Rome’s Jews Throw Surprise Anniversary Party for Holocaust Survivors

Sami and Selma Modiano, married 57 years, moved to tears at the community embrace at the Great Synagogue of Rome.

Ariel Nacamulli

Rome’s Jewish Community sprang a surprise on Sunday for one of the last Italian Holocaust survivors and his wife: a 57th wedding anniversary party at the Great Synagogue of Rome.

Sami Modiano, 85, survivor of Auschwitz, and his wife, Selma were indeed surprised to find the synagogue packed with a thousand people, who had been surreptitiously invited to the event through social media. The couple was deeply moved.

To this day, it is only thanks to Selma, nee Doumalar, that Sami has the strength to speak of the atrocities he witnessed during Holocaust, he says. Over the decades he would devote much of his life to telling the story.

‘God remembered me’

Sami Modiano was born in 1930 on the Greek island of Rhodes, then an Italian province. At age 13 he was expelled from school following the enactment of the Italian Racial Laws that year by the prime minister, Benito Mussolini, with the approval of the Italian king Victor Emanuel III.

“That day I lost my innocence. That morning I woke up as a child and went to bed as a Jew,” Sami wrote in his book “Per questo ho vissuto: La mia vita ad Auschwitz-Birkenau e altri esili” (“For this I have lived: My life in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other exiles”).

The edicts were hard on the family: Sami’s father Jacob Modiano lost his job and his mother died. Yet though much of the Jewish community of Rhodes left for more hopeful shores, the family remained – including after the German invasion of the island on July 23, 1944. That August the family with Sami, aged 13, was deported to Auschwitz. He would return to Italy in 1945 with the tattoo “B7456” marked on his arm. None of his family survived.

Yet Modiano always says that “God remembered me” – because of his meeting with Selma, whose family, parents and four siblings survived the war in Rhodes by hiding in a hunting shack until the war was over. Sami was only to meet Selma in 1954, in Rhodes, when he briefly visited his hometown before leaving for the Congo.

The couple married in 1958 in Congo, Africa, where Sami had lived for some years with distant relatives who had moved there during World War II. After the wedding, Sami and Selma moved back to Italy because of the political instability in the region.

It was then that the Holocaust survivor began to tell his life story in Italian schools and universities, and mostly to Rome’s Jewish students, with Selma’s encouragement.

Jewish students who had heard his testimony joined in celebrating the Modianos’ anniversary, along with the entire Roman Jewish community. At the emotional ceremony, the Jewish children of the community sang in a choir.

As the children sang at the ceremony, officiated by Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni , Sami and Selma were holding hands and crying for joy. “You are my family,” Modiano told the congregants at the end of the ceremony.