Olga Samuels. Escape from Italy

Olga Vitale's refugee passport, 1944

Olga Samuels’ (neé Vitale’s) refugee passport, 1944

Escape from Italy

My memories of war years are patchy and not very clear. Before taking refuge in the large old fashioned villa in Carate Urio on Lake Como, belonging to my great Aunt Eugenia, I lived with my parents in an apartment block not far from Milan Central Station. I was born in Milan in 1936. Several nights I was woken up in the middle of the night by a long siren, announcing an air raid by British war planes. In a great hurry we used to run down to the basement shelter where a great number of similarly hastily dressed people, either still in their pyjamas or, at the most, in dressing gowns, gathered there with fear showing on their sleepy faces. They were often huddled together, some were crying whilst others even succeeded in resuming their night sleep.

I remember that there were a few children like me and that we played games like hide and seek and other similar children’s activities and actually enjoyed the opportunity to meet up and play in such an unexpected place.

My parents understood the danger we were exposing ourselves to on such occasions and accepted the invitation of Aunt Eugenia. Our rented Milan apartment was quickly emptied of its furniture, which was then stored in a nearby village farmhouse, belonging to my father’s nanny, whilst the rest of our belongings were stored in the small flat of non Jewish acquaintances who had offered to look after our goods.

Before continuing with the description of our life on Lake Como, I feel it is necessary to describe the political situation at that time, even though as a 5 year old child in1941, much of what had been and was happening then was not really fully understood by me.

Fascism and anti-semitism in Italy

Anti-semitism was starting to appear throughout the world, but in Italy it seemed at first that the problem was not an issue of concern. In 1933 with the rise of Hitler to power Nazism became a reality and with it the start of a campaign to free Germany at first and, soon after, the rest of Europe, of the Jewish people, with the creation of concentration camps and mass deportations.

In Italy this campaign against its Jews became more worrying starting from 1938 onwards, on the occasion of a visit of Hitler to Rome. After this, some so-called German “experts” arrived in Italy with the task to instruct the fascists on the “Science of Race.” On 14th July 1938 a Manifesto appeared in the Giornale d’Italia newspaper, written by 10 scientists, entitled: “Fascism and the problem of Race”, where the superiority of the Aryan race over the Semitic or Jewish one was discussed and, shortly after, the content of this Manifesto was confirmed by the National Fascist Party. In September of the same year a decree appeared with regard to the protection (or defence) of race in schools. As a consequence of this, not only teachers of Jewish religion could no more teach in state schools, but Jewish children could no more attend those schools and separate Jewish schools had to be provided.

My very long tram journeys early morning from our Milan apartment to the Jewish school always ended up with my being sick as soon as I left my mother and entered the school. Luckily these long unhappy journeys lasted two months only,.

In October of the same year another decree prohibited marriages of foreign people and Jews with state employees. Jews had to notify themselves as such at civil registries and a series of other decrees were published prohibiting Jews to belong to most associations; also, public organisations were not to employ Jewish people; Jews were not to own land or urban buildings and many more similar prohibitions were publicly announced and many more discriminations against the Jews were carried out.

The 2nd World War started on 1st September 1939, with the invasion by Germans of Poland. In February 1940 Mussolini ordered that all Jews had to be expelled from Italy in the following 10 years, but the fact of Italy joining in the war at the side of the Germans in June 1940 blocked this order, thus worsening the situation of the Italian Jews. Even in Italy concentration camps were then created, exiling Jews considered dangerous to the Fascist Regime and up to 400 of these were set up. Many Jews were sent to the prisons of San Vittore in Milan or Regina Coeli in Rome and Marassi in Genoa.

The events of the 2nd World War, with the initial successes of the Germans together with their Italian allies eventually turned sour; without describing all that happened during the years 1940-1945 in Italy, I will briefly recall the downfall of Mussolini in July 1943, the brief Badoglio Government and the request for an Armistice on 8 September 1943. On 23 September of the same year the Repubblica Sociale Italiana was created, also known as the Repubblica di Salo, which confirmed the alliance with Germany. The Germans though, not trusting the Italians, invaded Italy and started imposing Nazi ideals throughout Italy and rounding up Jewish families to deport to their German concentration camps.

Continue reading Olga’s story here at “Two years on Lake Como: 1941 – 1943″

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