skip to Main Content

Reluctant Jews

Sandro Gerbi

Sandro Gerbi (Lima,1943), a historian and journalist, is the author, among other works, of: Tempi di malafede, Guido Piovene ed Eugenio Colorni, Comisso Award (Turin: Einaudi,1999; rev.ed., Milan: Hoepli, 2012); Raffaele Mattioli e il filosofo domato (Turin: Einaudi, 2002; rev. ed., Milan: Hoepli 2017); Indro Montanelli, una biografia (with Raffaele Liucci), two volumes (Turin: Einaudi, 2006, 2009; rev.ed., Milan: Hoepli, 2014); Mattioli e Cuccia, due banchieri del Novecento (Turin: Einaudi, 2011); Giovanni Enriques dalla Olivetti alla Zanichelli, Biella Award (Milan: Hoepli, 2013); I Cosattini. Una famiglia antifascista di Udine, Matteotti Award (Milan: Hoepli, 2016). He has contributed for over twenty years to the cultural sections of daily papers La Stampa, Il Sole 24 Ore and Il Corriere della Sera.

PROLOGUE

An Overdue Circumcision

“Do you want a rabbi?” 

I must have looked utterly baffled if Professor Luciano Supino, with his rosy features and aristocratically hooked nose, felt he had to explain: 

“Of course, for your milah!” Utter bewilderment.

“Well, for your circumcision!” 

Suddenly, on that June 1968 morning in Milan, a ray of light pierced my brain. Our haughty family doctor was asking me — as was right and proper — if I would like a representative of our ancient religion to be present at the small operation I was about to undergo in the Via Dezza clinic, just to lend a touch of orthodoxy to the surgical correction of a banal phimosis, thus setting the seal on the pact between God and Israel which binds every Jew to lead a virtuous life, to obey, and pass on the Word. 

“What on earth for,” I replied. I was more amused than annoyed. I should have guessed that Supino would suggest something of the sort. Whether or not he was a practicing Jew, I really did not know, but he was certainly close to the Milan Jewish Community. And in fact he himself had once told me what happened to him after the introduction of the infamous “racial laws” of 1938 when he had been forced to leave Italy, interrupting his already thriving university career (thus suffering the same fate
as befell my uncle Claudio Gerbi, his friend and fellow- student at the University of Milan Faculty of Medicine). 

“I had applied to all the South American consulates in Milan for a visa,” Supino explained “and had decided that I would take the first that was offered me. So I ended up in Guayaquil, in Ecuador. I had to sit the main exams all over again, and set up a small private practice, which was enough to allow me to survive, with my wife Jenny, a German Jew, until I went back to Italy as soon as the war was over.” 

My father Antonello had suffered a similar fate: dismissal from the Banca Commerciale, ten years of exile in Peru, marriage with a Viennese Jew. Within our family, however, my older brother and I had been given no religious education. We were certainly aware of our origins, but paid scant attention to them, like the diehard agnostics we all were in the family (although the subject of our ancestral origin cropped up frequently in our conversation at home, or else surfaced in the savage barbs and jokes that are so typical of our co-religionaries — the only people allowed to tell them without being accused of anti-Semitism.) 

So it was that, with the operation imminent, the idea of a rabbi or rather an authorized surgeon (mohel) removing my foreskin with his well-sharpened scalpel, had never even crossed my mind — even though I was at that time engaged to Nomy, a dark-haired beauty, emerald eyed, who was studying in Geneva and was the daughter of a rabbi in a small town in French-speaking Switzerland. She, with her ancestral links, would of course have appreciated. All I could think of, however, was an innocent witticism, at least as regards Portnoy’s exhilarating “complaints.” It was my father who related it, having heard it from his father: “A circumcised penis has three advantages: first of all, it is healthier; secondly it is more beautiful; and thirdly it gives greater pleasure to the partner.” 

As to the accuracy of the second and third advantages, I did not at the time have any precise opinion. With regard to the hygiene issue, yes, I did have an opinion, and that was what had decided me to remedy matters. 

Thus it came about that I set a new record, becoming one of the first Jews in Italy to get himself circumcised not on completion of the eighth day of his life, as the Book of Genesis lays down, but at the tender age of twenty-four. And without the assistance of a rabbi. 

CHAPTER I

Homeless (1938)

1. In the late spring of 1938, when the clamor of anti-Semitism was reaching its peak in the fascistized newspapers of the day, a black Fiat “Balilla” could every now and then be seen parked in the gloom near the San Siro Hippodrome on the outskirts of Milan. In it were four men: three adults and an older man. They were the Gerbi brothers — my father Antonello (born in 1904), Giuliano (1905) and Claudio (1907) — accompanied by their father Edmo (1874), a retired stockbroker. They had chosen this spot to escape any indiscreet ears, such as those of their very Aryan cleaning-lady. 

What should they do? Stay in Italy? Leave? And go where? The three brothers belonged to Milan’s so-to-speak jeunesse dorée. If they left, they would have to begin all over again. Antonello, with his Law degree, had been in charge of the Research Department at the Banca Commerciale Italiana (Comit) since 1932, under the protective wing of Raffaele Mattioli, head of the bank. Giuliano had already built a lengthy career as a sports journalist, both in the printed press (L’Ambrosiano) and on the Radio (EIAR). Claudio was a successful internist, holder of the Légion d’Honneur, no less, for having organized an important Franco-Italian medical congress in Nice in 1935. 

All three were good-looking bachelors. Giuliano and Claudio were so-called “long Gerbis,” each being over six feet tall, while Antonello on the other hand was four inches shorter. In any event, Giuliano was the real “lady killer” of the three. Once — in the late twenties or early thirties — he had been at a Paris cabaret featuring the famous “black Venus,” Joséphine Baker (she of the banana mini-skirt, of course). Drawn by Giuliano’s Mediterranean charm, the famous dancer had asked him to take the floor with her. They hit it off at once. They became good friends, and when Baker passed through Milan on one of her Italian tours it was my uncle who showed her around town, the envy of his journalist colleagues. 

To be fair, my father Antonello too was quite successful with the ladies, helped by his attractive features and mocking charm. In 1929 he had been awarded a Rockefeller scholarship, following recommendations from economist Luigi Einaudi and philosopher Benedetto Croce (the latter having persuaded Laterza to publish his very first book, La politica del Settecento, in 1928). Before leaving for London he spent six months in Berlin, in the licentious Weimar Republic. It was there that he placed an announcement in a local paper to the effect that a “young Northern-Italian gentleman seeks female company with a view to improving his German (cinema, theater, concerts, etc). Send photo.” Sixteen hapless young ladies replied and no less than twelve were deemed sufficiently becoming. 

In 1931, after somewhat over a year in London and a trip to Scotland, in the company of writer-painter Carlo Levi and historian Nello Rosselli, Antonello arrived in Vienna to round off his two-year scholarship. And in the Hapsburg capital he met an outgoing and attractive 19-year-old, Herma Schimmerling, who worked in a photographer’s studio. Herma was very musical, and could sing many of the best-known arias of innumerable operettas from memory, and with perfect pitch — a fact that increased my father’s interest, he himself being a passionate music-lover. 

Herma, who was born in 1912, had always lived in Vienna. She came from a fully secularized Jewish family of Czech origin (with Hungarian forebears). Her father was a modest sales representative. She understood Yiddish, the language of the Eastern Jews that derived from Old High German, but she did not speak it. Perched on her father’s shoulders at the age of three, she remembered seeing the Imperial coach passing through the streets of Vienna: from its window the now-elderly Franz Joseph — a faceless beard, in Karl Kraus’ irreverent portrait — greeted his ecstatic subjects. 

After that, Antonello met his fiancée three or four times a year, spending a few days holiday with her in Italy or Austria, although he could not bring himself to formalize the relationship (they were to marry only in January 1940, in Peru). In 1935, after the Third Reich’s adoption of the anti-Jewish “Nuremberg laws,” Herma wisely moved to England, taking a job as an au pair in a British family. Her aim was to learn English properly, but above all to escape the looming horror of the Nazi annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, which indeed occurred in March 1938, amidst great jubilation on the part of the Führer’s compatriots. Even after the war my mother was still convinced that the majority of Austrians had remained at heart pro-Nazi. She was treading the same path — si parva licet — as Thomas Bernhard, whose caustic pen described them as “my so-called fellow-citizens,” adding “Nazism is Austria’s greatest evil, alongside Catholicism [….], just as Fascism is Italy’s.” 

2. My father Antonello should have foreseen what was about to happen. His position in the main Italian bank of the time (Comit), together with full access to the foreign press, provided him with a highly advantageous lookout post. Despite that, he thought it unlikely that the Italian Jews — now fully integrated into the life of the nation, but few in number (some 47,000, or one in a thousand of the total population) — might actually be persecuted. He was also counting on the fact that, following the approval at the end of 1930 of a sort of concordat between the Fascist regime and the Jewish Communities, he had been one of the few to sign a formal act of separation from organized Judaism. He above all found it repugnant that one of the new rules required Jews to enroll in the Community itself. 

The journalist Giuliano, like his older brother, was very unsure about the urgency of leaving. He was on the verge of a great professional achievement. EIAR had in fact given him the prestigious job of following the upcoming Tour de France — due to take place from July 5th to 31st in 1938, — as radio reporter. He completed the task and in the process became a household name, famed for his brilliant radio commentaries. The listening public loved his warm voice and impeccable diction, reflecting his Tuscan background, as it provided the daily report on the historic victory of his fellow-Tuscan Gino Bartali. But this was Giuliano’s swan-song, as he would find himself forced to leave Italy three months later. 

Claudio, the youngest brother, was the only one to grasp what was happening. As a doctor, in fact, he (with some of his colleagues) had cared for the numerous German Jews who had taken refuge in Italy at that time, to escape the racial persecution, and had given them free health-care. He had noted the ever-closer ties between Mussolini and Hitler — this was only a few months before the “Pact of Steel” (May 1939) — and he rightly feared that things would grow worse with us too. 

Their father Edmo, finally, widowed in 1926, had up until that time been living with his three offspring in a genteel apartment at 30 Via De Togni, a stone’s throw from the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. Although he had a lady-friend, Anna Binni (not Jewish), Edmo’s health was poor and he was very deaf. It was unthinkable that he could stay alone in Milan if his three sons left. 

3. For all four of them there was the problem of passports and visas. Claudio had some professional contacts within the United States, through whom he requested a visa from the American Consulate. But the US Government insisted on a declaration from the Head of the Ospedale Maggiore di Milano, an attorney called Massimo della Porta, who would have had to certify in writing that the young doctor was leaving Italy for scientific reasons. Della Porta refused to have anything to do with it. Only by confronting him in person did my uncle manage to win him round. Things proceeded more smoothly at the Police Passport Office, since “Dr. Gerbi” had for many months been the personal doctor of the diabetic deputy police-chief Paolo Fisicaro. “I remember him,” wrote Claudio in his memoirs, “signing and stamping my passport, before raising his eyes to me and saying ‘So, Doctor, you are off to America. Lucky you!’ But I didn’t bat an eyelid.” 

There was no problem for Giuliano, as — being a journalist — he already held a passport. As for my father, I shall explain shortly. My grandfather Edmo had to undertake an exhausting tour round various offices before getting a visa from the French Consulate, thanks to his son Claudio’s Legion of Honor. He was the last to leave in mid-1939: first provisional stop, the United States (via Paris). 

Thus in very short order four more or less secularized Jews, fully integrated members of Italian society, unwillingly became “wandering Jews.” 

4. My grandmother Iginia Levi, Edmo’s wife, came of good bourgeois Venetian Jewish stock (her father, Giacomo Levi, had been a top manager at Assicurazioni Generali, a leading insurance company.) Like a lot of girls of her time she had not had any regular schooling, but was well versed in household management, and had also taken piano and painting lessons. After her marriage in 1902 it was she who — in her new home in Leghorn — kept up the rites and traditions. She attended the synagogue services every Saturday morning and had brought up the three sons — all circumcised — according to the dictates of the Mosaic religion. 

Her own family members were not in fact particularly observant. Her sister Olga Levi (wife of the socialist leader Claudio Treves) was not inspired by any noticeable divine afflatus, and as far as I know observed only the annual
fast (Kippur). The same was true of her younger brother Alessandro Levi (Professor of Philosophy of Law, positivist, with socialist leanings). Iginia’s fervor became more marked after her marriage, possibly to help her overcome her grief after losing her firstborn child, Gian Giacomo, when he was only a few days old: a hare-lip, inoperable in those days, had made it impossible for her to suckle him. In the years that followed, Iginia’s fears for her now adult children grew to almost pathological proportions, leaving her a yiddische mame. Her health declined, too. In 1912 she had her left kidney removed after a fall. She lived on until July 4th, 1926, when she died at the early age of forty-seven. On March 29th of the previous year she had managed to celebrate one last Passover Seder, “following all the rules and somewhat formally,” wrote antifascist Carlo Rosselli — one of the guests that day — to his mother Amelia. 

My grandfather Edmo, Iginia’s husband, a well-read man of refined taste, was a native and resident of Leghorn.

His family actually originally came from Tripoli in Libya (and before that probably from Spain). One particularly adventurous forebear, Moshè Haim Gerbi, had landed in Grand Duke Leopold’s Tuscany around 1799. Edmo supported his wife in her religious leanings and her way of bringing up the children, reciting the Hebrew prayers for each prescribed feast-day. He did, however, have a too curious and independent mentality to adapt to her strict approach. Often during the Sabbath, he would abandon the family at the Temple and head off to the Leghorn “Philological Club” to leaf through newspapers and magazines in blessed peace. He saw himself as a liberal Jew and read texts on the differing faiths with the same intellectual curiosity. 

5. To come to the following generation, my father Antonello professed to be an “agnostic” and, with my mother’s full agreement, never gave his two children any religious education. Sometimes, with a smile on his face, he would tell the story of how an acquaintance of his had behaved in 1931, on the occasion of the periodical official census of the Italian population. One of the questions asked in the questionnaire was the subject’s professed religion. And Antonello’s acquaintance (or was it he himself?) wrote “Buddhism.” When the results were published it transpired that the citizens of Italy were predominantly Catholic. And that in addition to a few tiny minorities the country harbored… one Buddhist! 

Like the rest of the family, Antonello had been enrolled in the Jewish Community of Milan since 1919, the year of the move from Rome to the city of St. Ambrose, where his father was to start work at the Stock Exchange (before the war they had lived mainly in Leghorn). In 1932, as stated, he broke away from the Community without any particular misgivings, in fact proudly proclaiming his laity: an attitude similar to that of numerous relatives or assimilated and cosmopolitan friends, from his cousins Paolo and Piero Treves (sons of his uncle Claudio Treves) to the future Resistance martyr, the philosopher Eugenio Colorni, the Olivetti engineer Giovanni Enriques, and the painter Carlo Vitale. 

Paolo Treves expressed perfectly the way he himself felt in the last page of his autobiography published in London in English in 1940: “The author of this book is a Jew. The truth is that only when the anti-Semitic struggle began in Italy, did this fact of being a Jew emerge from the unity of his personality as a man, and only then did he begin to feel particularly proud of it. He had never considered this fact before.” (My italics.) 

To get back to my father and his “repudiation,” he must certainly have found it a lot harder — as the “constitutional anarchist” that he claimed to be — to take another step, namely to join the National Fascist Party. He could not do without it if he wanted to continue working in a State-owned bank like the Banca Commerciale. It took some “moral suasion” on the part of his friend Raffaele Mattioli, head of the bank, to convince him to do so, with Mattioli having to escort Antonello to the very threshold of the Party office, affectionately pushing him along and at the same time consoling him. 

Detachment from the faith of his forefathers could not of course sweep away the years of Jewish upbringing, which often resurfaced in the family language or in his writing, whether of his youthful or of his mature years, both public and private. To give just one colorful example from a letter to his brothers dated Lima, July 30th, 1945, when my father was girding himself up to set out on his first trip from Peru to New York, with the war barely over: “I
am both flattered and moved by your rivalry to host me.

I feel almost like the beautiful Cunegonde (in Candide) who shared her favors between the Grand Inquisitor and the Jew Issacar, on alternating days, — but with much quarrelling, because the two could never agree whether the night from Saturday to Sunday fell under the old or the new law!” 

6. The journalist Giuliano had also proved unshakeable in his laicism until the outbreak of war and his enforced exile. Thereafter, however, he grew closer
to his roots. He never became a bigot, but he resumed the custom of reciting the Kiddush (the prayer on the eve of the Sabbath), fasting on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), and celebrating Passover every year with the canonic Seder. He also began to follow a kosher diet, not a totally rigid one but excluding pork and shellfish. 

Claudio, the doctor, found himself in a sort of halfway-house between Antonello, the agnostic, and Giuliano, the faithful follower of tradition. There were few relics of Judaism in him. In the postwar years, in New York, on the eve of every Sabbath, he would recite an almost mechanical Kiddush in Hebrew, a way of recalling his vanished world. The only ceremony observed was the Passover Seder, a way of bringing close and distant members of the family together around the table. This did not however imply respecting the canonical dates, which were instead adapted to the needs of the various participants. This resulted in the gathering taking place on any convenient weekend, when the Seder had already passed or was still to come. 

Deep down, however, Claudio was much more “revolutionary.” When — some thirty-plus years ago — he met my wife, Margherita Dezi, a true goya (a non-Jew), an unbeliever albeit of a Catholic family, he greeted her bluntly as follows: “Thank you, my dear Margherita, for strengthening our now weary Jewish blood with your robust Abruzzi blood!” Had he lived longer he would have had the satisfaction of meeting the wife of one of his American nephews, an attractive black cardiologist, and a member of the US Army, whose two young children took after her, not the father. 

Claudio nonetheless foreshadowed our family’s fate. True, with the misery of wartime and the loneliness of exile playing their part, the three Gerbi brothers were all to marry co-religionaries (though not strict observers), following the tradition of endogamy well established amongst Jews. Their five children, however — Antonello’s two boys, Claudio’s two girls and Giuliano’s daughter — would all choose “Aryan” partners (the sole exception being my brother Daniele, who married a girl Jewish only on her father’s side, Miriam Polacco: and she was so attached to Judaism that she submitted to a laborious conversion, complete with all the ritual ablutions). 

Following the various branches down, the thread of a common origin is thus becoming ever slenderer among the Gerbis: assimilation looms, but nobody is all that worried about it. 

Back To Top
X