Italian Villa That Housed Holocaust Orphans Faces Developer’s Wrecking Ball

Activists in northern Italy hope Jewish groups abroad will step in and preserve the building’s history.

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SELVINO, Italy – In this small village in the Italian Alps stands a magnificent villa that once housed 800 Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust. Today, plans are afoot to tear the place down and build a tourist resort.

But Italian historian Marco Cavallarin and local allies aim to keep the neglected building intact and preserve its memory as a haven to Holocaust survivors. They hope an international Jewish foundation will help them buy the property and work together on a renovation project.

“We asked the regional council to establish a working group ... for a rescue project that would include a memorial to the ‘children of Selvino,’” Cavallarin told Haaretz.

Among those children is Polish-born Naftali Burnstein, who was 14 when he arrived at Sciesopoli, as the building is known. Members of the Jewish Brigade that had fought with the British found him alone in Warsaw after World War II; in 1945 they brought him to Sciesopoli, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee housed orphans after the war.

Designed by architect Paolo Vieti-Violi in 1933, the building included dormitories, refectories, a cinema, an infirmary, a swimming pool and a 17,000-square-meter park. During the Mussolini regime, it had served as an institute for fascist youth.

“Imagine, inside the building there was a cinema hall and a swimming pool. And it was in the Alps. It was really something for us,” says Burnstein, who is now 85 and lives in Israel. “We were mainly taught general knowledge and Hebrew. The brigade soldiers ran the studies. When we arrived in Israel we were already speaking Hebrew fluently.”

Sciesopoli provided a shelter to Jewish orphans until 1948; by then, most of the children had found their way to prestate Israel. Vital was the help of the Milan Jewish community, the Milan municipality, the Jewish Brigade, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Youth Aliyah and former partisans.

Sciesopoli remained open until 1983 as a holiday camp for working-class children. That year, Selvino and Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev, where most of the children had settled upon arriving in Mandatory Palestine, became sister cities. Many Sciesopoli orphans have gone back to visit Selvino with their families, as Burnstein did in 2010.

“We went to Poland, to all the Holocaust sites, as a family roots trip .... We also went to Selvino so that the children and grandchildren could know what I went through,” he says. The place “was completely neglected. Abandoned.”

When the holiday camp closed in 1983, Sciesopoli was sold to real estate agency Schiavo, which now has plans to sell the building so it can be turned into a hotel. Grass grows from the floors. A ceiling is collapsing.

“Fifteen years ago we tried to turn it into a hospice, because that was what the people of Selvino wanted, but we couldn’t find the funds, and with no money, there was nothing we could do,” says Vinicio Grigis, the trustee for Schiavo and Selvino’s mayor when the building was sold.

The Selvino city council has asked the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities to ensure that the building be used for children or disadvantaged people, but Cavallarin notes that this is merely a recommendation that wouldn’t stop any developer.

Italian newspapers have reported on ads in Russian and Chinese on the Internet; developers are viewing the property as a spa or tourist resort. “If a Russian buyer came along, which is not the case at the moment, or an Arab buyer, I would negotiate with them as well, because that’s my job,” Grigis says.

Against this backdrop, groups such as Milan’s Jewish community and the National Association of Italian Partisans drew up a petition in December to “identify and elaborate a significant project meant to effectively preserve and promote the memory of Sciesopoli, now under threat of destruction.”

The number of signatures is at 5,000 and rising. The activists expect to submit a petition in early May – the anniversary of both the end of World War II in Europe and the birth of “the Jewish Sciesopoli,” as many Italians call it.

“I believe it’s important to preserve the building’s social purpose,” says Cavallarin. “A small museum inside to remember its history would be a way of assuring that this is a warm, welcoming place.”

He says he still hopes an international Jewish foundation will step in.

“Many historians agree that Sciesopoli is one of the most important sites in Italy for the memory of the Shoah,” he says. “And it has added value because it wasn’t just a place of death and pain. It gave hope back to those children.”

Marco Cavallarin