC: Did you maintain contacts with Jewish children?
AV: Yes. I had many Jewish friends who provided me with the feeling of “unofficially” belonging to that community. As a matter of fact, by 1948, when I turned 13, there was never talk of having my Bar Mitzvah in Boston. My parents had imagined that I would do it in Milano, but my uncle who lived there had passed away, so we no longer had contacts with the local community. Instead we decided I would do it in Turin, where we were well connected, and a relative had been the principal of the Jewish High School.
AC: Clearly in the roughly 10 years between your departure from Bergamo and your Bar Mitzvah, your parents had maintained contacts with Italy; was that mostly through letters and correspondence?
AV: That’s an interesting question. It brings to mind an episode from the early days in New York.
EFV: The more we talk, the more memories begin to emerge…
AV: One of my earliest and fondest memories of New York was going with my father to the Italian Consulate, which at the time was at Rockefeller Center. We went with an Italian Jewish lady, her last name was Levi, people referred to her as the Levi widow, I don’t recall her first name. Her son became a journalist and took the name Erberto Landi. In any case, that day my father, Mrs. Levi and I walked to Rockefeller Center and I remember the sight of the gigantic golden statue of Atlas holding the world… on Fifth Avenue. That image really stayed with me.
EFV: To the point that each time we come to New York, Andrew insists on going to see that statue!
AC: Like the pilgrimages to the house in Boston…
AV: Atlas holding the weight of the world on his shoulders became my role model!
EFV: Each time we go there he gets very excited.
AV: Let me return to your question about letters back and forth with Italy: the reason we went to the Consulate was for picking up my father’s pension (the pensioni sanitarie). Until America’s entry into the war, in 1941, he received a pension, through Banco di Napoli. In other words, my parents had both official and personal correspondence with Italy. They exchanged letters with my aunts (my mother’s sisters) one of whom had travelled with us to the US, while the other two were in Milano and Torino.
EFV: The one in Torino had become Primo Levi’s mother-in-law.
AV: That is how Primo Levi became an acquired cousin. The letters back and forth were extremely important: they represented continuity with what they had left behind. I think they continued even after the war broke out in June 1940, though there must have been censorship. I wish my mother had kept all those letters; each contained a piece of our story…
Some letters never reached their destination. At one point we had heard that the aunt from Milan had escaped to Switzerland. So my father tried to contact her there by sending her a telegram through the Red Cross. I remember he went to the post office to send the telegram and that evening around midnight we received a phone call from the FBI: they had intercepted and blocked his telegram thinking it was a form of espionage and that the text was written in code.
AC: Did the two aunts survive?
AV: Yes, our telegram did not reach the one who had escaped from Milano to Lugano, in Switzerland, but she found refuge there (certainly the fact that she had money helped her). The other one hid in the countryside, in Piedmont’s pre-Alps region. And my grandmother survived the war hidden in a pensione in Torre Pellice, a town nestled in the Italian Alps. When the daughters of the Turin aunt were asked about their mother, they liked to answer: “she is among the cows”, in truth she was in a very rustic barn…
Until 1945 we lost contact with all the relatives who had remained in Italy, which in itself must have been very hard on my parents.
AC: During the war, how did your parents get news from Europe?
AV: We had an old radio (only short wave radios were prohibited to enemy aliens), they read newspapers, and naturally people talked and exchanged any extra piece of information they had.
AC: Did everyone in your immediate family survive?
AV: In 1945 we received the first post-war letter from Italy and learned that, except for one distant cousin who was deported, they had all survived.
AC: Did being considered an enemy alien have much impact on you?
AV: I cannot say it had on me personally, but certainly on my parents, it represented somewhat of a historical contradiction, inasmuch as we had also been considered enemies in Italy through the Racial Laws.
On December 7th 1941 we became “enemy aliens”, then, after September 8th 1943 we were “friendly aliens”… Father received a card from the FBI saying he could stop by at their office to collect the camera they had confiscated. I remember he exclaimed: “Only in America!”
AC: I know that for years you have tried to reconstruct your parents’ life in Bergamo…
AV: Amazingly, fifty years after we left, Professor Giorgio Mangini, a good friend, was able to find a large folder with my father’s hospital papers and documents and gave it to me. I was glad to have that material, but some of it was… hard to take in. Mangini is an extraordinary man, who each year takes his students to visit Auschwitz… We too went to Poland with him and his students once.
AC: What made Mangini interested in this?
AV: Giorgio Mangini is a professor at the Liceo Classico Sarpi of Bergamo. He teaches history and philosophy. He teaches a two-year course on the Shoah and takes his students to visit Auschwitz each year. He has also written a study of the Jewish population of Bergamo before and during the Racial Laws.
AC: Allow me to switch over to Erna’s story…
AV: Her story is a much, much more painful one.
EFV: I would simply say it is very different.
AC: In your story Italy was not the departure point, but a place of temporary and precarious refuge.
What do you remember of life in Sarajevo before your family left?
EFV: Life had become very hard for us, almost impossible. At first we took refuge in the countryside, as it became close to impossible to find food in a city full of German soldiers. We began walking toward the countryside, but the roads were extremely dangerous, there were German planes flying low and shooting the evacuees… some made it, but most were killed right there on the roadside. Yet we were among the few who finally made it.
AC: Were you together with your entire family?
EFV: No, we all left kind of randomly, thinking it would only be a temporary escape and that soon we would be able to return to our city. It was too dangerous to walk in big groups, so we divided up and lost contact. I was only with my father, mother and brother, walking among strangers who were escaping just like us. The hope had been to find food that we could have brought back to the city, for ourselves and those who had stayed behind…but once we got to the countryside, we soon realized there was no food there either. The Nazis had taken as much as they could, then set on fire what remained. There was nothing left, not even grass. We returned to the city, again walking along roads that were targeted by the German planes. Our group had shrunk considerably, many had…
AV: Been killed.
EFV: Yes, killed.
AC: How old were you?
EFV: I was six years old, almost seven.
AC: So you must have vivid memories of Sarajevo before all this. What was your life like?
EFV: We had a good life, prosperous and free of fear.
Sometimes when I think of it, the title of Benigni’s film comes to mind, Life is Beautiful: our life was beautiful, for a while. And then, from one moment to the next, everything changed. The bombings made it very clear that we were in great danger. A kind of danger we were unfamiliar with and totally unprepared for. In fact, before that I had never experienced danger. I felt safe, secure, loved, surrounded by family and many friends. Life was good for all of us. My grandparents were surrounded by many children, grandchildren and other relatives.
AC: Did you all live close by?
EFV: We all lived relatively close, and we saw my grandparents every day. My mother would take me with her on her daily visits to them. We also had dinner at their house every Friday night, with the whole family…
AC: Were these your maternal grandparents?
EFV: Yes, my paternal grandparents died before my parents married, but my mother had known them when she was a girl. Everyone remembered them fondly, they had a reputation of being very good people. Because of these stories, I have always had a feeling as if I had known them…
AC: Similarly to the way your husband had periodically returned to Italy, New York and Boston, did you feel a desire to go back to Sarajevo?
EFV: Only once, in 1967, when Andrew was a on a sabbatical. And I told myself “never again”.
AC: Was it hard?
EFV: On my first morning there, I walked out bright and early because I wanted to see the city and its atmosphere. I was counting on recapturing the good memories, but instead I experienced only the fear, the sadness, the fact that there was no longer anyone I knew in the houses we had inhabited…
AC: Did you still have relatives there at the time?
EFV: Yes, my aunt, with whom I stayed, and some cousins. I told myself I would never return. But since I did want to see my aunt again, we invited her to visit us in the US, which she did.
AC: For many, the places where they were born, that they were forced to leave, continue to exist only as an emotional place of memory, a reconstruction. When they revisit, they feel at once the gap between that reconstruction and the actual place, many years later.
EFV: Yes. Yet in my experience there are other places, from where I also have painful memories, but where I do like to return. In those cases, terrible memories are mixed with joyful ones, which make it bearable for me.
AC: Let’s go back to those early memories. After you returned from the countryside to Sarajevo, you realized you must leave the city. Did you have time to prepare?
EFV: We had a few hours to prepare, which was not much. But without some preparation, the chances of survival would have been slim. One evening we decided that we were going to attempt an escape from the city. My parents together with my maternal grandparents and my mother’s siblings took the decision. My father spent the night running around the city to try to convince his side of the family to leave with us, but to no avail. They thought the hardship would soon be over and that he was the crazy one thinking that an escape was possible, and that in any case leaving would have meant losing everything. When I said that preparation was essential, I meant that one needed the help of non-Jews. My father offered a good sum of money to some Muslim acquaintances of his and they agreed to help. We were given false papers attesting our Muslim identities and we were provided with traditional Muslim garments that were in use at the time. I can see my mother in that unfamiliar dress, my father with a fez, and even I had a dress like I had never thought I would wear. In our camouflage garb, we walked to the train station, which was filled with German soldiers and their dogs. They were looking for Jews. The Muslims had been collaborating with the Nazis, so when we arrived in Muslim clothes, we had no problem getting on the train. Still, we were terrified that someone would speak to us, or worse, ask us something about a religion we knew nothing about. Fortunately no one asked anything, and the train took off suddenly, unannounced.
AC: Where were you headed for and why?
EFV: We were headed to Montenegro, because it was ruled by the Italians, rather than the Germans.
We soon realized that life in Montenegro was also very difficult: there was some food, but it was hard to come by. Everyone was struggling. The Italian soldiers seemed friendly, I remember that seeing me hungry they often handed me their “gallette”, a kind of thick and very hard crackers, which I much appreciated. I could see that they were sacrificing their own rations for me.
One day the situation became extremely tense. The partisans had ambushed the Italian troops, blowing up two trucks, and the Italians were planning retaliation. So they assembled the entire population of Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro, and took them into custody. Their plan for the next day was to shoot one in every ten men in the main square. They had taken my father, grandfather and two uncles. It was terrifying. I cannot say if it was simply luck or my mother’s resourcefulness, but she insisted we washed and dressed up in our best clothes, and she took us to the Italian command. It was swarming with local women who had also come to see their men, but they were mostly dirty, wearing peasant clothes, so we stood out.
Our clothes made an impression and we were immediately allowed in. An officer asked us politely what we wanted and my mother explained we had come to visit our relatives before they would be dragged into the square. My mother had told me that they had been taken prisoners, but when I saw my old grandfather in handcuffs, with my father and the others, I started to cry uncontrollably. An Italian officer saw me and said, I don’t want to see this girl cry, and ordered that our men be freed. One cannot forget something like that… And from then on, I have always maintained a special affection for the Italian people, though I realized that in that case there was this one individual officer. Of course we had been taken prisoners by the Italians, and I saw some of what they inflicted on the local population, yet among Italians we always encountered some good people.
I want to remember the good part of the story, but I realize that the other side of it cannot be ignored.
AC: When decisions of life and death are taken in a few seconds, language plays a key role: did your family speak Italian at that point?
EFV: My parents spoke very little, but my uncles did and my grandfather spoke some, while the rest of us spoke Ladino. In truth we could understand the Italians and the Italians more or less understood us, the two languages are similar enough.
AC: After that close call in Cetinje, were did you go?
EFV: We reached Split, on the coast, and there we were taken prisoners by the Italians. Some refer to that time as internment, but in truth we were simply civilian prisoners of war. One day, without telling us anything about our destination, we were put on ships, then on trains and finally on buses. They had taken us to Italy. The population was friendly toward us, but made sure we understood the rules: our status was that of second-class citizens. No schools, no doctors, and no contact with the locals. Above all it was prohibited to leave the small town where they had taken us. It was what they called “internamento libero”. I must say that some of the locals came to greet us, and showed us solidarity and warmth, even invited us into their homes.
AC: Where was the town?
EFV: In Emilia, in Central Italy.
AC: I know this is too complex a question for a short answer, but over the years, how did you and Andrew reconcile the almost diametrically opposed experience you had as Jews with the Italian people?
EFV: We have different opinions. Our judgments were different, but not totally so.
AV: I came to understand and adopt in part her point of view. But after 30 years, I “woke up” and realized there are questions I must continue to raise…
One’s opinions are shaped by one’s experiences, and clearly we had very different experiences and different circumstances.
EFV: And I too, see and understand his point of view.
AC: I feel strongly that one cannot judge a whole country, talk about an alleged “national character”, without taking into account the historical context in which a particular act of kindness or brutality occurred. And yet I am sure you must have opinions, strong opinions about the Italians…
AV: Relative to the rest of Europe, I must say that Italians were on the kinder side of the spectrum. Perhaps they are kinder people. This did not absolve some from committing unforgivable crimes, and the collectivity from remaining largely passive faced with the racial laws. They went along willingly with Mussolini on a path of folly. I suspect that they are less kind and empathetic today than they were 60 years ago…
AC: Andrew what do you make of the families that helped Erna’s, and many other “foreign Jews”, while the Italian Jewish population was being ostracized, if not actually expelled?
AV: It is hard to make balanced statements because the ones that were helping were not the same individuals who were implementing the discriminatory measures. The people in the town of Gramignazzo di Sissa (Parma), where Erna’s family was interned, behaved very well. When the Germans arrived, the Podestà (mayor), a Fascist, provided them with false papers and helped them hide from the Nazis with a clever scheme. He had someone from out of town – a truck driver – accompany them to Parma, so that no one in town could tell the Germans where to find them. And in Parma they were given the names of Communists who took them in. Without that help, they would never have made it.
EFV: It was a spontaneous, human gesture, yet it had the effect of a miracle nonetheless.
AC: What did you do in Parma?
EFV: The Germans were everywhere by then: the only hope was to reach Switzerland, which we managed to do, again thanks to the help of some Italians.
AC: Did you have to pay, to be smuggled into Switzerland?
EFV: Yes, but by then we were running out of money. The guide agreed to take us even if we could only give him less than what he had asked us. It was a dangerous trip, made even more dangerous and slow by the fact that my grandfather had fallen ill and needed to be transported on a stretcher. The guide took us anyway; without his help we would not have survived…
AV: That poor man was killed.
EFV: We later discovered that soon after he left us, he was caught smuggling other families into Switzerland, and shot dead.
AV: People like him, even though he was doing it for money, deserve our respect. But we know full well that there were others, who for 5000 Liras did sell Jews to the Nazis. And we know that Italians had arrested about half of all the Jews who were eventually deported.
EFV: Even my uncle Giacomo was caught. He was arrested by the Italian police and handed over to the Nazis who promptly deported him to Auschwitz, where we lost him.
AC: Although individual stories vary greatly, up until September 1943 Italy had been somewhat of a refuge for many foreign Jews who had fled Nazi occupied countries. Having economic means often proved crucial to survival. At the same time Italian Jews were facing in disbelief the diametrical change in policy of a government that had vowed to protect them…
AV: The Italian Jews, including my family, had a different perspective on what was happening, they were very loyal citizens and felt fully Italian. Don’t forget that during the First World War Jews had joined the army and fought in disproportionate numbers relative to the rest of the population. The first casualty among Italian officers in the Great War was a Jew, Adolfo Viterbi, who was not a relative of ours, but came from Mantua, the same city as my father. Jews felt not only totally emancipated, but were often very nationalistic. In the memoirs of Augusto Segre one finds examples of rabbis who, not to their credit, were moving away from religion and embracing nationalism instead… For Jews the Risorgimento had also sanctioned the end of the ghetto period; they remained very faithful to the Royal House of Savoy.
I like to mention here Vito Volterra, whom I consider the most important Italian mathematician of his time. He was born in 1860 and died in 1940; when the First World War broke out he was already 55, yet he joined the Italian Army and worked on the development of airships. He originated the idea of using inert helium rather than flammable hydrogen and organized its manufacture. In 1930, despite his achievements and international reputation, they expelled him from the University because he was among the very few Italian academics who refused to take the Fascist oath. He had also contributed to the development of the Italian Air Force, with pioneering work on early airships.
Fortunately for him, he died in 1940, before everything collapsed. But he had seen enough dark clouds to imagine what could follow. He remains a bit of a “scheletro nell’armadio” (skeleton in the closet) for the Italian Jewish conscience.
AC: How do you think Italian civil society behaved toward the Jews?
AV: I am not a historian, but what has been well documented by both historians and a multitude of memoirs is that after the Racial Laws, Italians simply turned their backs on the Jews. Having said that, it is also true that later on, when the Nazis invaded and all the chips were down, many Italians helped. However, I am struck by the fact that after the war, no one in Italy apologized to the Jews for what they had done to them…
AC: Unlike your family, some Italian Jews decided to hide and remain in Italy through it all…
AV: Yes, unlike in Germany, some Italian Jews remained in hiding, as did some of my relatives, but it was difficult and very dangerous. I think all those who could, left, but for some it was not an option.
AC: In the late 30’s, in addition to the small Italian Jewish community, the population encountered for the first time a large number of Jewish refugees arriving from different parts of Europe. For some it was somewhat easier to help out foreign Jews than Italian ones. In their eyes the foreign Jews had perhaps an exotic air… and in any case no one thought these foreigners would remain long or could represent a threat.
AV: Don’t forget that in small agricultural towns such as Gramignazzo, there probably never had been any Jews. The population had no concept of who they were and thus no particular prejudice.
EFV: Yet in nearby Parma, where there had been a Jewish Community – there was an ancient Jewish cemetery- people still did not quite know how to relate to foreign Jews such as ourselves…
AC: The moment you arrived in this small town, after your long journey, did you have the feeling you could have remained there indefinitely or was it simply a temporary refuge?
EFV: We knew we had to stay there. We “had to”, not could, but had to remain there.
AV: It was a sort of forced residency. Once a month, however, they allowed you to go to Parma.
EFV: That occurred after a while, not at first. They informed us that we were allowed to go to Parma but we must return the same day within a certain hour.
AC: Why did the authorities grant you that special permission?
EFV: I am not sure. There were other foreign Jewish families in forced residence or internment in other towns in the area and once a month they allowed us all to meet in Parma. We met in the one of the main squares, in a cafe…
AC: Were there other refugees from Bosnia?
EFV: Yes and also from Belgrade and other parts of Yugoslavia.
AC: Were these meeting joyful?
EFV: I wouldn’t say joyful, mostly we didn’t know each other. It was more a chance to exchange news and information. The time was spent discussing our limited options, the future, etc.
We asked after those who had fallen sick, as my grandmother had and just tried to form bonds of solidarity. Of course some tried to lift their mood with jokes and happy memories. At times their jovial mood was contagious. Once wanting some distraction from simply sitting at the cafe, someone got the idea of going to a palm reader/fortune teller…
AV: A witch!
EFV: My father said: “ What are we going there for? Can’t we tell already what our future looks like?” In any case a small group of us went- I remember walking to the fortuneteller’s place. As soon as we walked in – my parents were not next to one another – the woman surprised everyone by saying to my father: “go sit next to your wife” and to someone else to move to the next room where she would find her sister. How did she know who was who? That already dispelled much of our skepticism.
Eventually she began to predict peoples’ fortunes, and I will always remember that she told my parents “You have hard times ahead of you, but some day you will cross an enormous sea, will arrive to a land you have never seen before, where everything is different from life as you know it”. No one knew what to make of her predictions, but the feeling was that out of everything she said, some things, perhaps by coincidence, might turn out to be true.
AC: Often, after a while, the Jews who were forced to stay in these small town, with nothing to do and a prohibition to engage in any form of work, began to suffer from a sense of purposelessness and inaction, was that the case for your parents?
EFV: I don’t think so, for them the main preoccupation was the next move… figuring out what the future might have in store for all of us…
AC: And for you children?
EFV: It was sort of a pause, a respite.
AC: Did it feel strange not to go to school?
EFV: The adults and the older kids tried to teach us what they could. My cousins taught us math, art… each one would teach me what he or she knew.
AV: The cousins were in their twenties.
EFV: Often my older cousins would listen to the radio. Somehow they had purchased a shortwave radio, and would listen to Radio London. Nobody talked about it, but I often saw them entering a room and shutting the door. I was instructed not to enter but once my curiosity took over and, to their dismay, I opened the door. They reproached me and made me promise I would not tell anyone I had seen the radio. It was built into a little cabinet, and I had immediately figured out what it was because I had seen similar radio sets in Sarajevo.
They listened to The Voice-of-London in Italian… following the progress of the war, and hoping to detect an end to it all. They also hoped to hear news about Yugoslavia, imagining that perhaps it would be possible to return home. At the time we had so little sense of what was happening in the rest of the world…
AC: Who were your neighbors and were they curious about who you were?
EFV: Right next to us lived he mezzadro (share-cropper) and further down and the owner of the land. We had rented his old house, which had no water, nor electricity, but it had once been a beautiful villa. And there were farmers who lived next to us, an older couple, with a son, his wife and a small child, one and a half years old. They lived there, and all four worked the land – mostly corn- and raised chickens and pigs. The farmers had been kind to us from the start. I don’t think they understood that we were Jews… I do not think they ever heard the word. But they understood that we were forced to stay there and were not go anywhere. That we were not allowed to go to school or to work… so they had to have realized that something was not right.
AC: Did you interact with them much?
EFV: In very simple and basic ways: they took care of us. Often the younger woman would arrive carrying a large basket full of food. She was very kind, and eventually it was mostly her who helped us hide.
AC: After all you had been through in Yugoslavia, once in the Italian countryside, did the fear subside?
EFV: As far as my direct experiences, yes. In Italy I did not feel threatened, yet the fear would occasionally reappear as I read deep preoccupation in my parents’ faces. I knew they could not relax, and that something could happen any minute. Nonetheless, I found ways to be happy too: I played with the kids, and participated a lot in their life. For my parents there was no happiness, but for my brother and I, there was.
AC: How much older is your brother?
EFV: Five years older, so he played with much older kids. His friends moved around a lot and in order to keep up with them he often got into trouble, not that he was a bad kid… Once my parents found out that he had gone to the river with his friends and crossed over to the other side, which was not allowed. Any infraction to the rules, in their eyes, could cause harm to him and in turn to all of us, so he often got scolded.
AC: And yourself?
EFV: I played with the local kids around the house and in the fields. We would pick cherries and sing popular songs together.
AC: Fascist songs as well?
EFV: Sure. Many of them, like for example Faccetta Nera, whose meaning I did not quite understand. I knew it had something to do with Italian colonies in Africa, but that was about it. Once a year the movies would arrive. The projection was set up in a large barnlike stable from where the cows would be taken out. It was very exciting, everyone would bring their own chair and finally the projectionist would arrive and set up a screen against a wall. It was so different from anything I had done before, you see, in Sarajevo we would often go to a regular movie theater; this was quite a different experience. The image was never totally in focus…
AC: What films did they show?
EFV: The first film we saw there was I promessi sposi (from Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed). The whole town gathered for that one, even the Bishop. After the show the projectionist would disassemble his equipment and move to the next town… and then the next one after that.
AC: How did you pass your days?
EFV: I was curious and was observing the rhythm of life in the country: watch the wheat grow, then saw it transformed into bread and pasta. It was fascinating to watch the farmers work and raise their animals. They would kill the pig and make sausage…all things I had never seen before.
AC: All of this took an abrupt turn in September 1943, when after the Armistice the Nazis invaded Northern and Central Italy and life became dangerous for Jews even in those small agricultural towns…
EFV: When the grown-ups realized what was happening, they got the idea that we should try to reach Switzerland by train. That in itself posed great dangers.
AC: From Parma to Milan, then Cuneo…
EFV: These were not great distances, but it took us a long time since the train often stopped. The tracks were interrupted where the Allies had bombed them, so we would have to get off, walk a while and get on another train. The Germans were patrolling with dogs, looking specifically for Jews on the run. We had fake papers and were afraid of being stopped. The idea was to reach Cuneo, in Piedmont, from where some smugglers would take us by foot into Switzerland.
AC: Walking along the bombed tracks must have been terrifying…
EFV: The sight of the Nazis was truly paralyzing: as soon as I saw again those uniforms, heard their harsh language, I was in a panic. Seeing all the devastation from the bombings, I also feared the Allied planes. Once, as we were again walking to a train in an area where the tracks were no longer in place, we saw the bomber planes arrive overhead. Within seconds everyone took cover. My brother got a nosebleed and fortunately by chance nurse came along and said: “follow me”. As we followed him into an underground shelter, we found a small infirmary. We were told to stay there for the duration of the raid, which seemed like a very long time. Finally we heard a siren signaling the end of the alarm and decided to go out. There were no Germans around, there was no one. But there was a train a small distance ahead, we ran to it hopped on and the train took off. Again we were lucky, there were so many strange occurrences… We had decided to run for the train while others stayed behind and were rounded up.
AC: You made it by train all the way to Piedmont?
EFV: Somehow we did. Once we got there we still had to cross the mountains over to Switzerland and safety. We were taken into a shed by a shepherd. There we were told that we would be taken across as soon as it would turn dark. As night fell we began to walk, but at a certain point they stopped and told us it would be too dangerous to continue.
AV: And your grandfather was being carried on a stretcher…
EFV: Yes. A nerve racking, difficult situation.
They told us we needed to wait until the situation would get safer. We waited several days before they told us we could attempt the crossing once more.
AC: Were you close to your grandparents?
EFV: I loved them, they had been such a big part of my childhood. My grandmother had passed away in the Italian village, and my grandfather had fallen ill. Losing her – the love of his life – was a huge blow, and he never quite recovered. They had sustained one another through such hardship. Grandpa had been a successful businessman, a generous man, always helping many people, even outside the family. Grandma was caring and generous as well. I remember each Friday she and her daughters would take a strange tool with many large spoons hanging from it. They would fill the spoons with soup, sweets and other foods and take it over to those in need. After her death grandfather had given up on life, and certainly was in no shape to walk across the Alps.
AC: Do you have other memories of them in Sarajevo?
EFV: Sure, I remember them both vividly. In particular I remember the Pesach Seder at their house. They set up the table in the largest room of their flat: a huge rectangular table where lots of guests could be seated. My grandfather would lead the ritual reading, and every now and then Grandma would make a gesture at him. He would turn to her and say: “What is it, Rifka?” and she’d scold him: “you have skipped over many pages”. To that he would invariably reply: “I know” and she’d counter: “but you cannot”. “When we go in the other world, do you want to go with me, or you want to go somewhere else?” he would reply. She always answered: “with you”, so he would add: “Then forget the pages, come with me”. And she would go along with him. It was a sort of game between them. I remember their dynamic so well!
AC: And eventually your guides took you over to Switzerland?
EFV: Again we were lucky and we made it over into Switzerland.
AV: But don’t think that the Swiss gave them a warm welcome…
EFV: The Swiss are not very warm and welcoming people… not even in the Italian section of that country. We had entered as a family, but were soon separated. Seeing that Grandpa was not well, they put him in a hospital. The rest of us were first placed in quarantine, then sent to a former factory, which had interrupted its normal industrial production because of the war. It had been converted into a sort of shelter for foreign refugees.
AC: Who were the other refugees?
EFV: They came from many different countries. We did not know any of them, but we all knew that we had escaped the same set of circumstances. Many were Jewish, some from Yugoslavia: immediately people bonded with those from the same area. Then, one day, without warning, they said that my brother and I had to leave. Mom and Dad forcefully objected, there was no way to separate us.
AC: Were the people in charge of you Swiss soldiers or civilians?
EFV: I believe the refugees were being handled by the military. Many wore uniforms, even the doctors and nurses were military personnel.
AC: Did you manage to stay together?
EFV: Unfortunately not. They put me and my brother on a train, and we took off. Our parents did not know where we were headed and had no way of reaching us. Midway in our travel, after several hours on the train -I was clutching to my brother’s hand- the train stopped and the Swiss told my brother he had to get up. As he stood up, I got up as well, but they told me forcefully: “not you, you stay right here”. I protested “ I am with him” in Italian, but they ignored me or did not understand me. Reluctantly my brother was pulled off the train -he did not want to leave me- but had no choice. I began to cry, but nothing seemed to move them. It was a very hard moment for me. And then with a very loud sound the train started moving again and I found myself alone going toward the unknown.
AV: They sent your brother to a boarding school run by monks.
EFV: Yes, but we found that out much later. At that time neither I, nor our parents had any idea of where they had taken him.
AC: And what was your destination?
EFV: On the train, seeing how desperate I was, they gave me a piece of fruit pie and some milk. I dunked the pie in the milk but then did not eat any of it…
I was sent to live with a Swiss family. They put a nametag on my chest, which horrified me. To this day, if I go to a convention or to an event where they hand me a nametag, I refuse to wear it…
AC: Do you know where in Switzerland you were?
EFV: The train eventually reached Lugano, and we got off. There were three ladies at the station with a person from an organization, I never knew which organization exactly. They addressed me in Italian and informed me that I was now going to be living with these three people who were 45 – 50 years old, three sisters. I was going to live with them in the village of Melide, on Lake Lugano. To reach Melide, we took yet another train, but this time at least I could speak with them, since they all spoke Italian in that part of the country. The three women were not very warm, but I could tell they were kind and well disposed. All I could think about were my parents: had they separated them, or were they still together? And when would I see them again? And where was my brother? I simply could not get over the anguish.
AC: I assume it was the first time you had been alone…
EFV: Yes and things got even worse when we reached their house. Here I meet an older lady, a really mean witch! It was their mother, she immediately began to scold me: “Why had I come there?” She did not want me there. At first I thought her anger was aimed at me, but soon I realized it was her personality: she constantly scolded her own daughters, who were good. The daughters took her abuse without ever talking back at her… Whenever she would yell at them, they would always replay, “Yes Mother, yes”, she was truly a horror. The poor daughters worked all day and well into the evening, while she kept on screaming at them, from the chair on which she sat. Same thing everyday. In the evening, to catch some fresh air and also to get a break from this wretched woman, the daughters would go to Church. And I would go with them. I learned everything, since there was nothing else to do but to sit and listen to the service.
AC: Did you go to school?
EFV: Eventually, yes. In school too, they taught us religion. The priest told me I could either attend the class or wait outside in the courtyard. I would have stepped out, but it was winter and very cold, so I ended up staying in class and learning the Catholic teachings.
AC: Whose decision had it been to separate you from your brother and both of you from your parents?
EFV: It had to do with us not having financial means. Had we had money with us, there would have been the option of renting an apartment and staying together.
AV: My aunt and cousins from Milano had money and managed to avoid these painful separations…
EFV: In truth my grandfather had money in some Swiss bank accounts, but none of us knew the account numbers. Suddenly one day, after the war and after we had left Switzerland, one of my uncles remembered the number to one of those Swiss accounts and was able to access it. But in the time of need nobody remembered the numbers.
AC: Do you know whom your grandfather had entrusted with the account numbers?
EFV: I guest that in typical Bosnian style, my grandfather gave the number to one of his sons (my uncles) with not a word to the daughters. Of my uncles, one had been deported from Italy, another one lost the number, a third one was taken prisoner while serving in the army. One of them returned to Yugoslavia, while another one took his life the day after being liberated. He had a bad case of tuberculosis, he could barely stand on his feet. He had been told that we had all perished and simply lost hope. He was the youngest. I think my grandfather had probably given one bank account number to each of them, but some accounts were never found. Which of course is nothing compared to the tragedy of having lost that uncle.
AC: Without money the family got separated?
EFV: Yes. The Swiss authorities made the decision: mother was placed in a hotel -since there was no tourism during the war, many hotels housed refugees- and was given work, without pay. My father was sent to a work camp, my brother to a convent and I was placed with that family.
AC: Do you know what kind of work camp your father was in?
EFV: It was up in the mountains. He was supposed to walk down to the valley carrying milk in those old heavy metal bottles, and then climb back to the mountains with the empty containers.
Late in the war my brother was also sent to a work camp, but he did not mind because there he found our cousins.
AV: The cousins were all “good Communists”
EFV: In the camp they sang Communists songs, the ones celebrating Tito, the great hero…
AC: While in Switzerland did you all hope to return to Yugoslavia?
EFV: Right after the war, my maternal aunt and some cousins rushed back to Sarajevo. Once they got there they sent us a telegram describing the situation they had found and we decided not to go back.
AC: How did you reconnect with your parents?
EFV: They never stopped asking for me, and eventually they were able to locate me. At first they were not allowed to visit me, but to my great joy could write to me; I remember crying with joy when I got their first letter! I was so happy to learn that they were alive and well…
Seeing my reaction the family I was with, would withhold those letters and give them to me five or six at a time.
Finally my parents came to pick me up, at which point the family did not want me to leave. They could not understand why we wanted to go back to war-torn Italy, they wanted to keep me. But my parents were firm, all we cared about was being together as a family once again. So we took a train and returned to Italy.
AC: What awaited you in Italy?
EFV: We arrived in Milano; the city had been heavily bombed. There was widespread destruction and misery. It was hard for us to get by, until one day a man who was coming from Southern Italy, contacted us and brought us an envelope with some money from a cousin.
AC: In Milano there was Delasem, the Italian Jewish relief organization; do you think they had a role in putting your cousin in touch with you?
EFV: I am not sure. That cousin had ended up in Taranto and might have heard of our return through other Yugoslav families who had returned from Switzerland. He could not send us much money – his wife was ill and he was supporting his own family- but advised us to go south to Puglia, where he pointed us to a D.P. Camp where we could get some assistance.
AC: It was your own decision to go to the D.P. Camp?
EFV: Once it became clear that there was no prospect for my father to find work, my parents decided to follow our cousin’s advice and go to the D.P. Camp in Puglia.
AC: What do you remember of that camp?
EFV: It was chaotic, with lots of people arriving from all over: many from Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Eastern Europe. We realized we needed to find a destination, a place where to start life again after the entire ordeal.
AC: Eventually your destination was Los Angeles, California…
EFV: That’s where life began again for us.
AC: Allow me to fast forward to the 50’s when you met Andrew and fell in love.
EFV: I first met him when he came to L.A. to visit his relatives. He was still living in Boston and had come only for a brief visit.
AV: When I returned a second time I asked her out for a movie and… I think we both just knew right away.
AC: When did you reveal to one another what you had respectively gone through in Europe?
EFV: I already knew about Andrew’s family, from his cousins, with whom I was very close.
AV: She knew more than I did! And I knew the basic fact about Erna’s family, but not the details. In a few weeks we told each other what we felt was essential.
AC: Outside of your family histories, when did you learn what had happened to the Jews in Europe?
AV: Though I had grown up in the States, I was aware of what had happened in Italy and in Europe… By 1944 I had read a fair amount. The New York Times had published many pieces, though they were tucked away on page 37… You really had to look for them.
EFV: He would read the books that were beginning to come out, and pencil in questions and comments on the margins…
AV: I would also cut out newspaper articles and keep them inside related books. By 1946-7 I had formed a pretty clear idea of what the Shoah had been. Thinking about it today, I realize it is a story that still needs to be completed, researched and told.
AC: In the immediate post-war period many people felt it was best left alone. They wanted to forget in order to start fresh…
AV: There was that too. And then certain events gave a stimulus to remember and research, for example the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. It has been a non-linear process, but I believe firmly in the necessity to reconstruct what happened, research it and teach it in all universities.
EFV: There was a time when survivors did not want to speak out, it was too hard for them. I can definitely understand. Even for me it is easier now at a distance of many years…
AV: For example in Israel many felt a kind of shame for the way the Jews had simply surrendered to the Nazis, without a fight. And then, progressively, the survivors began to speak out. This started to happen when they felt strong enough or when they sensed the danger that their stories could be forgotten or manipulated.
AC: I know you visited together the places we have talked about, Bosnia, Italy and Switzerland…
AV: It was not until 1967 that we decided to go back and visit all these places. By then somehow her story had become also “mine”, and she inhabited my story as well.
EFV: We first went back to Europe in the late ‘50’s.
AV: In 1959 I was invited to a conference in London, from there we went to Paris -Erna was six months pregnant- and then to visit all my family in Italy in Turin, Milan and Rome.
EFV: It was on that trip that Andrew first introduced me to Primo Levi, while visiting family in Turin.
AV: The next trip I went on my own: I had been invited to a conference in Germany. At the time I was with Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab which became part of NASA and DVFLR (Deutsche Versuchsanstalt fur Luft und Raumfahrt) the German equivalent of NASA had invited me. From there I went to Milano right at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. I hated to be away from Erna and the kids, so I took the first flight back, flying over the Atlantic precisely as the Russian ships were approaching Cuba.
EFV: I was very anxious!
AV: I had sent her brother a telegram telling him I was flying back, but he did not tell her in order to protect her, behaving curiously like the Swiss family who withheld the letters from Erna’s parents… Even today, few people realize how close we were to a war with the Russians back then…
AC: Over the years you began visiting Italy more regularly; have these trips changed your opinions on that country?
AV: Italy has changed a lot.
EFV: Yet in some ways it has not changed much at all. Remember when they wanted to make you an honorary citizen of Bergamo and the polemic in the local press?
AV: Italy is a country like no other, full of contradictions. Today no other European country is as friendly toward Israel, yet as Jews we still have many enemies, particularly in the extreme left and the extreme right. Italy is a sophisticated country that produces culture and ideas. One thing that always strikes me is the incredibly low level of television programming … not that in the US it is so great, but there…
EFV: For me it’s a beautiful country and many of the people are fantastic.
AC: Do you think it is at all possible to reconcile your respective early experiences in Italy?
AV: If there are a million survivors, there are a million different stories… Their differences do not exclude, but complete one another. Read