July 18, 2012
An Italian history: How one Jewish family survived Italy's fascist persecution
86-year-old Fortunata Franchetti Treves looks back
By Bethany McDaniel
FLORENCE, Italy—Centuries of history whizzed past on a hot day in June as we drove winding roads outside of Florence – our knees squeezed next to our ears in the subcompact car. Roads once used by mules to pull carts packed with goods were filled with narrow lanes of Florentine traffic, causing cars to all but scrape against the slapdash, stone walls.
We pulled through an automated gate that slowly opened after a push of a buzzer, creeping along the gravel path that led to a rustic, yellow stucco villa surrounded by potted lemon trees. We emptied out of the tiny Ford and gazed awestruck at a 16th-century estate tucked into the hills and cypress trees rimming Florence.
At the front door was an elderly woman in a navy skirt and blazer with a smile of hospitality and eyes as lively as they were wise.
“Benvenuto!” began 86-year-old Fortunata Franchetti Treves as she welcomed her American guests, a greeting followed by many sentences in her native language. The Italian, lost on her monolingual, English-speaking guests, somehow managed to communicate sincere warmth and kindness.
We followed her through an interior courtyard open to the elements, the sun pouring onto scattered weeds and wildflowers piercing through the concrete cracks.
Out another door, we stepped into a garden seemingly fit for Mary Lennox or straight out of a Frances Mayes novel—lemon and grapefruit trees, Grecian statues, flowers of many colors, all presided over by a white-and-peach-striped cat purring at our feet. We had stepped into another world, another time, as if it had been waiting for us all our lives. Our sense of wonder shined through mesmerized eyes.
Fortunata Treves invited us to sit with her in this secret garden, eager to share her family’s story, a tale of quiet endurance and ties that bind. We sat down on the weathered green patio furniture resting in the shade of one of her many cypress trees.
The stage had been set, the curtains were drawn and her story began.
True Life: I’m an Italian Jew
Discrimination towards the Jewish community in Italy began long before the fascist regimes that instigated World War II. One of the more extreme manifestations of this anti-semitism occurred in the 16th century with the building of the Jewish ghetto in Florence, in what today is the bustling, gleaming Piazza Repubblica. The ghetto was enforced into the late 19th century with racial laws and regulations restricting the freedom and rights of Florentine Jews. For example, no Jew could own property until Jews were granted citizenship in 1861, when Italy unified.
Before 1861, Fortunata Treves’s husband’s ancestors found a fully furnished, pale yellow villa on the outskirts of Florence. Its location outside the city limits, beyond the reach of the racial laws, meant they could own it. The allure of owning their own property prompted them to buy the sprawling, 30-room house, which has remained in the Treves family ever since.
[For more information about the Treves’ 16th century villa, see a slideshow by Mary Claire Stewart, The Treves family: An uncommon story]
Marco Treves, whose great-grandson married into the family of the new owners of the villa, migrated to Florence from northern Italy in the 1830s. His son was an architect who played a major role in the construction of Florence’s only synagogue beginning in 1874, a synagogue that remains the core of the Jewish community of Florence today.
With the ghetto still fresh on Florentine Jews’ minds, the synagogue was built as a new start on the outer edges of the city. Jewish tour guide and historian Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld said it is the largest synagogue in Italy and even in Europe.
Less than a century later, Treves’s great-grandson—also named Marco, and husband to Fortunata—experienced the other side of the discrimination’s coin by leaving his native Italy because he was Jewish, rather than being locked inside a walled ghetto. Fortunata Treves recalled how her husband and the whole Treves family witnessed at great cost the political vicissitudes of Italian history.
"I remember, my impression, was as if a storm had happened at the time,” said Fortunata, as her eyes moistened with the memory. “It had fallen on just a part of the people. Just like an earthquake, you could do nothing against it. It was as if some form of nature forces were upset."
Historian Stefano Farina explained that when Italy announced an armistice with the Allies, before the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, fled to southern Italy, and before Hitler made Benito Mussolini his puppet, the fascist government of Italy in a sense actually protected the Jews.
“Mussolini did not care to hurt the Jews,” said Farina, a student of Fortunata Treves more than 30 years ago. “And then Hitler sent the Nazis because of the Italian armistice with the Allied forces. Then, then the Jews experienced deportations because of Hitler.”
The Nazis roll in to Italy
Before the Nazi presence, there was persecution and discrimination, but no physical violence against Jews. Mussolini attempted to create a “pure” Italian identity—one that did not include Jews or other “non-Italian” influences, such as gypsies or other foreigners.
Mussolini banned the use of certain words that many Sephardic Jews—refugees who migrated to Italy from Spain in the late 15th-century—brought with them from Spain. Rules such as this also affected Forunata—who wasn’t even considered a Jew at this point.
During the fascist era in Italy, for example, Mussolini’s black shirts made Fortunata change her name, from the French Fortunee to Fortunata. However, the Italian fascists wanted a more Italian society, so they forced her to have the Italian version – Fortunata, she said.
Still, she said she was grateful no one was sent to concentration camps or physically abused, at least until the Nazis arrived. Infuriated by the Italian betrayal of Emmanuel III in 1943, Hitler sent German troops into Italy. Suddenly it was dangerous to be a Jew.
Betrayed by their country
Fortunata Treves said people such as her husband and other working Jewish men and women did not expect the Italian government to allow, much less cooperate with, the persecution of Jews that was already in full swing in Germany. Therefore, when racial laws passed in Italy in 1938, Jews, who believed themselves true patriots, suddenly felt vulnerable. Very abruptly, all aspects of their lives became controlled by the government. Jews weren’t even allowed to mingle with other people in their jobs.
“The racial laws made it impossible for him to work or study,” said Fortunata, about her husband. “Like many others, deprived of an ability to work and with increasing restrictions on all of his activities, he left the country. It was a very bad time.”
All people from the Jewish world were affected. Jewish businesses were boycotted or closed completely. Jewish children were denied access to public schools. Three of Fortunata’s friends, all Jewish, simply disappeared – cast out of Italy.
“I went to school one day and they were not there,” she explained, pain written across her face. “No one offered an explanation; they were just gone.”
Marco and his sister, Silvia, left Italy for England as soon as the racial laws were passed, in hopes of eventually getting to America.
“My husband felt betrayed by Italy and never wanted to go back,” Fortunata Treves said, punctuating the memory with an ironic laugh.
Eventually Marco Treves found a measure of contentment in New York City’s upper west side, despite sparse living conditions and a meager salary teaching Italian and Latin.
“He was happy mainly because of the libraries,” she remembered with a broad smile as she sipped a glass of water brought to her by her daughter, Benedetta. “He was—how do you say—a bookworm.” (“In Italy, we say ‘book mouse,’” Benedetta added.)
Marco Treves remained in the Manhattan apartment he shared with other Jewish refugees, covered up in books for 18 years.
The war scattered the Treveses, so after 1945, Marco’s father, Guido Treves, wanted to reunite his family—especially his only son. He sent his eldest daughter, Marcella, to bring Marco back to Italy. Because she didn’t want to venture to New York City – and take a five-day sea voyage – by herself, she coaxed the 26-year-old Fortunata Franchetti into accompanying her.
Making a vow
The two women took the English ship Caronia in 1954 from England to New York, where they met Marco in his book-lined Manhattan apartment. Teaching Latin and Italian at a local university, most of Marco Treves’s pupils were opera singers who needed Italian to be able to sing the arias.
He did not accompany Marcella and Fortunata back to Italy, but the seeds of love – and his eventual return – had been planted. Within a year, Marco and Fortunata were married in New York City with the promise that when they had children—if they had children—Marco would agree to go back to Italy.
In 1956, the new couple became pregnant with Benedetta Treves, the first of four children, and true to his promise, Marco brought Fortunata back to Florence.
Marco’s father, Guido, “was old and needed his son,” Fortunata said, as the summer winds whistled through the garden. She pushed a strand of grey hair away from her eyes with a trembling hand. “My mother was a widower and wanted me back, too.”
Marco Treves’s strong sense of betrayal persisted, however. He wanted to be near his family in Italy, but he had built a life in America. As Fortunata described him, “he was content. He had his books.”
After a few years in the villa, the couple returned to America and had their second child, Guido, in 1959. Over the years, the family shuttled between America and Italy, having two more children along the way.
Fortunata straightened up and said with pride, “I traveled by boat to America five times.”
Religious identity: “It’s complicated”
Born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother in 1925, Fortunata Treves’s religious and ethnic identity is “complicated,” Benedetta Treves said.
Because her mother was Catholic, Fortunata was baptized as a Catholic. This fact, a result of the vagaries of ethnicity, religion and racial identity in the confused pre-WWII era, ended up saving her from expulsion from the Italian public life and from being deported to a concentration camp.
The Nazis left Fortunata Treves alone because, as she explained, “they had too much to worry about already, so they did not deal with the mixed Jewish families like us, which, of course, was different to the situation in Germany.”
Though she married Marco, an Italian Jew, in 1955, she kept her Catholic faith, and because her husband was not a strict Jew, the mixed marriage worked.
“My husband was passionate of the story of Jewish history,” she said, “but he was, as you can say, he was agnostic. He never pressured me to convert.”
Shortly after Marco died of pulmonary illness in 1990, however, Fortunata converted to Judaism, at 64. Her daughter Benedetta explained that her mother converted primarily so she could be buried next to her husband in the Jewish cemetery.
Fortunata Treves said that part of her reasoning is explained by the war.
“I felt I belonged on the side of those hurt during the war,” she said. “I [converted] for other people being wronged and damaged during the war.”
[For more of Fortunata’s experience, in her own words, see this video, Re-living Italy's fascist, by Kayla Sanner]
The Family Today
The large Treves family moves between Florence, New York City and California. The big yellow villa is home to Fortunata, her sons Guido, Iacopo and his son Davide, 17, as well as her granddaughter, Ariela, 17, daughter of Alessandro Treves. Cousins from New York come every summer to spend a few weeks in the rustic villa. Benedetta and her husband, Andrew, an American physician and artist who shuttles between Italy and California throughout the year, live with their sons Alexander, 14, and Samuel, 11, in Florence.
A majority of the Treves family considers themselves culturally Jewish, though they do not strictly practice Judaism. This is a common theme for Italian Jews.
[For more on of how Jewish Italians negotiate their identities, see Fully Italian, fully Jewish, The Treves family: An uncommon story and Jewish AND Italian: Identity in Florence a complex negotiation.]
Clearly the history of their family and the stories that Fortunata Treves tells are important to the family. As we sat in the garden with our notebooks and video cameras, scurrying about to take notes and record the interviews, the rest of the family gathered around their matriarch, listening too, adding comments here and there or translating for us whenever Fortunata would switch to Italian, which she often did.
As Fortunata Treves continued her guided tour through the villa, members of the family moved boxes so she could walk through, or brought her a chair to rest on, or a glass of water to refresh her. While she was explaining a picture in the kitchen, we looked into another room filled with rare, dust-covered books. Surrounded by the stately wall-to-wall bookcases, three cousins bunched on a sofa flipped through old photo albums, giggling and pointing at the fashions and fads of their ancestors.
The quiet, sequestered villa on a Tuscan hill, surrounded by lemon and cypress trees, has much, much more history to tell.
Bethany McDaniel is a senior visual communication major with a minor in history working as news producer for Viking Fusion. She is from Huntsville, Ala.
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