There is hardly need to recall that Fossoli had by then become Auschwitz’s antichamber. Liliana Picciotto (The Jews in the province of Milan: 1943/1945) writes that, between December 1943 and January 1945, fifteen trains left Milan heading to the extermination camps. In his state of health, completely paralysed and unfit for work, my father would have been immediately sent to the gas chambers.
One day in March his departure for Fossoli was announced: it was due to take place the following morning. My mother, in tears, kissed him goodbye, the thread was about to break…
The next day mother returned to Vaprio, crossed the threshold of the hospital without finding the courage to ask anybody about him, went up the stairs, fearfully looked through the open door into the room… and my father was still there, smiling for the first time after so long. Who or what had saved him?
Many years ago my mother told me she was convinced that he had been “saved by the partisans” and the confirmation, albeit without absolute certainty, came a few moths ago from the mouth of one of the protagonists, Mario Bornaghi, the present chairman of the Vaprio d’Adda Partisans Association (ANPI).
A partisan group which had infiltrated its members amongst the patients and the nurses of the hospital had been active in the Vaprio area for a few months. Someone, probably the Vaprio parish priest, who was also the chairman of the hospital, on whom the Fascists kept a file as “white subversive” (that is, a Catholic partisan), found convincing arguments to persuade the head doctor to ask that my father should undergo a new medical check. And this time the report was honest and truthful; the Sondrio prefecture and the Ministry could only take note of it:
The Milan police headquarters, with a note dated 14 inst., informed us that the Jew under discussion is still hospitalized in the Neurological Hospital and cannot be discharged because he is unable to move, due to a paralysis of his lower limbs. On the 6th of October 1944, the 103rd Partisan SAP brigade (Squads for Patriotic Action) attacked the headquarters of the National Republican Guard in Vaprio d’Adda, disarming the militiamen and destroying the files kept in their offices.
In this way all trace of my father and of the other internees in hospital was lost. From that moment onwards, at least for the local authorities, he had become a patient like all the others.
In the meantime, on the 8th of December 1943 in Milan, two officers of the Porta Magenta police station, helped by a tenant and by the house caretaker, proceeded to confiscate the goods contained in Bernardo’s apartment in via Monte Rosa 14, drawing up the following list:
Three drug cabinets, one copper toilet box branded FISAN, one three-flame gilt wooden chandelier, one sofa bed, one foot-warmer, three light-painted cupboards, four foldable chairs, one five-flame gilt wooden chandelier, one complete piece of furniture (?!), one dark walking-stick with a white metal handle and the monogram A.R. on it [obviously a memento of grandfather Armin], four ski poles, one icebox branded “Gola”, two (broken) slabs of marble, one earthenware mug [misspelt], one shelf for kitchen utensils, several kitchen utensils and tableware, a grey [misspelt] women’s dressing-gown, one suspender belt, one petticoat.My uncle was declared “untraceable” and the caretaker was appointed as “consignee” of that rich booty. Two months later, a Romualdo Gozzi, a “disaster victim”, that is a citizen whose apartment had been damaged by bombing, asked that the flat “previously in possession of the Jew Brumek” should be requisitioned for his benefit. On the 4th of February 1944, showing commendable promptness, the Head of the Province decreed that the apartment in via Monte Rosa should be confiscated. The Milan Monte dei Pegni (Mont-de-Piété) was appointed as consignee of the goods which it contained.
On the 23rd of February, by decree n° 12358 the apartment was requisitioned, but “Gozzi Romualdo” was disappointed. Its use was assigned to another “disaster victim”, a Teodorico Della Torre. As soon as he took over from Bernardo, the new tenant obviously felt in need of some furniture, and applied to the section of the city hall charged with the enforcement of requisitions:
The above mentioned disaster victim Della Torre has just reported that Brumer is allegedly of Jewish race and that consequently the furniture and objects found in the rooms on requisitioning the apartment and listed in the respective minutes should be considered under seizure and collected by a previously appointed or to be appointed assignee. Many more legal transactions followed, and these vicissitudes were complicated still further by a mistake in copying my uncle’s surname, which is why, at one point, two parallel cases were prepared, one in the name of a “Brunner Bernardo” and another against “Brumek Bernardo”, both staying in via Monte Rosa 14; but in the end the misunderstanding was cleared up, Credito Fondiario, associated with the Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde17, was entrusted with the management of the confiscated goods, and Mr. Della Torre was able to keep milk cool in my uncle’s ice-box and to put the clothes in his cupboards until Liberation Day.
On the 1st of March 1944, large-scale strikes in the occupied part of Italy resumed , more imposing and determined than those held in March 1943, involving over one million workers. On the 23rd of March the Roman GAP (partisan groups of action) killed 33 Germans in via Rasella. The following day the Ardeatine cave massacre took place: 335 hostages were killed.
In summer 1944 the number of men and women who had joined Resistance exceeded 80,000; the partisans’ strength and fighting skills increased every month. In some areas they had gained complete control over the territory and established their own “republics”, as in Carnia and Ossola.
It’s impossible to say what reaction these events caused in the hiding-place in S.Vittore Cesena. Now the Brumers appeared in public as little as possible; Bernardo, well known in the Cesena area due to his previous job at ADAC, was in most danger. He was secretly visited by his protector Degli Angeli, who brought him food and money, and by young Norina who once, without the knowledge of her parents, covered the distance from Cesenatico to S.Vittore on a brakeless bicycle to bring him three ring-shaped loaves of white bread baked by three of his ex-workers.
The precious family friend, the lawyer Raicevich, also put his safety at risk ensuring albeit rare connections with his relatives in Milan. On one of his journeys, on the 27th of March, Elena entrusted him with a letter for my parents. It was written in Italian and it was the last message in her own writing which reached my father:
27th March 1944
Dearest Afra and Ernesto,
In our exile finally a friend came and brought us, along with the joy of seeing a friendly face, your much awaited news.
We are so happy that you are comparatively well and that Ernesto is safe or almost so. Even if I had so wished to know that Ernesto is already beginning to walk, we must still thank the divine Providence that in this albeit painful way has helped himto get through these critical moments almost unharmed.
We are as well as one can be in this situation. At least I can move around fairly easily, always hoping that they won’t catch me, therefore I go shopping to Cesena etc. Mum never goes out as actually she never, or very seldom, went out even when we were in Cesenatico. B[ernardo] never goes to Cesena and very rarely goes out at all – for him the danger is greater since he is not only a man, but also a well known one.
Now, as far as moving elsewhere is concerned, I would go away today, but since for the time being it does not look as if there is immediate danger, we have decided to wait a little longer, all the more as the lawyer has advised us against travelling without documents. I would have been very, very happy to come to Milan or nearby to be near you and see you again but even this, for many reasons, especially the difficulty of travelling with mum etc., we were advised against. After all danger is everywhere and here it still seems less, at least we hope.
My God, it seems impossible that the day will come when I will be able to leave this place! But you Afra have always said “Be patient” and then let’s be patient again and again – and the day will come when we will be able to meet again and we will have so much to tell one another! I miss you so much! I hug you, send my love to your mother and thank you very much for all the goodness and love that you are giving to Ernesto.
Henriette too wrote a heart-rending message for her son in her ornate nineteenth hundred handwriting on a few notepad sheets, in which her sorrow for his illness blended with self-pity. Torn as she was between hope for a miracle and anguish about the future, her isolation was absolute18:
Sunday 26/III/1944, morning.
My beloved son,
Everybody else is in church. I am writing to you from the table of the room which serves the three of us as bedroom. I am still in this world – only God knows for what purpose – and I am awaiting the miracle, for which I pray God all the time [… ] It is an absurd, sad and discouraging situation, nervousness rules [our] whole existence. My hearing has got much worse and no one wants to address me – because they don’t want to speak loudly and I do speak loudly like the deaf do.
The money problem, that is the misère,keeps hanging over us – this is nothing new, is it? My god, this letter won’t cheer you up – you already have enough trouble – but it’s hard. My only refuge is God and from Him I expect the miracle! In any case, our friend will tell you what is to be said. As I am telling you – I am groping for clues and am left to my thoughts and suppositions. What would I give to be able to talk with you – my poor dear son – why is God trying us so hard?
Sent all my love to Afra and wish her every happiness on my behalf. God will give you a better future – I bless you a thousand times!
Unfortunately I can help neither myself nor you. Here I am completely useless – more than unnecessary – and so tense. Try to recover and to be as happy as I would like you to be! Fondly,
Your old mum.
Old Henriette, who had just converted to the Catholic creed, was questioning her new God about the reason for so much suffering and fervently asking him for a miracle. She was still unaware of the death of her sister-in-law Julia, who, after the evacuation of the Krakow ghetto, had probably ended up in the notorious Plaszow camp, run by the sadistic Goeth and made famous by the film Schindler’s List. Her nephew Richard and his wife Charlotte had also met their death in a different camp.
Her letter had a very difficult genesis: my grandmother hadn’t managed to take her leave of Ernst yet and two days later added a postscript, entrusting him with Armin’s watch, as if she was handing it over to him, being uncertain whether they would meet again. This watch, religiously wound up and looked at every day, stayed in the drawer of my father’s bedside table until he died, and is now in mine. It’s still working, it only needs to be wound up more often. It’s a mechanical heart that beats to mark continuity in our family.
Through our friend I am sending you Dad’s pocket-watch, which I have kept very carefully and which has become very dear to me because he always had it on him. As his son, you will keep it safe and treasure it too, and I know I’m leaving it in good hands. I believe you know how to use it. Have a wristband attached to it.
Only at the end of the letter did grandmother mention the lack of understanding with her daughter, without ever naming her, and her fear of being sent, after having lived in Albertgasse!, to a “hospital for poor people”.
R[aicevich] will hopefully tell you in full detail that I have no reason to be happy. What will happen to me, to the three of us? I feel completely lonely and neglected, because someone is not too delighted by such an old, needy mother. And yet, God is keeping me in this dirty world – and I have to accept it. I don’t know what to do. Have you any advice for me? They talk about a hospital – but naturally, as there is no money, a hospital for poor people. Now?? In a foreign country, alone, deaf and without knowing the language? In May 1944 the Allies finally resumed the offensive. On the 17th of May Cassino was occupied, on the 4th of June Rome was freed. The antifascists’ hopes however clashed with the textbook retreat of the 76th German army corps, which left blood and terror in its wake before entrenching itself behind the Gothic Line. At Gubbio 40 civilians were shot in reprisal; at Cortona 38 hostages were locked in a mined drying-house which was then blown up. At Civitella Val Chiana the whole male population (250 people) was slaughtered.
Tuscany’s suffering reached its peak in the Padule di Fucecchio where 314 people, three quarters of whom were women and children, were murdered..
The front was now established by the river Metauro, between Pesaro and Ancona. A fire storm fell from the sky over Romagna, where the German troops retreating from South had poured en masse.
It was the most dreadful time of all, in their death throes the Nazis reacted to the increasingly effective actions of the partisans with massacres and reprisals. On the 8th of August GAP members blew up a lorry full of German soldiers in viale Abruzzi in Milan. The reprisal was immediate: 15 political prisoners had their names struck off the prison roll and were shot in piazzale Loreto .
The summer 1944 was characterized, in the Forlì area too, by extremely hard battles between partisans and Nazi-fascists. At the beginning of July the Nazi headquarters in three different places were assaulted. On July 12th a detachment of the 29th GAP attacked the Casa del Fascio in San Vittore, a few hundred yards away from my uncle’s hiding-place, and a Nazi column on the road from Cesena to Forlimpopoli. On the 15th of July the retaliation begun: 4,000 Germans and Fascists took part in a big rounding up on the mountains, resulting in the shooting of 36 people in two stages and in the burning of a whole village.
In the meantime the workers of the Forlì factories had gone on strike; to frighten them, on the 26th of July, the Germans took ten anti-fascists out of the Forlì prison and shot them. The next day, partisans blew up three lorries of German soldiers, killing many of them.
It was the time when the people’s sympathy with the victims of persecution became warmer, but it clashed with the venomous betrayal of many who aimed at gaining a despicable reward by informing against anti-fascists and Jews.
Don Adamo Carloni reports:
On the 8th of August I talked with Brumer and asked him, as he spoke four languages fluently, to teach me a little English. He said he agreed. In the morning of the 9th, very early, I heard someone violently knocking at the door of the farmstead where I lived with my mother. When I opened, two bigwigs of the Cesena Fascist Party, Garaffoni and Siderani, came in.
“Are you acquaintedwith a certain Umberto Sassoli, who in reality is a Jew called Bernardo Brumer?” On the spur of the moment I didn’t know if it was better to say yes or no. So I kept silent. “Come with us!”: this sentence came with kicks and shoves. I was twenty years old, I was rash, I reacted: “Hey, watch your manners!”.
Then one of them kicked me in the backside so strongly that he threw me into the car. And poor Brumer was already inside. They took us to the Palazzo del Ridotto, and the interrogation began. “Who hid him?” I kept quiet. Punches, kicks. “If you don’t speak we’ll throw you out of the window!” At that moment I felt as brave as a lion and understood what martyrs must have felt. I didn’t say another word. At one point one of them, exasperated, hit me on the edge of the mouth with the gun butt and knocked out two teeth.
The sight of blood cooled them down a bit. But the person who saved me was my bishop. They had informed him that I had been arrested and he sent over a priest with a note written in his own hand: “That boy is still under age, I’ll vouch for him”. In short, they let me go. And as it happened, the next day the front leapt forward and Germans and fascists moved further north. But they made it in time to capture Brumer’s wife too and to take both to Forlì the following day.
Therefore Bernardo was arrested, probably in the street, on the 9th of August, and that evening Elena and Henriette waited in vain for his homecoming, one can imagine their frame of mind. Elena didn’t try to escape (anyway, Adamo Carloni had not been able to warn her) and the next day the Fascists arrested her too, sparing Henriette, doubtless due to her old age.
On the 10th of August the Brumers were locked up in the judicial prison in Forlì. From this moment onward we have an eye-witness of their fate, Sister Maria Pierina Silvetti, Mother Superior in charge of the surveillance and assistance of the prisoners in the women’s section.
In a memorial written in 1955, the nun mentions having mainly looked after inmates charged with non-political crimes from 1941 to 1943. But the descent of the German troops into Italy marked the beginning of a real ordeal for the city of Forlì.
At the beginning of spring 1944 we witnessed the imprisonment of a great many innocent people, including many priests, all guilty only of merciful acys. Among the arrested were several partisans or alleged partisans. For many of them, as Silvetti reports, fate was already determined: cruel interrogations and beatings, then the execution. The Germans however, when they withdrew the prisoners, “wrote laconic sentences in the discharge register, never the plain truth”.
Sister Silvetti informed my mother of what had happened to Elena e Bernardo in a letter dated 2nd June 1943, soon after Liberation.
On the 10th of August, Mrs. Elena Rosenbaum with her husband and others were handed over to the prison by the Germans. The lady came into our section, while her husband remained in the men’s. We had several other Jewish women and some political prisoners and we took care of all of them as best we could under the Germans’ cursed nose. Elena, foreseeing her deportation to Germany, had asked me, as soon as the Allies arrived in Forlì and communications re-established, to telephone the lawyer Gaspare Raicevich Mazzola in Milan to inform him about her own fate and her husband’s. I would have met my obligation with the help of the allied command, now that the North too has been freed, but since I have to reveal to you the sad destiny of your unhappy relatives, I’m passing the errand on to you who can carry it out better than anybody else.
On the 5th of September at about 6.15 p.m. Bernardo was collected from the jail with 12 other prisoners, among whom Pellegrina Rosselli, wife of the marquis Gianraniero Paolucci di Calboli, a Catholic partisan shot by the Nazis on August 14th. The jeeps with Germans armed with sub-machine guns were awaiting them in the garden. A bell rang, the door was opened, all the Jews came forward one by one, their hands tied behind their back, and got into the jeeps, disappearing from Sister Pierina’s sight.
The convoy headed for the airport, located at Ronco di Forlì. There an eye-witness, the farmer Bruna Brunelli watched the tragic conclusion, which she described in a statement she made to the carabinieri. The prisoners were let off the jeep one at a time, led to the edge of the holes caused by the bombs in the airfield, killed with a shot in the head and pushed into the crater. A cordon of militiamen of the National Republican Guard kept watch to prevent unlikely rebellions or flights.
This is how my uncle Bernardo Brumer died. I never met him personally, but all witnesses describe him as a cultured, hard-working and mild man, whose only, unforgivable “fault” was being born of Jewish parents. He had the time to see a few fellow-sufferers fall before him and to regret having trusted Italy, the “precarious shelter” Klaus Voigt wrote about.
Nine more Jews died with him: three Viennese, three Germans, two Poles and a Romanian, whom destiny had dug out and gathered there from every corner of blazing Europe. Their women folk survived twelve more days in jail, in the dark about their dear ones’ fate, under the illusion that they had left to work in Germany. Their names are written in the Book of Memory and on a tombstone in the Forlì grave-yard.
A precious and, as I believe, still unknown document regarding the Forlì massacre is the report of the SS Hauptsturmführer to the Forlì Republican Guard. My father copied it in his handwriting, made shaky by emotion and powerless anger, after finding it in some office which the regime officials had hastily quit after Liberation: An Die Questura Repubblicana in Forlì. Betriffs Sühnemassnahme.
Im Rahmen einer Sühnemassnahme
wurden am 5/IX 1944 folgende kommunistich eingestellten Personen
erschossen: To the Republican Police Headquarters in Forlì.
In the course of a reprisal
on the 5th of September 1944 the following
persons (who had declared to be? Filed as?)
communists were shot:
The above sentence was followed by the annotation: “B[ernardo] B[rumer] arrested by the Forlì police in possession of false documents” and by an attempt to imitate the almost illegible signature of the German officer with the hope of identifying him. My father interpreted the scribble as “Schütz” or “Mütz”.
After the publication of the Italian edition of this book, Mimmo Franzinelli’s essay Le stragi nascoste was published by Mondadori in 2002, throwing new light on this as well many other Nazi-fascists crimes shelved by the Italian military magistracy. 695 files concerning war crimes were found in a cupboard of the high-court public prosecutor’s office in Rome, in 1994.
File n°1979 dealt with the Forlì slaughter and was passed on to the La Spezia Military public prosecutor on the 8th of March 1995. Although by now most of the culprits are obviously either dead or untraceable, we have at least the cold comfort of knowing their names: Grueb, Bodenstein, Sueplitz, Wiedner, Franz Praetz and Brand. Among these, the name which is closest to my father’s guess is Sueplitz.
Unfortunately I have to report the ending of this sad story. Sister Pierina Silvetti’s account continues with the following words:
We still had [in our section] seven Jewish women, wives or relatives of the victims. We didn’t tell them the truth about their dear ones, but [we told them] that they had been sent to Germany, where they would soon join them. We really believed that the women would be spared, because an SS officer had assured us that they would be repatriated.
On the morning of 17th September the nuns were ordered to prepare the women for departure. They were loaded down with luggage, and Silvetti decided to go with them go the door, but as soon as she arrived in the garden she was struck by the “well-known, shocking scene”: the German jeeps and the submachine-guns.
The nun plucked up courage and saw the women getting into the cars. The Germans tied their hands but allowed them to carry their bundles with them, a few meagre possessions which they hoped to use during the journey and in captivity. At this point the scene became convulsive: a woman stumbled as she got into the jeep, a parcel broke open and all the apples rolled into the courtyard. Silvetti rushed to pick them up, the SS men let her do it, they even allowed her to give them back to the wretched owner.
The nun, somewhat relieved by this act of mercy, watched the procession move on, but when she saw the cars turning left instead of going straight on the road leading to the Command, she was overwhelmed with despair. The destination was the usual one: the Casermette (small barracks) that is the airport area, the long straight stretch of via Seganti and the fields in which the holes blasted out by the Anglo-American bombs opened up like craters.
On this occasion too, the testimony of a farmer, Giuseppe Sgubbi, living at Ronco di Forlì in the neighbourhood of the airport, was entered in the minutes of the inquiry. He issued the following statement to the Carabinieri:
From my house on the 19th of September 1944 towards 7 a.m. I saw several German SS soldiers carrying seven women forcefully towards a hole dug by a large-caliber bomb dropped by an airplane in a field located about 120 metres away from my house. They killed them with a pistol-shot each, shot in the head from a very short distance.
The date of the 19th (quoted by Franzinelli too) must be wrong, because Sister Pierina’s diary and the prison register agree in indicating the 17th as the day of discharge, and the nun knew about the execution a few hours after it took place19.
On the evening of the 9th November 1944, the Germans left Forlì after cutting off the water, gas and electric mains and after blowing up the cathedral’s bell tower and the city tower. One of the soldiers previously on guard at the prison, a tall, fair-haired and robust Catholic young man, the only one who had tried in every possible way to help the nuns and protect the convicts, left with his fellow soldiers but, according to Sister Silvetti’s report,
Shortly afterwards we heard that he had fallen from the lorry which was taking them to the border and had died; however everybody was sure that he had not fallen accidentally, but had thrown himself from the lorry of his own free will in order not to go to Germany […] May God have received him in his embrace, forgetting his gesture, due to pain which blinded his reason! In order to know for certain that Elena was among the slaughter victims, my parents had to wait until the day of the exhumation and identification of the women, which took place in the presence of the prison nuns several months after the liberation of Forlì. In the early spring of 1945, the German command asked Silvetti whether she felt up to attending the heart-rending procedure. Notwithstanding the Forlì bishop’s negative response (“He tried to dissuade us saying we would because of it as long as we live”), the nun accepted. As she reports in her letter to my mother,
I went with a sister to fulfil an obligation and a promise I had made them to see to their fate whatever it should be. It was no longer possible to deceive oneself nor to hope, our poor women were there, their heads smashed by the hated bullets, but still recognisable.
Given her unique discretion and humanity, in her letter the nun omitted two harrowing details which are instead quoted in her memorial and in the public prosecutor’s report: all the corpses “presented the bullet holes in their legs and head”; Elena Brumer was recognised through a surgical boot in her right foot. Why the leg shots? Had they perhaps tried to escape? It does not appear from the witness’ account. Was it a gesture of meaningless sadism? The answer to this question will be buried forever in the murderers’ conscience.
The men were also exhumed, but without the nuns’ being present; it was therefore impossible to recognise Bernardo, who was buried in a mass grave with the other shooting victims at the Forlì cemetery. The women instead were buried individually in the same graveyard. Money, jewellery and clothing had been confiscated by the Germans on their arrest, so that, as Silvetti wrote to my mother,
in order to provide for them, besides the food which the prison passed to non-political prisoners, we had recourse to other expedients which Christ’s charity suggested. To comfort you for the pain which I was unfortunately forced to cause to you, I can assure you that the staff of the prison always behaved mercifully and charitably towards the political prisoners, and therefore also towards poor Brumer, trying to lighten the strain of imprisonment for those poor people, so that everybody would rather remain within those walls than follow the Germans. I would like to tell you something more, but in the memory of the martyrs my memory fades. If you would like to know anything I might be aware of, feel free to write, because the duty to answer will be pleasant to me. Forgive me if I stop writing, but the past coming back makes me relive those atrocious moments, so at least for today I have to stop. Kind regards, good Madam, may heaven give comfort to You and your family, with the hope, prompted by Faith, of meeting one day all together in God’s embrace. Thus the curtain fell on the vicissitudes of my unlucky relatives, while my grandmother, in a state of despair made more atrocious by her only partial understanding of the tragedy which had taken place near her, was waiting in the by now deserted house on the hill, looked after by the priest’s mother.
On the 27th of May 1945 my parents welcomed together the arrival of an armoured patrol of the American army in Vaprio d’Adda, which put an end to a nightmare which had lasted five years. They were left with an terrible doubt about the fate of their relatives, news of whom had been missing for over six months. Sadly, only a few days later, the Forlì prefecture informed them of the tragic facts, which Sister Pierina’s letters later confirmed in detail.
There was still a duty to be fulfilled, bringing elderly Henriette back to Milan, and my parents carried it out in extremely difficult circumstances, given my father’s invalidity and the interruption of almost all means of communication, either bombed by the allies or blown up by the retreating Germans.
On the 25th of May the Vaprio d’Adda Committee of National Liberation placed a car and a driver at my parents’ disposal. They were also given a safe-conduct signed by the Vaprio CLN President Giambattista Corda, written in both Italian and English, in which he asked the different local committees and the allied forces to collaborate.
After an endless journey interrupted by crossings on makeshift ferries where bridges no longer existed, my father got to S.Vittore Cesena, at length met his mother who was still staying with the heroic priest’s family and brought her back to Milan.
He asked the Forlì partisans to throw light on the slaughter and punish the culprits, but the Germans had already returned home and all trace of their Fascist accomplices was lost: as we saw previously in this chapter, over fifty years would go by before the names of the SS officials held responsible for the murder were be made public.
Once the tragedy was over, the daily struggle for survival began again: my parents had to look for an apartment and a job and look after the elderly, exhausted woman. But Henriette did not outlive her daughter long and passed away one year later. My parents announced the sad event in the Corriere on the 8th of October 1946, and it was as if the whole scattered family had gathered around her death-bed (the brackets are in the text):
Joining in Heaven her beloved daughter Elena Brumer
and her son-in-law Bernardo Brumer, barbarously slaughtered
by the SS in Forlì on the 20th [the mistake is in the text]
and on the 5th of September 1944 with other Martyrs,
their mother Enrica Uiberall, widow of Armin Rosenbaum,
after so much suffering, died in Milan on the 3rd inst.
Her children: Ernesto Roedner with his wife Afra Rebecchi,
Emmy Mahler with her husband and children (in America)
and Wilma Weldler with her husband (in England)
make the sad announcement in deep sorrow after the funeral’s celebration.
A funeral service will be celebrated on Thursday 10th October 1946 at 8.45
in the church of San Pietro in Sala (piazza Wagner)
Milano (via Madonnina 17), 8-10-’46. With Henriette a cycle of the family history closed, but life went on, marked, as usual, by the ticking of Armin’s watch on my father’s bedside table, and a new Rosenbaum, unexpected guest, was about to make his emtrance.
In 1955 two monuments were erected in via Seganti where the slaughter took place, one in front of the other, separated by the long straight road. The first one, shaded by three cypresses, commemorates a group of partisans killed by the Germans; the other, surmounted by an arch, has the names of the Jews shot on September 5th engraved in it. For an obvious mistake, my aunt Elena’s name was added to the list, but with the surname taken by my father (Roedner), possibly because it was he who denounced the crime and asked that an enquiry should be set up. The inscription on the arch reads. “From all countries, of all faiths, they all fell for freedom”.
At the Forlì graveyard too, a few years ago, the corpses of the identified women and of the many left without a name were moved out of the dark, dismal burial niches where they had been placed after exhumation, and a monument commemorating all the Jews killed in Forlì was erected in their honour.
My generation has been spared world wars and persecutions, fate has granted us a fairly long respite, even if it is wise not to exult too much at our good luck: the φθονος θεων20 is still lying in ambush and the signs of a renewal of intolerance and racism, with that anti-Semitic nuance which is never missing, are multiplying in many places.
We, the children of the survivors, have faced heroism in daily life, when our parents were compelled to carve out a new existence for themselves in a foreign country, starting afresh in an age when one usually begins to think of retirement and rest. But there can be something epic even in the struggle to make ends meet paying the rent of the flat and the bills, sending your children to high school and university to grant them a better future instead of pressing them for a prompt contribution to the family budget.
My father and mother, prevented from regaining possession of the apartment in via Monte Rosa 14, obtained from the Milan council the use of another dwelling in the neighbourhood, in piazzale Brescia n° 2. The apartment was requisitioned from the landlord and assigned to my parents to share with another family (the housing problem in the post-war was dreadful). The furniture came mostly from his sister’s flat: the judge had enjoined that it should be released from seizure and given back to the only existing heirs, my parents.
My father, paralysed in both legs, was equipped with a set of wheel-chairs and boldly began his new career as a salesman for the sausage business “Würstel Kuh” belonging to Emilio Winter, a former fellow-internee. He would get up early, put on a suit and tie then, with the help of my mother, who was thin but endowed with a lot of nervous strength, using a folding wheel-chair, he would enter the sumptuous and somewhat gloomy Stiegler lift, the use of which, as a sign read, “was forbidden to children under 14 years of age and to servants”.
Once he had got to the ground-floor, the most serious obstacle (or, as people would say today, “barrier to the handicapped”) would present itself: five marble steps leading to the main door. Here my mother’s muscles were not enough and my father was helped, according to circumstances, either by Mr. Leoni, the Herculean butcher, accustomed to handling quarters of beeves with elegant nonchalance, or by the elderly landlord who, notwithstanding his open liking for the past régime and his memorable outbursts against the children (in first place his grandson) who dared use the lift, was always ready to lend a hand.
My father was helped to get into the Bosch black motorised wheel-chair parked in front of the house. After starting it by a dozen turns of the starting handle, or by pushing it if the ignition, as people used to say, “didn’t go off”, he began his daily delivery tour.
My mother was still working at Stipel, and with two salaries my parents managed to plod on. They owned a piano, which my father used to play after dinner to entertain his guests: aunt Violetta, who lived with her husband Armando and their son Camillo in via Masaccio, not far away from Villa Triste21where Pietro Koch had tortured political prisoners during the war; the Cordella family, with whom my parents used to play poker, losing most of the time; the Jewish friends met in Urbisaglia and Aprica: Sinigallia, Schwenk, Malke. They were people with a past similar to my father’s: of Austrian or German origin, stripped of their fatherland and possessions by Nazism, forced to think out a new existence for themselves.
My father felt a special affection for Paolo Schwenk, and I have managed to reconstruct their friendship thanks to his wife Laura’s testimony. Schwenk was also a Viennese, who had fled to Italy after the Anschluss, with an unsuccessful marriage behind. Having been interned in Urbisaglia with my father in 1940, he had escaped in 1943 to avoid deportation to the east. He met Laura in the offices of the English military police in Milan, where both of them worked as translators: her first husband, a Hungarian Jew who had fled Italy after the promulgation of racial laws, had died in Auschwitz, leaving her with a son whom the widow kept in a boarding school, as she was unable to support him. The two castaways made an agreement which they kept until Paolo’s death at the end of the 70’s. My father, besides being a friend, was also Schwenk’s colleague, since he too was employed by Winter and played the cello at night to relieve his homesickness of an exiled Viennese.
In 1948 Wilma and Leo Weldler, the uncle who had lived through Dachau and Buchenwald, his enrolment number tattooed on his forearm, shortly before moving to the States, drove all the way from London to Milan to visit my parents and took them on a trip into the country. On that occasion they took some pictures which are now in my possession. Time had obviously left its signs on everybody’s faces, but my father had gained weight in comparison with Aprica and recovered his energetic and pugnacious expression. Good news came from the Mahlers too: Georg had succeeded in finding a good job in California and ransomed Emmy and their three children from the Santo Domingo “purgatory”. Terno, Lizzy’s husband, was working with him.
In summer 1951, my father’s agnosticism was sorely tried: fifty-seven-year-old invalid Ernst learnt from his wife that he was going to have a heir! The author of this book was born on the 27th of March 1952, and the surprising news was quickly spread overseas.
Taking advantage of the favourable terms offered by Stipel, which needed to cut back on staff, my mother retired early and devoted herself solely to the mother’s trade: this however meant a significant reduction of the family income. The piano was sold straightaway and in 1954, when Heinz Mahler, who had by now become Henry and was doing military service in Germany, came to Milan to visit uncle Ernst and meet his young cousin, he was very surprised to see that on the gilt chandelier in the sitting-room no less than three bulbs out of six were out. Without telling anybody, he went to the electrician and replaced them with three new bulbs, convinced that this would be a pleasant surprise for his uncle. But when my father came back from work in the evening, to Henry’s utmost dismay, he informed him that six lighted bulbs equalled a bill beyond his means!
Henry remained in Milan almost a week and mother had him visit the Duomo and the Castle and, making a big sacrifice, presented him with a ticket for La Scala.
Henry photographed us seated at an outside table of the bar on the cornerand on a trip to Lake Como, and with his 16 mm. military cinecamera he shot a short film which, to my great emotion, I saw for the first time forty-seven years later on my visit to his Santa Clara house in summer 2001.
When he was about to go back to Germany, as my mother was telling me how sad she was about the departure of that pleasant young man, I answered dryly: “T don’t care, you think of daddy!”.
In 1958 I was to enter primary school and it dawned on my parents that their religious wedding celebrated in Rome had never been registered in the town hall; for the education office I would be an illegitimate son. They married again before a registrar and the bans were published both in Vienna and in the Modena city-halls, where, most likely, nobody had any ground for opposition.
I remember the years of primary school as the most peaceful in my life, even if they were saddened by the disaster of summer holiday camps, where my father sent me in July to keep me away from Milan’s sultry weather. In August instead the three of us went to Chiesa Valmalenco, where we rented a farmer’s flat. My father would load his motorised wheel-chair on a train, then my mother and I would get on a local bus at Sondrio while he fearlessly tackled the steep hairpin bends of the Valmalenco road with his sputtering Bosch engine.
At Chiesa I would take long walks with my mother or play on my own in the woods or on the dry gravel river-bed of the Lanterna stream, while my father was reading the newspapers or talking to other holiday-makers. They were the years of bomb attacks in South Tyrol, so every now and then the Carabinieri warrant-officer would turn up to check on the activities of “the Austrians” staying at Matilde’s, on the main road to Lanzada.
1961 was our last year at Chiesa, because as soon as he got there my father had a heart-attack and he was advised against spending holidays in the mountains again. The deterioration of his health actually called for rest (he was by now sixty-six!) and for the interruption of his exhausting job as a salesman, but his fight to obtain an invalidity pension from Austria was proceeding slowly, partly due to his inability to plead his own cause in loco.
But dad had no hard feelings towards the country which was so cruel with him, on the contrary, he maintained good relations with the Milan Austrian community, and gave me and mother German lessons, which he soon stopped because he lacked the patience required of a teacher. Those lessons however at least enabled me to gain some rule over the pronunciation, the basic vocabulary and the main grammar rules.
In August 1968 dad fulfilled through a third party his unexpressed dream of returning to his country, which his poor health did not allow him to do personally, and sent me and my mother on holiday to Radstadt, in the Salzburg area, and the following year to Klagenfurt, while he was hospitalised for the usual medical examinations.
They were the years of the students’ protest, into which I threw myself, causing serious concern to my parents who, even though they valued my anti-Fascist feelings, had had enough of police, fights and arrests. If one adds to all that my intention of “investing” the prize won in the competition for the best essay in the high-school in the purchase of a second-hand motor-cycle, one can understand how much cause for worry I gave my father, who wrote to his sister Emmy asking her advice. She replied to him defusing the situation with her usual verve22:
The motor-cycle would worry me too, but my children by now are over forty, at least two of them, and I never stopped worrying. Children aren’t fun at all. I am not sure that now it isn’t even worse- I still remember you so well before the Matura23, although I forget what happened yesterday or half an hour ago, and I remember when Lizzy got married and the boys were in the army and I was waiting and waiting for a letter, those were hard times, but it went off well… In any case Sergio is good at school, plays chess and basketball. Students here have absolutely no time for this sort of things, they are too busy breaking glass, burning books and dirtying walls and anarchic ideas are every day topics. If you consider the world today, perhaps they are right.
The hottest period of unrest went by without serious troubles for me, mostly because I had started reading Philosophy at the Milan State University and to support myself I spent my afternoons giving private lessons. My father had finally obtained his longed-for pension, too late to enjoy it. In 1971, when Henry Mahler came back to Milan to visit us, he found uncle Ernst very ill and a very tall, bearded cousin who was angry with the whole world and had just taken up karate in the club newly founded by Shirai Sensei, who had introduced the spectacular martial art into Italy in 1965.
On the 11th of October 1972, my father passed away in his bed, as he had always wished. Mother, his faithful companion for over forty years, said good-bye to him with these words of despair, which she entered in her diary:
Poor Enesto! Your suffering was inhuman. No one, I believe, could suffer more than you. Humiliated in everything, offended in every part of your tormented body. If Paradise exists you are there and you will smile at your companion who never forgot you.
Although one could say I had expected and feared it from my early childhood, the loss of my father shattered me too, to such a point that I discontinued correspondence with his sisters who, albeit grieved by the news, found words of sympathy for us.
This is what Wilma, spoilt Wilmerl, the best-loved, wrote24:
Dear Afra and Sergio,
You can imagine how grieved I am to learn from Henry about my dear Ernstl’s death.
I know he must have been very, very tired of all his pains and suffering – may he rest in peace. Thank you for all you did for him, darling Afra, all these years I was longing to come and see you all again, now I am in a way glad to remember him as I saw him in 1948, incapabled (sic), but unconquered in spirit and still with his humor. With all his misfortunes, how blessed he was to have you and to be able to live to see his son grow up and to provide a father image for Sergio, even as an invalid. There is not much comforting I can say to you. I wish I did not have to write this letter in an alien language, but my thoughts and sympathy are with you – and my love and affection.
I enclose an American “picture” as he called it, use it wherever it is needed or however you wish. I do hope to hear from you now and then. I will sadly miss his always so welcome handwriting.
Lots of love to both of you
There is a spiritual inheritance which my father passed on to me after receiving it in his turn from Armin: it does not coincide with any revealed religion, to which actually the Rosenbaums have always been rather indifferent; it’s rather a strong sense of duty connected with the role of the head of a family, the tendency to attach importance to the “main virtues” and to family bonds, and to consider all the rest, beginning with money and career, indifferent or not very important. Someone will say that this is not very Jewish, but while I was searching for my origins I found out that the image of the Jewish speculator is little more than an anti-Semitic cliché. Besides, after all, the Rosenbaums are Jews by chance and have ineffectually been trying to become emancipated from such an exacting legacy for about 150 years.
1975 was a decisive year for me: I graduated in Philosophy, passed the black belt examination and above all met Giovanna, my future wife. Two years later I found a job as Italian teacher in a Milan British private school in Milan, the Sir James Henderson, where I have stayed for over twenty-five years.
On the 14th of October 1988, after a short illness which was very distressing for all us, my mother departed from this life, taking with her the answer to many questions which I had never thought of asking her before. Vacating the piazzale Brescia apartment, where I had lived with my parents for thirty-three years, cost me many tears but reserved a few surprises too for me. Very few pieces of furniture (a vetrinette, Elena’s swing-chair, a small folding table) escaped destruction and re-created an Austrian corner in the living-room of the flat at porta Romana, which I had shared with my partner for a few months.
In the attic, where none of us had set foot for years, I found a small suitcase stuffed with photographs and documents. As soon as I opened it, I saw aunt Elena’s passport, with the red “J” stamped on each page, and I understood that the suitcase was guarding a sorrowful secret which my father had never wanted to disclose to me. But for me, disconsolate as I was for the loss of my mother, it was not the right time to bring more suffering upon myself. The suitcase was moved from the piazzale Brescia attic to our storeroom.
A few days before my mother’s death, I obtained by naturalization the Italian citizenship I had applied for when I had turned thirty. At Villa Palestro, before a councillor, I swore to be loyal to the Italian State; a few weeks later one of his colleagues joined me in matrimony with Giovanna.
In the summer of 1992, while I was studying for the oral part of the competitive examination to become a qualified state-school teacher, my wife was anxiously sensing the first signs of a new life which was taking shape within her. On the 28th of February 1993 Giulio Ernst Roedner loudly announced his coming into this world, and for a long time completely absorbed our energies.
The plans for his future prevented me once more from reflecting upon my past.
In June 1999 Giovanna suggested that I should make use of my interest in I.T. to try and contact my American relatives by the Internet. In the end I followed her advice and used a popular search-engine to obtain the addresses of all the Mahlers in California. Before going on holiday I sent a dozen letters, but none of the addressees turned out to be related to me.
I was luckier in September with “Jalkio”, Lizzy’s married name. Her son Jeff received my letter and sent me an e-mail from Saint Paul, Minnesota; he also immediately put me in contact with Henry Mahler and his brother Peter. Soon the exchange of messages (still by electronic mail) became frenzied and in this way, within a few days, I was brought up to date with what had happened to the American branch of the family over the previous 27 years. Aunt Emmy had died in 1980, four years after her dear George, but the three children enjoyed excellent health and had in turn procreated a swarm of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Lizzy was 75 and had retired after teaching at primary school for forty years; a few years earlier she had lost her husband Terno, with whom she had moved to the States straight after the war. Her first-born, Maj-Lis, was a highly-regarded choreographer and ballet dancing teacher in Boston, while the second-born, Jeff, taught Engineering at the Saint-Paul Catholic university and was a Tai Chi expert.
Henry, the only family member who had met me personally, was specially happy to hear from me again. After a long and successful career in the industry of semi-conductors, he was by then free from obligations, except that of visiting his four children and many grandchildren spread around California and Oregon; he therefore planned a long Journey to Europe for the following summer. In the meantime, having devoted himself, along with his wife Sheila, to a genealogical research into the Mahlers’ history, he had already gathered several documents regarding our family, of which he took pains to send me copy. The most interesting ones were his mother Emmy’s and Armin’s diaries. The former had been translated into English by Lizzy, but no one had been able to decipher grandfather’s handwriting yet.
I learnt from Henry that, by a matter of few months, I had missed the chance of saying goodbye to aunt Wilma, who had died at the age of ninety-six that very spring, after spending thirty years in lucid loneliness in her apartment in New York. Her Leo, the pugnacious and strenuous mechanic, had prematurely passed away in far-off times, in1966.
In her will, giving further evidence of her feminism and independence of thought, Wilma bequeathed her wealth to her grandnieces only (Lizzy’s, Peter’s and Henry’s daughters) and gave orders that her body should be cremated and the ashes dispersed.
Finally Peter, 73 years old, also retired, two wives, three children and the Rosenbaums’ sarcastic and charming humour, gave me perhaps the most welcome present by putting me in touch with his son Peter George, my contemporary, who has been living in Vienna for twenty-five years, painting and working for Die Presse, a Viennese newspaper. I went to visit him in December 1999, while my plan to reconstruct all the family events was taking shape.
Almost at the same time another cousin, Ashwin Maini, related to me through the Polish branch of the family (we share an ancestor, my great-grandmother Sara Rager, who is also his great-great-grandmother), came out of nowhere. With him I made a journey to Poland and Moravia, visiting the places which were most significant to our origins and finding some trace of the presence of our dear ones.
The circle closed with my American cousins’ journey to Europe and our first meeting in Milan in summer 2000, followed one year later by our first journey to the States. We had the feeling that a family was meeting up never to lose touch again, and we thought that Ernst and Emmy would have been very happy and moved had they known about it, even though, perhaps, the strict upbringing received from Armin and Henriette wouldn’t have allowed them to let out their feelings. To say it with the words which my aunt Wilma uttered on the occasion of the celebration of her 90th birthday, “Hitler would be furious if he knew how well we have managed”.
This extensive research wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many people, whom I would like to thank here, hoping not to forget anybody’s contribution.
My cousins Henry, Peter and Lizzy Mahler kindly placed at my disposal the diaries of their mother and my aunt, Emily Rosenbaum, of grandfather Armin, uncle Leo and aunt Wilma, as well as many other documents, photographs and memories of their childhood and youth. In particular, Henry and his wife Sheila, both students of genealogy, extensively searched Vienna’s archives and found precious documents and information about the family events in the 19th century. My cousin Ashwin Maini informed me about his research into the Polish branch of our family and shared with me the unforgettable experience of our journey to Moravia and Galicia, which is mentioned in this book.
The Milan Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea (Jewish Documentation Centre) allowed me to consult some rare books and documents. A special thank you to Michele Sarfatti, who started me off so sagaciously on my research into the Italian chapter of my family history.
Precious evidence came from Don Adamo Carloni, who recalled before me the tragic events of which he and his brother were heroic protagonists during the Nazi occupation; Elena Foschi, Lia Degli Angeli, Liliana Paglieroni and “Norina” who helped me investigate the events which took place in Cesenatico and Forlì; Mario Bornaghi, a Partisan commander, an invaluable source for the reconstruction of my father’s vicissitudes in Vaprio d’Adda; my cousin Camillo Lucchini and Laura Schwenk, who shared with me their memories about the war- and the post-war times in Milano.
I am also thankful to the managing staff and personnel of several archives and offices in Italy and abroad for their gracious help. I shall only quote: the directors of the Rome and Milan State Archives; H. Weiss (Vienna’s Israelitische Kultusgemeinde); Herbert Koch and Ferdinand Opll (Magistrat der Stadt Wien); Peter Kartous (State Archive of the Slovak Republic); Rainer Egger (Vienna’s Kriegsarchiv); Grzegorz Zamoyski (Rzeszow’s State Archive), Gabriela Dvorakova and Pavel Gratzer (Uničov Town Hall); the personnel of the Regional Archive in Olomouc; don Silvano Ridolfi (Parish Church of San Giacomo in Cesenatico).
Special thanks to my colleague and friend Alberto Maestroni, who guided me in my search for the bibliographic and cartographic sources and in my attempt to reconstruct the general historical scene. Without his sensitive, competent and meticulous contribution I would never have succeeded in making an organic whole out of the fragments of life and death which I gradually dug up.
1 Another fashionable resort near Genoa..
2 A branch of the Milan University hosting the Faculty of Science.
3 One of Milan’s most famous department stores.
4 The fascist organisation of young Italian women.
5 A system of navigable canals connecting Milan with Lake Maggiore.
6 National Agency for hydrocarbons.
7 This belief was expressed as early as 1816 by the author Friedrich Ruehs.
8 The most important Italian newspaper.
9 The documents concerning Bernardo Brumer’s vicissitudes from 1938 until 1945 are in the State’s Central Archives, Fondo 4 bis (interned foreign Jews). It is a file of about a hundred pages.
10 The documents are available at the Regional Archives in Milano.
11 The original is in German, the translation is mine.
12 The original is in German, the translation is mine.
13 The Milan prison.
14 The documents concerning my father can also be found at the Central Archives of the State, Fondo 4 bis (interned foreigh Jews). There are more than a hundred pages in his file.
15 The telegram is in English, the translation is mine.
16 Herbert Kappler (1907-1978) was head of the Gestapo in Rome from 1944. He helped organize the rescue of Mussolini by the SS and later deported about ten thousand Jews from Rome to concentration camps starting in 1943.
17 A well established Lombard bank.
18 The original is in German, the translation is mine.
19 The following persons were killed with Elena: Rivka Amgyfel, widow of Israel Goldberg; Jalka Richter and her daughter Selma, respectively mother-in-law and widow of Arthur Amsterdam; another Rosenbaum, Lea, widow of another Amsterdam, Israel; Maria Rosenzweig, widow of the Romanian Karl Paecht and Jenny Hammerschmidt, Aldred Loewin’s mother.
20 Literally: “envy of the gods”.
21 Literally: “sad villa”.
22 The letter is in a by then a little Americanised German, the translation is mine.