Italy, 1943. Lydia, Pino and the village of Giais.

Lydia and Pino listening to Rabbi Ottolenghi's blessings at the Ghetto's Spanish synagogue in Venice.

When a beam of sunlight bursts through heavy dark clouds, multiple arguments could be made about how it happened. Were the clouds merciful and allowed a path? Was the light able to create that path on its own? Or, in the absence of will for elements, it was just an expression of what is meant to be? In the story that is about to unfold, the clouds are just ignorant about what light is all about.

On September 5, 1943, Lydia (Calimani) and Pino (Segrè) lived in Venice, Italy. On that day, in front of family and friends at the Ghetto’s Spanish synagogue, they finally accomplished their desire of getting married. The Allies’ troops were invading the south of Italy. The Nazi forces were gathering in the north, ready for a possible invasion. Holding on to each other’s tense gaze, the bride and groom stood under the Chuppah (a canopy under which the couple stands during the ceremony) while Rabbi Ottolenghi read the blessings (Sheva Berachot). Blessing number four: “Blessed .. Hashem… who hast made man in His image… a perpetual fabric…”

Rabbi Ottolenghi blessing Lydia and Pino during their wedding, 1943

Just a few months earlier, on July 25, Mussolini’s fascist government fell, and General Badoglio became the new prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy. Feelings were tugged between relief and grief, hope and fear. Pino’s dad, Ettore, served the Italian Monarchy in WWI. He was faithful and trusted the king and had no hesitation in declaring his residence as ‘Jew residence’ as the Italian racial laws imposed in previous years. Nevertheless, WWII was far from over.

Strong in their newlyweds’ optimism, Pino and Lydia searched for ways to work and build their new family. Pino began traveling by train out of Venice, exploring business opportunities. On September 8, General Badoglio publicly announced the Armistice of Cassibile. This armistice, signed on September 3, agreed to end hostilities between the Kingdom of Italy and the Allies. 

The German troops acted quickly as ferociously. As part of a broader-scale military operation, the areas of Mestre and Venice were also invaded. It was the 9th and 10th of September, 1943. 

Lydia and Pino with family and friends at the Ghetto’s Spanish synagogue, 1943.

During those months, Italy broke into two pieces, the north, and the south, more or less in half. King Emanuel III (and general Badoglio) controlled the south, allowing Allies forces to march north. The Nazis held the north and installed the nazi-fascist Salo Republic puppet-state. On September 12, the Germans freed Mussolini from an Italian jail and placed him at the head of the Salo Republic. The NaziFascist occupation was brutal, and Venice was in the midst of its darkness. The Germans planned to torture the Venetian Jewish community president. They wanted to access the community family names registry. On September 17, president Giuseppe Jona, in order not to reveal where that registry was, committed suicide.

In November 1943, the Salo Republic declared all Jews ‘enemy aliens’. All Jews were to be captured and their properties seized. In Venice, arrests and deportations began during the first week of December. While the Nazis were arresting families from streets and homes, Pino was on one of his short business trips out of Venice. Lydia was hospitalized at the local hospital due to an ear infection.

In Venice, people were familiar with each other, and doctors at the hospital knew Lydia was Jewish. Once the ear infection was under control and Lydia was ready to be dismissed, the doctors would find ways to keep her at the hospital. Doctors knew that if Lydia were to be sent home, she would have certainly been arrested. So, for at least ten days, Lydia, back in her strength, helped the doctors take care of the other patients. In particular, she cared for a woman sleeping in the bed next to hers. At the time, patients were gathered in huge rooms where only a curtain occasionally separated one bed from another.

Once Pino arrived back in Venice, he met a friend at the train station. “Pino! What are you doing here!? The Nazis are arresting every Jew they know about. It’s too dangerous for you.” Pino was looking for his wife, whom he discovered safe at the hospital. Blessing number seven: “Blessed … Hashem… who makes the bridegroom rejoice with the bride..”

Sitting next to each other on the hospital bed, Lydia and Pino whispered about what could they do. Some Jews escaped to Switzerland, others to southern Allied-occupied Italy. While the hopeful yet shapeless whispering continued, a patient’s voice raised from a nearby bed. It was the voice of a woman Lydia took care of in those recent days. “I couldn’t help but hear your situation,” she interrupted. She wrote a quick note and gave it into Lydia’s hands. Dear mother, these are Lydia and her husband Pino. They are my friends. Please, take care of them. Talk to our parroco (the local priest) as well. “Go to the village of Giais” she said to Lydia. “My mother lives there. She will take care of you. My name is Gina Boschian. My parents are Giuseppe and Marianna”.

In those same days, Pino’s father Ettore, his wife Lea, and their 10-year-old daughter Nedda were arrested, imprisoned in Venice’s penitentiary, and part of a convoy soon to be “shipped.” People that were part of that convoy were allowed to write a letter home, and Pino received reassuring news from his father that “everything is OK.” But family members still at home were about to share the same destiny soon. 

Many of that convoy were Venetian Jews, including mothers and children. Primo Levi, survivor and author of several books about the Shoah, was on that same convoy. His narration of mothers washing their children’s clothes the night before deportation saw many from Venice, including two mothers with their newborns, Umberto Nacamulli and Leo Mariani.

After a few days, Lydia and Pino left Venice – together with Ebe e Lina Calimani, Lydia’s mom and aunt – and were able to reach Giais, a small village in the mountains north-east of Venice (in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region). When they arrived, they initially hid in a stall that belonged to the Boschian family. Unfortunately, Giuseppe passed away during that period, and Marianna lived with her other daughter Jolanda. Jewish people’s presence was a danger to all of the town. Still, it didn’t stop Don Lorenzo Tosolin (the local parish priest) for a visit once in a while. After a few days, an apartment in town became available as the owners moved to France. Lydia, Pino, Ebe, and Lina moved into this apartment. The neighbors (the Luigi Polo family) and Giais’ entire population never questioned who those new people were, as if they had always been part of Giais’ community. Likely, Don Lorenzo spoke to the community about their presence and how important it was to behave as usual, as nothing special was happening.

During that cold winter, daily life in Giais moved forward between partisans on the hills and Nazis located in the main urban centers. Locally grown food was available as it was an agricultural area. The town had a guard whose job was to keep order under the Salo Republic. He would quickly look elsewhere when he saw Lydia or any of her family.

In the meantime, Ettore, Lea, and Nedda and the rest of their convoy were transferred from the Venice penitentiary to the Fossoli concentration camp in Carpi. Ettore wrote a postcard to reassure Pino that the camp was “well organized, the travel was long but comfortable, but nothing was missing for them, and not to worry.”

Ettore’s postcard mailed from the Fossoli concentration camp.

In January 1944, Lydia discovered to be pregnant. The joy of a new life was instantly choked by the fear of losing it. Those dark clouds were a suffocating godless presence, and the Nazis’ hunt for Jews was a self-justified criminal obsession. On February 22, Ettore, Lea, and 10-year-old Nedda were transferred from the Fossoli concentration camp to Auschwitz. They were murdered on their arrival on February 26. Blessed be their memory.

In late August, Lydia and her mom realized the delivery date was approaching, so they decided to move to Sacile for a week or so. In Sacile, a town approximately 27 kilometers distant, a midwife helped pregnancies in the area, including Giais. On Mondays, a merchant used to go back and forth from Sacile to Giais and gave Lydia and her mom a lift on his horse-drawn cart. In Sacile, they stayed at a locanda called “Al Sole.” In those days, they took some short walks around the locanda to help with the pregnancy. Unfortunately, the locanda was situated right next to the local Nazi base. The chance of encountering a patrol haunted every step. Furthermore, the Nazis imposed a curfew, and arrests were made daily.

On August 26, Lydia began to feel labor pain. The midwife arrived, and after a first assessment, she said she would come back the morning later. There was the curfew; she did not want to take any risk. But that same evening, the pain became unbearable for Lydia. Her screams filled the nightly silence, and other guests, including the locanda’s owner, became anxious. Once he understood the situation, the owner opened his windows and bravely waved at the Nazi sentinels to be recognized. The guards knew him well as they would stop by to drink once in a while. So, the Nazis marched to Lydia’s room, opened the door, and saw her screaming in her mother’s arms.

The Nazis took their guns and the locanda owner. They drove to the midwife’s house in the middle of the night. They banged on her door, woke her up, and forced her to follow them back to the locanda to assist Lydia in her delivery. Once they were all back, they found Lydia holding her baby in her arms. The midwife rushed to help cut the umbilical cord and final delivery practices. On that early morning, August 27, 1944, a beam of light scattered the clouds, and a Jewish baby was born in the face of evil. The baby girl was named Bruna (Jewish name Beracha, blessing), and the town of Giais silently welcomed a new soul to protect. 

On April 25, 1945, the Salo Republic collapsed under the uprising of partisans and the Allies’ forces. Out of (approximately) 50,000 Jews living in Italy before the war, nearly 9,000 were killed or deported during the German occupation.

After the war ended, Giais’ former city guard introduced himself to Lydia and her family. He apologized he didn’t do it before, as he would have been forced to report them to the Nazis as that was his public role. Later on, Lydia and Pino had two other children, Ettore and Lia. Together with their families, they kept a connection with the Boschian family and other people in Giais, always grateful and thanking them for what they did.

Venice, Italy – April 20, 2019: Memorial of the genocide of Venetian Jews in the Jewish ghetto in Venice showing the deportation of people by train carved into stone.

Today, Bruna and Ettore have two wonderful families and are taking care of their 99-yrs-old mother, Lydia. Bruna has two daughters, one of whom I married and another who made aliyah to Israel. Blessing number five: “May the barren one (Jerusalem) rejoice and be happy at the gathering of her children to her midst in joy. Blessed Hashem who gladdens Zion with her children.”

The hospital doctors, the Boschian family, the parroco Don Lorenzo Tosolin, the city guard, and, in general, all the villagers of Giais (who knew but remained silent) are heroes of this story. No good deed should go unnoticed or remain untold. In particular, this extraordinary expression of the good side of humanity in such horrific and dangerous times deserves at least to be shared publicly as much as possible. Many blessings to the villagers of Gias and their descendants.

This post is dedicated to the Segrè and Calimani families, to the village of Giais, to the Venetian Jewish community, to all those who lost their loved ones during the Holocaust, and particularly to my mother-in-law Bruna Segrè. She was born in Sacile, piercing those thick dark clouds from above, and had no fear to start breathing in the face of evil.

Jewish survivors gather in the Great German Synagogue in Venice.1945.
Pictured to the left of the rabbi is Immanuel Ascarelli wearing his Jewish Brigade uniform. Photo Credit – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Roma Ascarelli

I wrote this article at the best of my knowledge and gathered the information by interviewing Lydia in Italy, from Bruna’s collection of memories and documents, the book Il Libro della Memoria by Liliana Picciotto, and the organization I Figli della Shoah sezione Venezia. Special thanks to Marina Scarpa Campos, the Friuli Venezia Giulia Team Social, Viviana Urban and the Aviano Library, and Lisa Del Cont Bernard.

Sources/useful links:

About the Author
Daniel Vital is an Italian Jewish filmmaker who immigrated to the US in 2009. His mom, born in Ferrara, Italy, married an Egyptian Jewish immigrant born to Corfiot and Moroccan parents. As a child, he lived in the US for four years and then moved back to Italy at age nine. In Milan, he grew up in a small but multi-ethnic Jewish setting that was predominantly Persian and Lebanese but also Italian, North African, Turkish, and Eastern European. He earned a BA in advertising and worked as a film editor for multiple purposes, from TV Shows to documentaries, music videos, commercials, and corporate films. He evolved as a director while working on video and event productions across Europe as well as filming documentary footage in Tibet. After moving back to the US with his wife in 2009, he went through health challenges and a long immigration process. From the time he arrived in the US, he endured years of unemployment, suffered from heart failure, and battled cancer at the bone marrow while being a stay-at-home dad to his newborn daughter. Such experiences shaped his approach to his artistic self in new ways that today come to life through his work. In 2016, as soon as his health challenges were over, he wrote and directed the short film Thank You Rebbe. In 2017 he received his green card and returned to collaborating and volunteering with film projects. Soon, he was helping nonprofits meet their filmmaking needs, and in 2018 accepted a full-time position as a video director at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. The first project he wrote and produced was a video raising awareness about antisemitism in the US. In 2020, this video received a Silver Telly Award and a Midwest EMMY nomination. In 2021, his short film Thank You Rebbe won the Best Jewish Film Award at the Cannes World Film Festival - Remember The Future competition. Today he is writing his first feature narrative and is earning his MA in Jewish Studies at the Spertus Institute.
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