Monday, September 10, 2001

La Bella Bambina

There are thousands of Holocaust stories, most of them never to be told. This is one of the stories.

In September 1943, 1,000 refugee Jews who had fled to France after Germany invaded their countries realized that they no longer had a safe haven. Led by guides, they went by foot across passes in the Maritime Alps into Italy, arriving at the border villages of Valdieri and Entracque in the Piedmont region. For the younger men, the trek took about a day; for others, considerably longer. The men generally remained in the mountains, some joining the anti-fascist partisans. The women and children were hidden in nearby villages and because they were not safe from the moment they arrived, they had to move frequently and secure false documents identifying them as Gentiles.

At the time, Hitler had not yet tightened the Gestapo noose around Italy. That was to happen before long. Still, there were Fascist forces everywhere, seeking to arrest foreign Jews and the refugees needed assistance. Some was provided by local Jews, mainly living in Cuneo.

They could also count on the kindness of native Italians, most of them good Catholics who gave shelter and food, at times at personal risk. In this they were led and inspired by their local priest, Don Raimondo Viale, a young man who although scarcely known or remembered was one of the saintly figures during this dark period. He died in 1984 and his cemetery inscription identifies him as the priest of the partisans.

For all of the help that the Jews received, life was harsh, especially for the men. The situation deteriorated when Hitler decided that Mussolini was lax in persecuting Jews and acted to bring the Final Solution to Italy. The Gestapo was sent in to do the job, with the assistance of the local Fascists. Many of the Jews who had trekked from France were seized. About 350 of the 1,000 were deported in the familiar packed railway cars, first to Drancy in France and then to Auschwitz, where all but nine were murdered. A memorial in Borgo San Dalmazzo lists the names of the deportees. This is one of the ways that the local people have remembered what transpired decades ago. There is an outdoors installation in Borgo with a moving inscription in both Hebrew and Italian that expresses gratitude to the residents who did not stand idly by as Jews suffered. Local officials recently staged a march into the mountains, commemorating what happened in September 1943.

Enzo Cavaglion, the head of the tiny remaining Jewish community in Cuneo and the keeper of its historic synagogue, has been the central figure in the memorial efforts. Largely because of his ceaseless advocacy, within the past year Yad Vashem designated Father Viale a Righteous Gentile, which he surely was.

As the situation of the Jews grew more precarious in the dying days of Italian Fascism, it became increasingly necessary for them to move from place to place. The clashes between the partisans who were emboldened and the Fascists became more frequent and violent, which added to the risk for Jews and for those who helped them.

There was a widow among the refugees who had already lost two grown children in a bombardment on the first leg of their flight from Belgium to France. She was together with her two daughters, their husbands and a three-year-old grandson. One of the daughters was four month’s pregnant with her first child when she made her way across the mountains. Father Viale asked a Catholic family to provide refuge for the pregnant woman and other family members, while the men were to remain in the mountains with the partisans.

In February 1944, a beautiful girl was born in their house. She was apparently the only Jewish child born among the refugees during the nearly two years that they were in the region. The arrival of the bambina, named Frimetta Amalia Maria Gabriella on her birth certificate, brought much joy to the Jews and the Italians who harbored them.

Her father who was with the partisans, was obviously overjoyed and although he was warned of the great danger, he came down from the mountains to visit his wife and child. On the seventh day of Pesach 5703, after the partisans had attacked Fascist forces, he insisted on making a visit. He was caught and shot by a Fascist patrol. Father Viale obtained release of the body and Victor Korn was temporarily buried in the Catholic cemetery at Borgo. After the war, the good priest returned with family members and he was re-interred in the Jewish section of the Cuneo cemetery. He is now buried in Israel.

All of the surviving refugees left the region after the war, many returning to their original communities. A good number were eventually admitted into the United States where they made new and usually successful lives. It is not likely that many of the survivors are now alive. In recent years, a few of the survivors have returned to Cuneo to participate in commemorative events and to show gratitude to those who harbored and protected them.

This August, the woman who was the precious bambina went back for the first time. Accompanied by three of her four children and her husband, she had an emotional reunion with the elderly woman in whose home she was born. There were words of thanksgiving and visits to the memorials, the grave of Father Viale and the place where her father was murdered. Flowers were planted and prayers were said. For family members, there was a special feeling of joy for the gift of the extraordinary woman – la bella bambina – for Malka Schick.