Robert Einstein’s Suicide

Cesarina and Robert Einstein.Foto: Repo/LKA
Cesarina and Roberto Einstein. Foto Repo/LKA

At Villa Il Focardo, in south of Florence, the family of Robert Einstein, Albert’s first cousin, was brutally murdered by Nazis in the Summer of 1944.

Located in the gently rolling country of the Arno Valley, the late Quattrocento-style villa has a green space at its entrance with a stone staircase and a decorative pool often seen in Italian gardens. Looking at the Villa’s facade, we see the lemon house on the right and a church on the left. Beyond the nineteenth-century chapel, a park enlivened mainly with holly oaks and cypresses reaches the forest at the edge of the property. That this Florentine seraph would bear witness to the wanton destruction of a happy and loving family is difficult to imagine.

Robert Einstein was a cousin of Nobel Prize Laureate Albert Einstein, as Hermann Einstein, Albert’s father, was an older brother and business partner of Jacob Einstein, who persuaded his sibling to move his family and factory from Munich to Pavia, Italy. Robert eventually moved to Florence, married Cesarina ‘Nina’ Mazzetti, and settled in Villa Il Focardo. The couple had two daughters: Luce and Annamaria’ Cici.’ Nina’s twin nephews, who had lost their mother, Paola, and Lorenza, were adopted and lived with them.

Life was simple and good.

Many fiestas around a particular local bounty started in early summer and continued through the fall as regional specialties such as truffles, wine, olive oil, and marina chestnuts came into season. Weddings, births, baptisms, confirmations, and funerals were woven into the tapestry of life. In late spring, Tuscan marriages provided idyllic interludes when the colors of the waking earth returned, and a hint of green touched the meadows and the undulating hills. There were weekly markets in most towns and larger villages. The country fairs were sources of merriment as revelers danced the Tresconeto, sword eaters, flame breathers, human skeletons, dwarves, agile dogs full of tricks, magicians, tumblers, and jugglers mesmerized the young and old alike. Religious holidays and processions honoring Santa Maria and the patron saint, Our Lady Montenegro, were the spiritual highlights of the communal calendar. The depiction of the Easter calcavade portrayed in films about Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana, Regina Coeli, provides the perfect visual template to imagine holy celebrations in the Italian heartland.

As Albert had foretold, their pastoral world, thus far shielded from the winds of war, was on the verge of being swept away. When the Wehrmacht marched into Poland, the Nobel laureate tried to convince Robert and his family to join him in America. Albert Einstein’s sister Maja had also lived at Sesto Fiorentino since the 1920s, but as the horizon darkened, she joined her brother in the USA.

Robert was oblivious to the traps set by history; he loved Florence, often talked about the city’s rich Philo-Semitic heritage, and viewed the giant Star of David on the facade of the Basilica Santa Croce designed by the Jewish architect Nicolo Matas as a symbol of the Judeo-Christian ethos of the Renaissance. Mussolini’s infamous Racial Laws of 1938 did not change his mind. Even in 1939, Robert could not believe that Rome would soon join the war and that Nazi calamities would be visited on his Italy. His wife and children bore his surname but were not Jewish. For him, Rome was not Berlin; the Florence of Leonardo could not be farther away from Nuremberg. He was not alone in his inability to come to terms with the brutal reality.

Writing these words reminds me of The Garden of Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani’s masterpiece. This haunting, elegiac novel captured the mood and atmosphere of Italy in the twilight years of the thirties, featuring an aristocratic Jewish family moving surreptitiously towards its demise. Robert evokes the fatalism of Ermanno, the Finzi Continis’ father, who drifted on the tides of fate, surrounded by illusions, family, and solitary pleasures, only to be deported from Ferrara to Auschwitz.

Finally, as his cousin Albert had feared, the insensate barbarity Robert had imagined would not stain his life finally arrived at the gates of his Tuscan home.

Soon after the Allied landings in Sicily, the Germans occupied northern Italy in 1943. As native resistance to Nazi occupation mounted, SS atrocities against civilians escalated with ferocious brutality.

But unlike the Finzi-Continis, in the final years of the war, against the advice of friends, Robert was irresistibly drawn into the anti-Fascist resistance as news of civilian massacres spread and the Germans retreated before the Allied onslaught, leaving behind a scorched earth. The agents of Mussolini’s new puppet Italian Social Republic based in Salò on Lake Garda and the SS started to compile lists of ‘traitors’ and Jews in their jurisdiction. Jewish deportations began very quickly after the Nazis occupied Italy. In Florence, the son of Rabbi Umberto Cassuto, Dr. Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, head of the Jewish community, was one of the first people detained in concentration camps. Just thirteen of the 243 deported Jews made it back alive. But many Florentine Jews managed to flee the Nazis thanks to the help of righteous Italians, nuns, and priests at great personal peril to themselves. Apart from making arrests and deporting people, the Nazis also destroyed and robbed Jewish property. German forces ransacked the Great Synagogue in Florence and almost set it on fire. Its invaluable works of art were mainly pilfered.

As the Allies marched up the Valdarno and the Reich prepared for the final battle, the hunt for Jews and partisans intensified. Regular Wehrmacht troops were replaced by units known for their savagery. According to a war crimes report issued after the war, 165 civilians per day were killed by Nazis in Italy from 1944 to 1945. The massacre of Monte Sole in Bologna, for example, was the largest murder of civilians by the Waffen SS in Western Europe and the deadliest mass murder in Italian history. In retaliation for partisan attacks and resistance activities in the region, German SS troops, along with members of the fascist Italian Social Republic, carried out a brutal massacre of civilians in the villages surrounding Monte Sole. The killings lasted several days, during which innocent men, women, and children were rounded up, tortured, and killed.

But Robert, the brutal evidence notwithstanding, convinced himself that while he might be killed, his Italian Christian family would be spared. It was the illusion he needed to justify his participation in the struggle. Indeed, according to Lorenza Mazzetti, a young cousin living with family, the billeted German soldiers at the Villa were friendly, played chess with Robert, and flirted amicably with his daughters. Indeed, in Robert’s thinking, these people would not hurt his family. However, as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in his work Culture and Value, “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

On the night of August 3, 1944, while fighting in the hills not far from the Villa, Robert heard machine gunshots from his residence and saw a massive fire consuming the estate. He rushed back with partisans only to find that the Nazi forces had left the scene. To his everlasting horror, he saw the lifeless bodies of his wife and two daughters in a pool of blood in the front yard. The twins, Paola and Lorenza, survived the massacre because of their surname, Mazzetti; Cesarina, Luce, and Annamaria died because of their family name, Einstein.

As cruel fate would have it, the next day, August 4, 1944, Milton Wexler, from the US 5th Army and Albert’s student, reached the Villa to save Robert and his family eight hours too late. He had promised his professor that he would try to get to the Villa and rescue his relatives. Sometimes, eight hours are eternal..

On a website titled “From a Tuscan Hillside,” I stumbled on a touching image album of the tragic events at Villa Focardo without the author’s name. But the piece’s conclusion fails to bring closure: “Recent research has pointed instead of the SS to a regiment of the regular army, namely the 104th Panzergrenadier of the Wehrmacht, as perpetrating this (the killing of Robert’s family at Hitler’s orders) as well as murders, rapes, looting, and beatings in other parts of Tuscany and southern Italy. It may well have been that the regiment, known for its savagery, was ordered to kill Einstein and his family. The next day, a note was found nailed to a tree. It read: ‘We have executed the members of the Einstein family, guilty of treason and Jews. ‘”

The war ended, but Robert’s life became one of infinite desolation; a poor soul burdened with a corpse as a friend observed with a heavy heart. His family was interred in his consciousness; he could think of nothing else. The joyful sounds that once moved him but no longer existed continued to reverberate in his mind. Alas, the slow passing of months did not lessen the memory of the blood-drenched moment that separated him from those he loved. Shakespeare encapsulated Robert’s anguish: “Would I were dead if God’s good will were so, For what is in this world but grief and woe?”

One year later, in 1945, on the anniversary of his marriage to Cesarina, he committed suicide in the tombs of his family in the cemetery of Baduzzia as the sun bled and the horizon embraced the shadows. He had hesitated for a long time because he felt responsible for the surviving twins, who had no relatives and would be left alone. Alas, the suicide of the mind had preceded the suicide of the flesh. He was buried next to his wife and daughter. Today, both graves are covered with stones of remembrance as Jews and Gentiles come to pay tribute to once effervescent lives now embalmed in chagrin.

In 2007, German authorities investigated the events and interviewed Lorenza Mazzetti. Initially, it was thought that the main instigator was still alive and living in Rhineland-Palatinate. In 2011, the case was the subject of an episode of Aktenzeichen XY… ungelöst, a German TV crime program that aimed to find surviving eyewitnesses, especially the young German soldier who had refused to participate in the events. However, this effort was unsuccessful. Lorenza Mazzetti visited Germany during the investigation and was convinced that she had identified the main perpetrator of the crime after seeing a photo of him. The suspected perpetrator, known to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, is also alleged to have participated in a massacre of 184 civilians in Padule di Fucecchio on August 23, 1944, and lived in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria. A court in Rome passed a life sentence in absentia on the former soldier for this massacre, but Germany did not extradite him.

In 2011, a military court in Italy tried four of the suspected perpetrators and found three of them guilty, while the fourth one died during the trial. Ernst Pistor (Captain), Fritz Jauss (Warrant officer), and Johan Robert Riss (Sergeant) were found guilty, while Gerhard Deissmann died before the sentencing, aged 100. The three were unlikely to serve time in jail because Germany was not obliged to extradite them. None of the three showed any remorse for their action. They are certainly among those who murdered Robert’s family.

What would Luce and Annamaria have made out of their lives had they survived? The inspiring story of the Mazzetti twins who lived holds a lantern to what might have been—the eternal six million question without an answer but redolent with the imagined outcomes.

A Memoria Della Shoah Milano document told the story of the twins who lived through the night without end at Villa Focardo. After the war, Paola and Lorenza returned to Florence and found a new life. People mourn differently: they began their new journey without wishing to bear witness but to grieve and remember through creative, life-giving work. They preferred to recognize and honor the memory of their family by living life to the fullest. Silent stone monuments meant little to them. However, celebrating redemption in life was their path without casting away the personal rites of remembrance; theirs was a silent and timeless commemoration.

Lorenza settled in London, where she managed, with a rocking stratagem, to get accepted at the Slate School of Fine Arts. She studied painting and cinema. She is one of the founders of British Free Cinema. She has never told her story, yet autobiographical components shine through her films. Paola opened an art gallery, painted, married, and brought to life a daughter, Eva. She moved to Rome, where she practiced art and psychoanalysis. After a few years, Lorenza also moved to Rome.

The common interest and practice of painting led them to live lives of continuous experimentation on both an artistic and personal level. Anyone who frequented them has been struck by their vitality and joyful, inflexible non-conformism. Their testimony is always life lived well and the ability to find meaning in the challenging complexities of existence. The way they communicated the essence of meaning in life contained fragments of their broken past. Their lives were triumphs. I have no reason to doubt that Robert’s girls, too, would have accomplished much had they been permitted to live.

Lorenza passed away in 2020; Paola in 2022.

In an interview before her death, Lorenza remembered the past at the Villa with the following words: “If I close my eyes, I can still see the crumbling old Villa resting, as if asleep, in the heat. The air is honey-sweet and dusty with the scents of lavender, rosemary, and unfamiliar flowers. I stand in the shadow of the cypress trees that line the ancient driveway, long reclaimed by weeds. Faint lines remain where car wheels, or perhaps wagon wheels once rolled, and a heavy, rusted chain is looped between two posts at the end of the road.”

Such is the unbearable heaviness of the dust of memory.

About the Author
Erol Araf is a strategic planning analyst and international business development consultant with years of experience in global marketing with an emphasis on developing and managing international projects. Before consulting, he was National Director of Public Affairs at the Canadian Jewish Congress and was Director of National Marketing & Quebec Regional CEO at Canada Israel Securities Limited. Canadian [born in Turkey], Conservative Party of Canada, Morachist League of Canada, International Churchill Society. He designed and developed the concept for the movie "Mozart in Turkey," which was filmed on location at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It won the Golden Rembrandt Award in 2002. B.A. Business Administration, University of Hertford, U.K.
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