Dear Wilma, if you don’t let me hear from you soon, you lazy rabbit, I wish you the above-mentioned fate.
In this poem I recognize the Rosenbaums’ pugnacious but peaceful traits, which my father had inherited from Armin: his disappointment at being unable to take advantage of his intellectual and artistic gift becomes a joke. As the necessities of life needed it, Ernst who, according to my cousin Peter’s testimony, had inherited aunt Katharina’s musical talent and was able to play back by ear on the piano any tune which he had listened to just once at the Opera, was prepared to commit himself to the dullest job of all: the pram seller. For four years he worked for his brother-in-law with Fratelli Thonet ,an Italian business, often travelling in Italy and abroad to advertise and sell curved-wooden chairs.
4ERNST AND AFRA
1928 was a dramatic year for Milan: on April 12th a bomb killed eighteen people among the crowd gathered for the opening of the Fiera campionaria, the trade fair. The bomb had been planted to kill the king, who, however, came late and escaped unharmed. The culprits were never found .
1928 was a decisive year for my father too: he went to Modena for work reasons and met my mother.
At that time Afra Rebecchi was sixteen and attended a teachers’ training-school. She was fond of art and literature and, like most her contemporaries, avidly read D’Annunzio’s novels and poems.
Her home at rua Pioppa was taken over by books because my grandfather, an eccentric example of a socialist carabiniere, spent most of his monthly salary at the bookshop, while my grandmother, a dressmaker, added to the family’s meagre income sewing the uniforms of Military Academy cadets.
My mother was the third-born of three sisters, the most spoiled by her parents, the only one who was granted the privilege of continuing her studies after primary school.
Her father had given fancy or literary names to the three of them: Bianca, Violetta, Afra. The fourth child, who was called Bruno, was taken ill with lethargic encephalitis very early and his family had to provide for him for the rest of his life.
An enraged anticleric, my grandfather Giuseppe refused to have Afra baptized: much later, she went to the priest by herself, to the great relief of my grandmother who, unlike her husband, was religious. Due to his political ideas and his hot-blooded temperament, Giuseppe soon had to interrupt his career as a carabiniere, after a dramatic incident which I was told by my mother, and which is fit for illustrating his character.
During one of the many street demonstrations which took place at the beginning of the century, his comrades-in-arm had arrested a socialist protester. My grandfather demanded that he should be released and, at his colleagues’ foreseeable denial, engaged in a furious fight with one of them, grazing him with his sabre and ending up on trial. In the meantime the protagonists of the argument had somehow made peace and agreed (or at least this is what everybody thought) to tell the judge a made-up story in order to hush up the scandal and save my grandfather’s job.
But at the crucial moment his sense of honour, or perhaps his self-destruction, prevailed. Disavowing the injured party and the witnesses, he related the events exactly how they had occurred, with the obvious conclusion: he was expelled from the Carabinieri and sentenced to a short term of imprisonment.
Having completed his sentence, to earn his living he became a porter. Eventually his mental imbalance worsened; his arguments with grandmother Esterina, which sometimes degenerated to violence, became too frequent and Giuseppe left for Argentina. He came back twice, then his family had no more news from him until he was on his deathbed, in the mental hospital in Reggio Emilia, when he sought for his grown-up daughters to embrace them for the last time.
Deprived of her husband’s financial support (which had always been precarious anyway) Esterina had to work even harder, damaging her eyes by dint of threading the needle and sewing the cadets’ uniforms until late at night. Bianca and Violetta found a job: the former left for Milan, where she was employed as an assistant at Montanari’s shoe shop. Her employer later on intervened to have Violetta employed by La Rinascente3.
Afra stayed at home with her mother and her ailing brother, without a father figure. It was at this time that she met my father.
Besides her unquestionable intellectual qualities and her interest in culture, which were unusual for Italian women of the time, my mother was one of Modena’s most beautiful girls. Tall, slim, with sleek, brown hair and delicate features, she closely resembled a great actress who would shortly make a name for herself on screen: Ingrid Bergman.
She had already attracted the attention of a photographer, who displayed her portrait in the stfreet. Alas, amongst so many admirers, there were also some teachers, most likely lady teachers of her school, and the imprudent model was suspended from lessons for a few days, to her shame and dismay: “the fascist school”, the headmaster told her stiffly in an interview, “expected of the giovani Italiane4 proper behaviour worthy of their fatherland’s ideals and traditions”.
My father noticed her as he was driving in a carriage in front of the teachers’ training-school and instantly fell in love with her. Although at first his passion was unrequited, that meeting would be of vital importance for both.
Ernst ordered the coachman (who was rather more surprised than shocked) to follow my mother home. Having spotted the place where she lived, on that very day he rented a room in the house opposite and just stopped there, throwing himself, body and soul, in what appeared to be at least a difficult undertaking: between him and mother there was a gap of seventeen years.
In my father’s character there was a component of impulsiveness which would get him into trouble several times at crucial moments of his life. Adding to this, he was teutonically stubborn in persevering with his aims, as long as they were not of the financial, or material kind.
Every morning Ernst would deliver a bunch of roses to the beautiful sixteen-year-old girl, accompanying it with a very respectful billet-doux; in the meantime he wrote mysterious telegrams to his brother-in-law Bernardo who urged him to return to Milan, making him believe that he was carrying on difficult negotiations in view of a real bargain.
My mother, albeit flattered by his courtship, at first reacted with surprise and distrust. My grandmother, who did not want to hear about an older boy-friend without a regular job for her daughter, undoubtedly reacted even worse.
Dad did not surrender so easily and little by little the Wanderknabe (wanderer) grown up in Vienna at the sunset of the empire managed to win the love of the romantic Modenese student. Eventually he induced her to exchange a few words with him and to give him a first date.
She was fascinated by his gentleman-like manners, by his almost anachronistic chivalry, and not least by his strong foreign accent, with those funny mistakes which amused her and which she forbore correcting. In him she found both a somewhat authoritative and possessive parental figure and the Prince Charming of her dreams.
Besides, there was the spell of coach drives, holidays at Capri, gambling at Monte Carlo’s Casino. A dimension which my mother had known only from books or the screen, completely alien to the narrow-minded, provincial environment in which she had been living until then, suddenly revealed its beauties to her thanks to my father who, drawing for money on uncertain and definitely precarious resources, led his Snow-White into a world of dreams.
In the end, however, Ernst had to set out for Milan again and mother who, like all teen-agers, loved freedom and entertainment, took advantage of his absence and resumed meeting other wooers. It was a serious risk for the poor fellows: if the Austrian gentleman caught them red-handed, he was capable of reacting with Latin ardour, never laying the blame on her, but always on his unlucky rivals.
He handled one of them as was customary in the good old days. Meeting him on the street arm in arm with my mother, he slapped him with his glove, so challenging him to a duel. The incident had no consequences because the victim lacked not only the cultural background, but also the skill in handling weapons – be it fire-arms or edged weapons, the choice was up to him-
necessary to accept the challenge.
The unlikely job of travelling salesman, which up to a certain extent satisfied my father’s wandering attitude and his curiositas,inherited from Armin, obliged him to ply between Modena and Milan to report his meagre business to his increasingly angry brother-in-law, and to tour Italy. But now it grieved him too much to be far away from mum for long periods and he was therefore very happy when his future mother-in-law decided to move to Milan with Afra and Bruno, joining the other two daughters who had already been working there for a few years.
The summer of 1929 was unforgettable for the Rosenbaums: Armin, by then 65 years old, went on holiday to Alassio, where he stayed with her daughter Elena. He posed for the photographer wearing a curious bathing-suit which left one shoulder and half of his chest bare. In another snap-shot taken at dinner, his white shirt and hair show up the tan on his handsome nineteenth-century face. Another interesting group photograph has outlived that holiday: it portrays Elena and Bernardo amid smiling friends, in the bathing-costumes typical of that period, but with a very modern hair-style. There is no trace of my father that summer. His relationship with my mother must have absorbed him completely and he probably didn’t share his sister and brother-in-law’s friendships and pastimes, although he was very fond of both.
In the meantime in Milan the transformation was continuing: the opening of the planetarium was followed by the covering of the Navigli5 inside the city, decided in the middle of the 20s and completed in the biennium 1930-31. In 1930 the Lido swimming-pool, at the time the biggest in Europe and the first to admit women, equipped with an artificial wave machine, was opened at piazzale Lotto. Elena and Bernardo were amongst the first regular customers of the new centre.
A rather unusual document, a score-board typed on a piece of paper, now yellowed with age, is evidence of their involvement, along with my father, in a table-tennis tournament held at the “Friday Club”, whose seat was in the very building where they lived, at viale Sabotino 6. Elena turned out to be the most skilful of the three, knocking out her brother in the first round and her husband in the second, before surrendering to a more experienced opponent. The building, however, does not exist any more, either razed by a bomb or by the building expansion in the 60s.
The only shadow of sadness in my uncle and aunt’s happiness was the lack of children. After the crash of Wall Street, in the 30s the Brumers experienced financial problems too: After Fratelli Thonet’s bankruptcy and liquidation, Bernardo started an independent career as a wholesale dealer, opening up a business connection with Antonio Volpe, a factory of curved-wooden furniture based in Udine.
Once Thonet had closed down, my father too had to look for a new occupation, and found one in the field of architecture, to which he had devoted himself after the war. He devised and advertised his own reticulated “perspective tables”, which allowed anyone, even people without any notion of perspective, to draw and plan interiors and exteriors. It was an invention which was potentially precious for engineers, architects, designers and draftsmen, with several applications to building and teaching. My cousin Peter remembers having used them to learn to draw in perspective in far-away Gmünd.
For ten years Ernst personally attended to selling these tables, which soon became known, appreciated and used by vocational, technical and engineering schools, several Ministries and municipal or provincial corporations, and b many factories such as Caproni, Franco Tosi, Alfa Romeo. If my father’s flair for business had been up to his talent, he would have patented his tables, securing a fair income for the years to come; on the contrary his internment in a concentration camp shortly after the outbreak of war, in July 1940, allowed people without scruples to appropriate his invention without even having to thank him.
To add to his income, my father also taught German to his acquaintances. The Elementary Grammar which I found at home (the very one which was so useful to decipher my grandfather’s cursive) still retains his annotations in the margin of the topics which he assigned to a Mr.Frattini in the years 1930-1931. His pupil was given two weeks’ rest on the occasion of the Christmas holidays, but had to learn by heart Ludwig Uhland’s patriotic poem Der gute Kamerad.
On 14 April 1931 my mother moved to Milan with grandma Esterina and Bruno, joining her two sisters Bianca and Violetta in a flat at via Madonnina 10, in the Brera district. The train on which they travelled arrived at the new station in piazzale Fiume, planned twenty years earlier by architect Stacchini, who had been inspired by the graveyard-like style of that time.
My father resumed his courtship as before. According to the memories of my uncle Armando, who was then Violetta’s fiancè and a department head at La Rinascente, where my aunt worked as a shop-assistant, Ernst would always wear dark colours, a hat and a monocle. He would get up at midday, pass by the shop to say hello, and take his fiancée to the race-course, or the Scala, or Monte Carlo’s Casino. His future mother-in-law was still fiercely opposed to Afra’s marriage with that gentleman with a strong German accent who didn’t have an apartment to offer to her daughter, but lived in a small hotel.
On the 23rd of April 1932 Esterina Rebecchi moved with her family into a bigger apartment in via Madonnina 17. My mother, the family’s intellectual, availing herself of her knowledge of the French language, was employed by Stipel (the Italian telephone company) at the telephone exchange, where she dealt with long-distance calls from abroad.
But even in Milan from time to time Ernst had to take his sample-case and leave, whilst my mother was fond of dancing. She accepted the invitation of another suitor, but her fiancé showed a gift for clairvoyance in that he always came back at the right time (or wrong, from mum’s point of view). He caught them together and this time, giving up the nineteenth century’s outdated rituals, he engaged in a proper boxing-match with the amazed rival, knocking him right to the ground. The defeated boxer, my mother told me, was Enrico Mattei, the future founder of ENI.6
Born 1906 at Acqualagna in the Marche region, the son of a carabinieri officer (like my mother!), Mattei had left school at the age of fifteen and worked as a varnisher; later on, he had made good career in Matelica’s biggest industry. Employed as an errand-boy, he became director when he was just twenty, in 1926. But fascism’s deflationary measures caused difficulties to small and middle-sized businesses and increased unemployment. Mattei too was fired and decided to move to the North, where the nation’s industrial heart was still beating.
He arrived at the old Central Station in December of 1928 and found a job as a salesman (like my father!) for Max Meyer. In his career as a travelling salesman he was certainly far more successful than his rival, because in 1932 he was able to resign, starting a business of his own and beginning a dazzling ascent. At the outbreak of the war he had already established his own chemical company.
The rendezvous with my mother and the encounter with my father must have occurred in those years, perhaps in one of the dance-halls or variety theatres which Mattei loved to visit, and where the future oil magnate later met Greta Paulas, a Viennese dancer (!) from the famous “Revue Schwarz”. He fell in love with her and married her in Vienna. Ernst too was a theatre-goer and knew those dancers (too well, as mum said!): he must have blessed that union which rid him of a dangerous rival.
On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Berlin and proclaimed the birth of the Third Reich. In March the regime opened a series of temporary camps to hold in custody the nearly 25,000 people arrested after the fire of the Reichstag. On March 20th Himmler, in a press conference, announced the establishment at Dachau of the first concentration camp, with a capacity of 5,000 prisoners. Two days later the first group of prisoners under “protective custody”, mainly communists and social-democrats, arrived.
On April 1st a boycott of Jewish shops and enterprises was introduced. As Goldhagen reports (Hitler’s willing executioners), a few Germans dared to express their sympathy for the besieged Jews, but the protests were not widespread. The population’s general attitude can be summarised in the following episode, which took place at a pharmacy.
A lady walked in, escorted by two nazis in uniform. She was bringing back some products she had bought a few days earlier, and asked to be reimbursed. “I didn’t know you were Jews” she declared “I don’t want to buy anything from Jews”.