To my grandfather Armin, who I never met, but from whom I inherited a watch


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Milan, October 1935

On the 18th of October 1935, two and a half years before the Anschluss, my grandmother Henriette Uiberall arrived in Milan accompanied by Elena, who had helped her to clear out the flat in Albertgasse. The forwarding agent in charge of the removal unloaded heavy Viennese furniture, glassware and memories of an imperial age which had waned forever in the courtyard of via Monte Rosa 14, the building where Bernardo had rented a four-room-flat on the second floor, belonging to Mr. And Mrs. Galetti. Armin’s pocket-watch, silent witness of the family events, also found a new place in the Milan house.

Henriette was in poor health. Several physical ailments added to her depression caused by the loss of Armin. Seriously deaf for over twenty years, for some time she had had heart trouble too and the frequent attacks of angina pectoris exhausted and frightened her. To comfort and help her, even my father decided to leave his hotel room and to move, at least temporarily, to via Monte Rosa.

My father never spoke to me of that house, and neither did my mother, although we lived five hundred metres away. During all the time I lived with my parents, they never suggested visiting it, not even to have a look at it from outside.

I knew that my father had lived there with his sister before the war, that most of our furniture came from there, as well as many paintings, the famous rocking chair and the “Chinese” vetrinette, to which my mother candidly attached priceless value.

I never asked anything else, because I guessed that house evoked painful memories, which my father had locked up in the attic along with the suitcase containing his sister’s and his mother’s letters and photographs.

Only recently, many years after my mother’s death and my discovery of those documents, did I find the courage to reconstruct the story and to look for the house.

In my reconnoitring I took with me a series of photographs taken by my uncle Bernardo in that very October 1935, at the time of the removal. In those pictures everybody looks serious and sad, justified by the recent mourning. My father looks slim, is wearing his usual double-breasted jacket, a handkerchief in the breast-pocket, hat in hand, and is drawing close to my grandmother, short and dressed in black, as if to support and protect her. Elena instead, somewhat aside, creates a contrast in her white suit and her equally white bull-dog on a lead. The house is easily recognisable from the balconies, the door and the gate.

Much to my surprise, in September 1999 the house was still there, the only period house surrounded by more modern buildings, with its yellowish colour, its gratings and balconies. I photographed it from the same viewpoint which Bernardo had chosen sixty-five years earlier, arousing suspicious amazement in its present tenants. Seen in colour it looked different, but the old images and the new ones overlap perfectly. Only the graffiti clash a little, but the effect is still the same. Of great sadness.

A few days before my grandmother’s arrival in Milan, on October 2nd , the Milanese heard the Duce’s words through the loudspeakers placed in the Duomo square. From the piazza Venezia balcony in Rome he announced: “We have been patient with Ethiopia for forty years! That’s enough!”.

Twelve hours later, the first Italian solders under General De Bono’s orders crossed the Mareb, the borderline between Eritrea and Ethiopia. On October 28th , Milan’s Archbishop Schuster celebrated a solemn ceremony in the cathedral, blessing the army which, at the cost of its blood, was opening Ethiopia's doors to the Catholic faith and to the Roman civilisation”.

The Ethiopian campaign, enthusiastically supported by the Milanese, led to street demonstrations, applications for enlistment and common people’s collaboration with the government’s attempt to neutralize the economic sanctions implemented by the League of nations. Two surprising documents prove that this collaboration was organised and led, but not always forced.

The first is an article which Bernardo sent to the Corriere della Sera8 (which however didn’t publish it) declaring that “if England had decided to take sides against Italy and interfere with its legitimate aspirations, he would ask the DUCE the honour to fight under the Italian colours against the barbarians and the Pharisees”. The Corriere answered thanking my uncle for his “testimony of deep love for Italy and the Duce”.

In January 1936 Brumer gave more proof of devotion to Italy, handing over the four medals he had gained in war to the Committee of Action for Rome’s universality. With this beau geste, as he wrote two years later (when he had already lost all illusion about his new homeland’s gratitude towards him), he intended

to demonstrate tangibly his utmost devotion to the Italian Cause, by donating the dearest thing a man can have, the signs of military valour at war.
In order not to be too surprised at Bernardo’s patriotism and enthusiasm over the fascist colonial enterprise, we must remember that on that occasion he was in excellent company: the anti-sanctions campaign was joined by an old Liberal like Orlando and by Socialists such as Arturo Labriola, who returned from his exile in new York to support the war. Even two fervent anti-Fascists like Albertini and Benedetto Croce had offered their senatorial medals to their country.

On the 16th of January 1936 the Corriere della Sera mentioned my uncle’s grand gesture in the following paragraph:

The Austrian citizen Bernardo Brumer, to prove his full support to the Italian campaign against the sanctions, has offered to the Milanese section of the Committee of Action for Rome’s universality the four medals he was awarded during the European war, in the operations on the Russian front.

Like many others, Bernardo was unaware that it was precisely the Ethiopian war which was pushing Mussolini in a deadly embrace with Nazi Germany, in order to avoid international isolation.

In the course of 1936 my father was away from Italy and from his beloved Afra for long periods. In spring he went to Austria for the last time in his life. He visited his sister Emmy in Gmünd, where he once again fascinated her niece Lizzy with his wonderful stories: he would never see either of them again.

After spending the Easter holidays with Wilma and Leo, he left for Yugoslavia, where he hoped to do business with his “perspective tables” to fill his not very prosperous bank account.

When he came back from his business trip, he called in at Vienna and stopped there for two months. He stayed in the apartment of his by then seventy-five-year-old Aunt Katharina and settled the few still outstanding family affairs.

From Novi Sad he wrote Wilma a letter which came into my possession sixty-four years later. It is his longest piece of writing I own, and illustrates very clearly his detached and amused approach to the ups and downs of life, an attitude doubtless inherited from grandfather Armin. It is the only document which has enabled me to understand what sort of character my father had before illness and persecution partly dulled his charming Viennese verve.
Novi Sad, 25 August 1936

Dear Wilma and Leo,

First of all many thanks for the numerous signs of your respectively sisterly and brotherly-in-law affection, not least for the Easter egg which you, “after wrapping it up twice in brown paper” (as you so appropriately expressed yourself) – put in my suitcase. Even if the “Israelite haste” with which you made up the parcel did not seem completely safe to me, nevertheless on opening it I was almost overcome by emotion and by ascertaining your thoughtlessness! Anyway, I sat down wearing your sleeveless pink rowing waistcoat and thought that, confronted with Leo’s suit, I really ought to think about buying a decent suit. However, don’t ask by what I think about Leo’s tie, you already know.

I have eaten your provisions for three days running and I haven’t finished the salami yet, although, so to speak, I wake up in the morning and go to sleep in the evening in its company (I think I won’t need any for the next few years). I shall also mention the excellent crisp-bread, the plum-cake and its bitter-sweet ingredients.

Now let’s talk about me. After a good journey I arrived in Novi Sad on Monday afternoon and, thank God, I immediately did some, if not astounding business, so that I didn’t have to dip into the shillings I have left, and will be out of financial straits for some time.

I don’t know anything definite about my next destination as yet, I will probably pass through Belgrade to go to Sofia.

It so happened that, on the evening of my departure from Vienna, I asked a police officer for information, who remembered having volunteered with me in Salzburg 22 years ago, while I however bumped into a lawyer living in Novi Sad, who served with me in Warsaw, and who celebrated our get-together before a plate of kebab (rabbinic as I am, at his expense).

Today I went for a swim in the Danube and at midday I had roast sole with tartar sauce (with which I dirtied my new tie). This very moment they are fiddling for me in the café where I am sitting, but, as you can imagine, “my ears are suffering because of it”.

From my long letter you can understand that I am already feeling much better and therefore I hope to have dispelled your worries about your dear brother. “Dear little one”, I hope that you are feeling well that you are happy in Aufhofstrasse. Give my regards to your parents-in-law and my love to Lizzy and Vickerl.

Lots of love from your grateful brother


In 1937 the Fascist government gradually fell into line with Hitler’s position. On November 5th , Ribbentrop went to Rome to ratify Italy’s entrance into the anti-Komintern Pact, agreed by Germany and Japan during the previous year.

In January of 1938 the Italian press, manipulated by the regime, sparked off the anti-Semitic campaign, promptly following the Duce in his volte-face on the subject. After having denied for years the existence of a racial problem in Italy and deplored Hitler’s anti-senitism, Mussolini decided to follow Nazism in racial matters too and to support its expansionist plans.

On the 13th of March the Grand Council of Fascism endorsed the Anschluss. In the days between the 3rd and the 9th of May, Hitler’s visit to Italy was accompanied by exceptional precautionary measures, among which the provisional arrest of countless Jews and political opposers.

The 14th of July, the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, was celebrated by the regime with a tribute to obscurantism act, the publication of the Manifesto of racist scientists. Its writers claimed, among other things: “It’s high time the Italians frankly proclaim themselves racists” (art.7); “The Jews don’t belong to the Italian race: they represent the only population which never integrated in Italy, because it’s made up by non-European racial elements” (art.9).

After preparing the ground in this way, in the sitting of October 6th , the Grand Council introduced the notorious “provisions for the defence of the race” which were passed by the Council of Ministers on November 11th and became law of the State by the Decree No. 1728 dated November 17th . The Corriere della Sera of November 11th informed its readers about it with an eight-column headline on the front page.

On the basis of this decree (art.1) marriages of Italian citizens of “Aryan race” to individuals belonging to other races were forbidden; Jews were debarred from employment in state-owned or state-controlled bodies and other jobs of “public interest”; teachers and pupils of Jewish race were expelled from State schools and confined in special school and departments. Furthermore, Jews were forbidden to own land or buildings of value above, respectively, five thousand and twenty thousand lira (art.10) and to employ “Aryan” servants (art.12). Foreign Jews had to leave the territory of the Italian Kingdom by the 12th of March, 1939. The measure didn’t apply to individuals over 65 or to those who had previously married Italian citizens. Among my relatives, therefore, the only one safe from expulsion was my grandmother but, in view of her poor health, it was clear that her destiny was connected with that of the other members of the family.

Bernardo Brumer responded promptly to the Grand Council’s resolution even before it was converted into law: on October 13th , he sent the Ministry of the Interior a petition9 in which, summarising his curriculum vitae and recollecting his good service and his loyalty to the country which gave him hospitality and to its government, he asked to be granted
The permission to continue to live in the Kingdom of Italy after March 7th, 1939, along with his wife Elena and with his above-mentioned mother-in-law Henriette Uiberall, widow of Armin Rosenbaum.

The Ministry of the Interior, having received the petition, asked the advice of the General Direction for Demography and Race, and the latter, in its turn, consulted Milan’s prefecture. Prefect Marzano, in a letter dated April 3rd 1939, pointing out that “the above mentioned foreigner so far proves to be of regular moral, civil and political conduct”, that his financial situation appeared to be “fairly good” and that my uncle asked to extend his stay in order to keep looking after his mother-in-law, gave a positive answer.

But the General Direction for demography and race didn’t make any decision, as is proved by a reminder which the head of police sent on the 17th of November 1938; so my uncle, having received no communication about the outcome of his claim, continued to live in Milan, assuming it had been approved.

On the 16th of December 1938, Elena wrote to the prefect, asking, in dispensation from art.12 of the decree just passed, to be allowed to keep an Italian maid “of Aryan race at her service ”10

The reasons she put forward were the ones we already know: her elderly mother-in-law, with a bad heart and afflicted with deafness, being unable to speak or understand the Italian language, needed “the continuous and vigilant assistance of a trustworthy person”.

The police headquarters, having been asked their opinion, on the 25th of January 1939 gave the following, obtuse answer:
The BRUMER family, living in via Monte Rosa 14, is composed of: Brumer Bernardo son of Arnoldo, deceased; his wife Rosenbaum Elena, both of Jewish race and religion. There are no special reasons suggesting the claim should be allowed.

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