Personal Reflections - In Hiding
BIANCA SCHLESINGER - Seeking Shelter in Italy
“Towards the end of 1941 many Croatian Jews reached various localities in Piedmont.”
In the books of history, a sentence.
For me and for my family, it was a life lived in search of survival in unforeseen circumstances, of difficulties in communication, of unfamiliar surroundings, the difficulty of living in danger, knowing that they are after you - the gratitude toward those who offer safety.
I was only eight years old when my family had to flee Yugoslavia, and I don’t remember exactly all the details of our vicissitudes. But such an experience leaves an everlasting scar, an anger, partly sub-conscious, the feeling of having been the victim of an enormous injustice, to having been betrayed, robbed.
I am, by now, a mother and a grandmother, witnessing the carefree childhood of my children and grandchildren, the friendships that accompany them from kindergarten to maturity, makes me even more aware of having been robbed of my own childhood and of the possibility to realize in full my future.
"If you want to tell tales, write a biography, but if you want to tell the truth, write a novel", is one of the suggestions given to me at the course of Creative Writing, which I attended at the University of Tel Aviv.
This is the reason why I decided to write a novel. A history parallel to the one lived by my family, but not exactly an autobiography. Some facts really happened, others could have happened, and others still happened to people other than those described in the book. I preferred to write it as a novel also for the reason that I could not report faithfully the events, since I remember some details only vaguely. But also for the reason that I cannot know, but can only guess, the thoughts of other people, and the reason for their actions. Since I was eager to guess and to understand, I decided to realize it by writing fiction. A further reason was the fear that friends and relatives would never speak to me again, recognizing themselves in the book, and being disappointed by the description.
Just like in the novel, my family as well, had to leave Yugoslavia in 1941, escaping from the Nazis, and finding shelter in Italy, as “civil refugees of war”. We were interned in the city of Bra - my family of six people, a grandmother, an aunt and a cousin – where we led a more or less normal life, in spite of the hardships related to sustenance .
Getting supplies of food, medicine and education for the children, encountered daily obstacles. Since human beings do not become angels just because they are persecuted, there were often small frictions between the adults, ridiculious accusations and miserable quarrels, caused by the tight living quarters and the ensuing lack of intimacy, as well as due to the stress of the always present danger. Small and big problems, microscopic compared to the horrors that were happening elsewhere, but unpleasant during the long months of exile.
The true danger appeared in September 1943, with the German occupation. The story in the book about the nun who offers to send the refugees to her brother, the poorest peasant in a small, nearby village, and his agreement to hide them in his house at the danger to his own life, is true even if hard to believe. Hard to believe, if we ask ourselves, how many of us can honestly say that in the same circumstances we would do the same.
Luigi Oberto (there is a reason for my naming his Angelo (Angel) in the book), who died a few years ago, and his wife Maria have been honoured be the State of Israel as “Righteous among the Nations”. This was a small acknowledgement of their great deed. A deed, repeated by hundreds of other Italians, by far a larger percentage than what happened in other European countries.
In the Borgata Rossi, by Rivalta, a tiny village where we stayed for nearly two years, the danger was always present. For us, children, there were constant nightmares, nourished by the unexpressed fears. It was, at the same time, a period of discoveries: For we found ourselves in a primitive surrounding, at times shocking, but at the same time we had a new freedom so different from the protected, well padded life in which we had grown up. In order to describe these impressions, and at the same time to describe the real situation, I decided to write the novel from two perspectives. Such as, understood by the father, with all the seriousness of the events, and from the point of view of the child, as she discovers and tries to adapt herself to this new and different world.
As it happened in real life, so the novel too is populated by people some good, beyond understanding, others cruel and nasty, others still bad-and-good ; there are some extremely dramatic moments as well as some less so, even humorous.
The four years I spent writing the book were very problematic for me. On one side it caused me to live through again that difficult period of my life, a period I would have preferred to forget. On the other side, lacking the tension of an unforeseeable future, the past has undergone a metamorphosis, turning into nostalgia.
I am presently living in Israel, my new homeland, but I cannot stay away from Italy for a long time. I often return to Rivalta, pushed by attacks of homesickness. Luigi, Maria and their children, by now married and parents as well, have always welcomed me like a member of their family. I like to walk around the house where the walls are whispering memories from the past; I like to take a walk in the fields, to inhale the familiar smell of the freshly ploughed earth . Once in a while someone approaches me, "Don’t you remember me? Bastianino!" but I don’t remember. I don’t recognize the gray haired gentleman. Maria shows me the new, modern bathroom, and whispers to me that Luigi refuses to use it "I am not going to soil the china", and he continues to use the small booth on the corner of the kitchen balcony. And Luigi, when he was still with us, used to hand me a bucket full of water and a second one with fodder, inviting to me to come with him to feed the rabbits.
Sometimes, in my new home land, a country of immigrants, people ask me "Where are you from?" And I wonder, where am I from? Am I from Israel, where I live now, the country that gave me shelter, to be never more a defenseless stranger among strangers? Am I from Croatia, the country where I was born? Or, am I from Italy, the country that gave me a second life? Who am I? I don’t know.
"But I know that Italy, by the example of an untold number of generous Italians, has taught me that it is possible and imperative to retain one’s humanity even in times when all the world turns into a beast. That it is possible and imperative to listen to one’s conscience, even if she advises us differently from what everybody is saying loudly. That it is possible and imperative to respect our neighbour, to come out and protect him, in spite of the dangers. I had the good fortune to benefit from these values and as a consequence, I always felt it my duty to adopt them as well.
These reflections by Bianca Schlesinger on her soon to be published book,(in Italian), and her early years in hiding, was published with the author’s permission.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2005.