Dressed to escape, even at night

2012-10-16 L’Osservatore Romano

16 October 1943 represents one of the most dramatic days in Italian history, marked by shame and grief due to the despicable roundup in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome by the S.S. Einsatzgruppen under the orders of Capitan Theodor Dannecker.

Following the roundup in the Ghetto, a young Jew, Aldo Gay, lays down various drawings of those tragic momentsHowever during the roundup some were able to escape taking refuge in various religious institutes, while others like Roberto Piperno and his family were taken in temporarily by their non-Jewish neighbours. In recalling those moments, Piperno aids our understanding in what it means for a child all of the sudden to find himself in the middle of the Shoah.

“In September 1943 I was 5-years-old, too little to understand what was occurring in history but just old enough to take part in those experiences. On 16 October we were hidden in the home on Via Arno of Clelia and Alberto Ragionieri, who were subsequently awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations”. However seeing that the Allies, after operation Avalanche, had not succeeded in reaching Rome we arrived at another solution that December in order to not endanger the Ragionieri. “My father had frequent contact with the Vatican for reasons of his work as a textile merchant and the friend with whom we stayed was a good Catholic. Thus it was possible to get a part of my family (my mother, sister, both grandmothers and myself) to stay at the monastery of the Bethlehem Sisters in Sabazio Square. Meanwhile my father and grandfather went to the Basilica of St John. It was then decided that we would all meet up again at St John's. But precisely the night that we arrived, we found out that the Nazis had gone to the Basilica of St Paul and had taken away many people. Thus after a sleepless night, dressed to escape, my father and grandfather went back to the home of the family friend and we returned to the Bethlehem Sisters, where we were to spend the following months until the liberation on 4 June 1944”.

After they arrived to the home of the religious, one of the Ragionieri family, at the request of the Mother Superior Sr Evelina Foligno, succeeded in supplying Piperno with false documents. “Every night before I fell asleep, my mother made me repeat my new name: Roberto Pistolesi. Thus every night I 'split my personality into two', repeating my new last name to be used in case I was in contact with other people. Naturally this dual personality was not only by way of a last name but also behaviour. In fact since we were officially displaced Catholic Neopolitans, we went every Sunday to church in the monastery (...) I especially remember a young nun name Rita, who was always affectionate and sympathetic. She was the only person with whom I went out, one spring morning I went with her to buy various things in the nearby area”.

“These were unforgettable experiences”, Piperno concludes, “which lasted many months. During my time spent at the monastery, which was well-kept by the kind, smiling and helpful sisters, I do not have a sad memory in terms of human relationships. Certainly their sympathetic attitude for this child (...) made even the condition of imprisonment and fear more tolerable. And for this I am still grateful”.

Giovanni Preziosi