In the fall of 2011 I received a letter from my friend Letizia Gualandi, a professor of archaeology at the University of Pisa. “I have a question to ask you on behalf of my mother, Giovanna,” she began.
It involves a bit of research, which I don’t know if you’ll want or be able to do. During the Second World War, when the Germans occupied Italy, my mother’s family took refuge in September of 1944 in a small mountain village in the Marche called Pievebovigliana. In the apartment the local priest had found for them there was already living a mysterious young woman whose name, she said, was Franca Ricci. Franca was around 30 years old and spoke perfect Italian, but she almost never went outdoors. She said that she was from Puglia, that she was a doctor at the hospital of Sant’Orsola di Bologna, and that she had fled Bologna because of the war. She hoped to be able to rejoin her family in Bari, but the presence of the military front had kept her from going south.
Letizia went on to describe how, when Fascist soldiers knocked on their door while searching the houses of the town looking for soldiers to send to the front, Franca reacted by trembling in a way that was dramatic and unnatural. At about the same time, local people began whispering that Dr. Ricci’s story seemed perplexing, especially with regard to the details of how she ended up in this obscure place, where nobody knew her and where she didn’t appear to know anyone; they also noted that when she went to church she didn’t seem to know what to do. Finally one day she confessed to Giovanna and her family that her name was Fanny Rudorfer and that she was a Polish Jew.
Fanny, Letizia explained, had already survived a number of dramatic twists and turns before landing in Pievebovigliana, where she entrusted her life to the local priest, who had placed Giovanna’s family and Fanny in the apartment together. She reported being desperately worried about her own family back in Poland, in particular a young nephew who had been hidden with a family of Catholic friends. She said that when this inferno was over, she hoped to move to America, where she had a brother. Meanwhile, Giovanna and her family shared what bits of food they had with her, taught her how to genuflect in church, and accompanied her there and wherever she went in town.
Then Letizia wrapped up her letter:
From the day that my mother and her parents said goodbye to Fanny in June of 1945, they have never heard a further word of that slight, pale, frightened woman with whom for a short terrifying time they shared a home and an intensity of friendship like no other. Perhaps by this point you will have guessed that my question for you is this: Do you think you could find out what happened to her so that my mother, who is 84 now and failing, could find some peace of mind with regard to this story that has haunted her for the past six decades?
This email arrived when I was in the middle of a prolonged writing project—perhaps you will sympathize if I tell you that when I first read my friend’s request, my eyes went slightly crossed at the daunting prospect of trying to unearth the fate of a lost human being who was hidden in a small town in the Marche during the Second World War, possibly immigrated afterward to America—somewhere in America—and, having been around 30 years old in 1944, was now likely long dead.
I did what every sensible person would do: I closed the email and went back to work for several weeks.
I am not a researcher or an academic. I am a writer. I write short fiction, I write memoirs. I write essays about subjects that interest me and disturb me and, of course, sometimes, inevitably, involve research … or sleuthing, as I prefer to think of it, to make it feel more manageable. Often I write about things that keep me from sleeping at night.
Franca Ricci’s—Fanny Rudorfer’s—story kept me from sleeping at night. A lost fate, a lost thread, this elderly woman, Giovanna, seeking to resolve a mystery that had haunted her for 60 years: Could I simply leave that email in the inbox, burning away (or cooling off?) among the ads for sneakers and notices from the library that books were overdue?
I decided to put my toe—for the moment, just my toe—into these charged waters. I did three things.
First, I spent several hours trolling around online—and came up with exactly … nothing.
Then I opened the New York City white pages, which I still had on my shelf in 2011, and I phoned and left messages for everyone with the last name Rudorfer. Absurd? At the minimum, it was a highly illogical reach, especially when you consider (as I failed to in the moment) that a young woman who came to the United States after the war may well have married and, in those days, taken her husband’s last name. But, well, I had to start with something.
And I wrote to Natalia Indrimi, the director of the Centro Primo Levi in New York, to ask for her help. Natalia suggested I get in touch with an independent scholar in Italy named Anna Pizzuti. “She is exactly the person you are looking for,” Natalia said. “She has devoted her life to researching the experience of foreign Jews in Italy during the war years. She is a kind of archaeologist of bureaucracy. I think of her work as a prolonged act of civic conscience. She will have something to tell you, you’ll see.”
Anna responded within days. She had dug into the database she maintains, and although she had not uncovered anything about Fanny, she was able to identify another Rudorfer, Leon, who had studied medicine at the University of Bologna. (Later I would learn that Leon was Fanny’s older brother.) She also directed me to a book, Silence and Remembering, by Gian Paolo Brizzi, which was published in English and looks at the racial laws and their effects on the foreign Jewish students at the University of Bologna. When the book arrived from Rome two weeks later, I struck what, in this context, amounted to a key piece of pay dirt. In an alphabetical list of the Jews who had studied at Bologna I came to number 324:
Rudörfer Fanì, son [sic] of Giacomo and Mina Mayer, born 24.08.09 in Nowoszyce (Poland) transferred from Modena (1), from 1934-45 (2) to 1940-41 (6) studied in Bologna
So Fanny was who she said she was. That much was clear. But I was still no closer to finding out what had happened to her. Not yet, anyway.
Who were these foreign Jews and what were they doing in Italy? Some had been born abroad and—like the Rudorfer siblings—had come to Italy before the war to attend university, which is one of those paradoxical and complicating discoveries that can make you reconsider what you think you know about the Fascist period. During the earlier Mussolini years, young, largely Eastern European Jews were permitted—in fact, encouraged—to come to Italy to pursue studies they were forbidden to pursue in their own countries. The government reduced university fees for these foreign students by half, granted scholarships, and streamlined bureaucracy, all an apparent bonanza until you poke around and find out that these accommodations were, unsurprisingly, not purely altruistic.
Brizzi, in an introduction that describes the landscape these students were dropped into, judiciously includes a quotation from the rector of the University of Bologna. Foreign students, the rector said in an address he delivered at the inauguration of the 1931 academic year, “are the best way of disseminating Italian culture and the fame of the alma mater studiorum abroad.” At the university and in the city alike they will be led to love Italy, he promised, “as their second spiritual homeland.” Come study in Italy, then tell the world how wonderful we are: How naïve it seems now for any Jew to have believed that such patriotic love might assure them safe passage through the war years.
Many of these foreign Jews were students. Others came to Italy with the simple wish to establish new lives in a new and apparently welcoming country. And still others belonged to the population of refugees who began arriving in 1933 from Germany and elsewhere, many of whom intended to use Italy only as a point of transition on a longer journey of escape and migration to the Americas, Palestine, and other safe homes.
But with the passage of the racial laws in 1938 and Italy’s entrance into the war in 1940, the situation of these foreign Jews became increasingly problematic. About 9,000 Jews managed to leave before March 12, 1939 (the deadline set by the racial laws), but that left behind about 4,000 Jews who had no means, or place, to go. They faced two possible choices—only they weren’t choices so much as directives. Some (typically men) were placed in the internment camps that were not lagers but more closely resembled prisons for political prisoners (48 camps for Jews alone would eventually be established throughout the country). Others were relocated to small towns where they lived under confino libero, which can be translated as either “house arrest” or “free imprisonment,” a revealing oxymoron. These Jews were domiciled in about 220 towns in every region of Italy except Sardinia and Sicily. Under confino libero, families were often separated. Forbidden (as they were from 1938 on) from holding a full-time job, they lived off a very small, often intermittent per diem and by selling off their possessions and doing odd jobs. Each family member was required to check in daily with the police or the local mayor. And, most troubling of all, for months, then years on end, none of these people knew what would happen to them next.
According to Klaus Voight, whose Il Refugio Precario (or Precarious Refuge, a most apposite title) remains the seminal account of the subject, of the approximately 9,200 foreign Jews who were resident in Italy in 1938 (a figure that includes the 4,000 who were not able to leave after 1939 and about 5,000 who continued to come into the country until the complete shutdown of the borders in 1942), nearly 2,400—so 25 percent—were deported to concentration camps. That was what happened to them next.
After conducting a lively email correspondence with Anna about the movements of Fanny and people like her, in July of 2012, I found myself in Rome, and I arranged to take the train to Frosinone, a provincial town about an hour southeast of the city, to meet Anna in person.
As soon as I got off the train I saw a small woman standing on the platform with sensible hair, sensible shoes, sensible glasses: anybody’s grandmother—and yet anything but.
Anna and I walked along a few sketchy, baking streets until we found a blessedly air-conditioned bar whose owner very kindly let us sit in a small room where—and this is one of those strange scene-setting details that only happen in actual life—a baby was parked to have her nap while her parents had lunch next door. As Anna and I talked, every now and then the father, or the mother, opened the door to check on the infant, and let in burst of music and laughter that served as a real-world counterpoint to the lost world Anna and I were discussing.
Anna told me how she had come to do the remarkable work she does. Her husband, she said, had a longstanding interest in the Talmud, and there were a number of books on Jewish topics in their home. (Catholics reading the Talmud and Jews learning to genuflect: an interesting pair of crossings over.) She knew, of course, about the deportations that had taken place in Italy during the war, but she knew nothing about the way Jews were assigned to live in confino libero until she began teaching in San Donato Val Comino and learned that, in the summer of 1940, 28 foreign Jews had been placed in this small medieval town, which stands near the border of Lazio and Abruzzo. Her work originated with a simple flare of curiosity: “I began by wanting to know who these people were, and what their time was like in this setting where I found myself working,” she told me.
No one had trained her as a researcher or archivist. In her family, she explained, the boys were sent into the major professions like law while she was left to teach. So she fed her curiosity by drawing on the resources she did have. Her research into what happened in San Donato began as a class project—oral histories with older townspeople, basic investigations into easily accessed records—and then grew until she began traveling to Rome and putting in more and more time in the state archives there.
While largely welcomed by local residents, the Jews in San Donato were decided outsiders who for four long years lived in a state of anxiety with regard to their future. Among the families in this one small refugee group, Anna learned, there were some remarkable personalities, including Katrin Tenenbaum, today a professor of philosophy at the University of Rome who has spent years working on Hannah Arendt, and Grete Bloch, a girlfriend of Kafka’s by whom she was said to have had a child who died before she came to San Donato.
Anna also pieced together their fates, which became clear in April of 1944, when on the 6th of that month, 16 of these Jews were arrested and deported, first to Rome, then to the national transit camp at Fossoli, and finally to Auschwitz. Just 42 days later, the Nazis capitulated, but it was too late. Only four of the 16 were to survive. (Grete Bloch was not among them, but Tenenbaum’s parents had succeeded in escaping to Rome.)
Eventually Anna’s research accrued into Vite di Carta, which tells the story of the Jews of San Donato through the documents they generated during and after their time there. Yet once Anna opened this tap, she could not close it so easily again. She realized that she had happened onto the much larger and more complex, and woefully unexplored, subject of the dispersed documentation of the foreign Jews in Italy, and that was when she created her website, where she continues with great patience and doggedness to collect and lay out, for anyone who wishes to see it, the evidence of how challenging it was for this group of people to live, and try to survive, under Fascism.
Anna’s work is a stringent reminder that, for all the general things that happened to this general group of people under the general circumstances of life in Italy during this period, when you zoom in on each specific person, as Anna has, each letter written, each form filled in, each answer to each bureaucratic question, each arrest warrant, each scrap of request and plea, each expression of hope and despair, you bring back to life what the regime sought to obliterate: each person’s individuality—each person’s individual story.
Can there be a more important message for that time as for this one?
Over coffee that day in Frosinone, Anna said something that has etched itself into my brain. At one point in the conversation, she suggested I myself go to the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome to look at the same folders that she had looked into, and reported on on her website.
“But what will I find there that you have not?” I said.
“A true researcher,” she answered, “never says, ‘What will I find?’ She says, ‘Let me go and see.’ ”
I did what Anna suggested. I went, and I saw, and I found the same mention of Leon Rudorfer she had posted on her database. I also found mention of Fanny in several census reports, which helped me begin to trace her movements between when she completed medical school and when she turned up under an assumed name in the apartment in Pievebovigliana. I had gone from trailing a ghost to following the actual movements of an actual person who had lived, studied, moved houses, found work … and then, quite deliberately, vanished into thin air.
The experience of sitting there with those yellowed folders did something else for me. It allowed me to touch (and smell) the thin, brittle paper, to note the blots and blemishes of ink, and to try to decipher the official stamps. As the desk in front of me became more and more covered with paper, I found myself thinking about Saul Steinberg’s imaginary bureaucracies with their nonsensical stamps in colored inks bearing illegible terms, perhaps in part because Steinberg’s vocabulary of bureaucracy had, in fact, derived from his own experience as a stranded foreign Jew in Italy. Only, of course, these were not at all nonsensical papers, at least not in the Steinbergian sense; they were the actual official documents that often decided whether families would stay together or be separated, remain in Italy or be deported, live or die.
Now what about those white pages?
My phone calls were not exactly an Anna Pizzuti sort of research—but, hey, they worked. The following day a woman called me back: “Are you the Michael Frank who left a message about my husband’s cousin’s family?”
“I am,” I said, as my heart skipped at least three beats.
“Well, I think I can put you in touch with someone who can help you. His name is Emil. He is Fanny’s nephew, and he lives in Washington.”
A week later, I found myself on a train to D.C., where I met with the man who had grown up from that boy who was mentioned in Letizia’s email as having been hidden in Poland and who had his own remarkable, grueling, and heartbreaking story to tell. Emil’s mother had died in the camps but his father had, quite remarkably, escaped and survived. He knew that his aunt had studied medicine in Italy, but she had never, ever spoken to him about the war period. “She was a closed person,” he said. “The past, to her, was a closed book.” He had no knowledge about the nine months she spent in open hiding with the Gualandi family in Pievebovigliana until I read him Letizia’s letter.
Now, finally, Giovanna could receive an answer to her question. Fanny had indeed succeeded in joining her brother in the States. She never married. She worked as a psychiatrist at Manhattan State Hospital, traveled widely, and lived in an immaculate apartment on the Upper West Side, where—unusually for a Jewish immigrant who had grown up in Poland—she prepared Italian food with confidence and flair. She died July 12, 1990.
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Michael Frank is also the author of a memoir, The Mighty Franks, and What Is Missing, a novel.