Holocaust Survivors' Strange and Wonderful Sojourn in Italy

The Jewish refugees lived in beachside villas, partied with soldiers and enjoyed local cuisine; locals say the bonds formed in their brief time together lasted a lifetime

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Kids on the beach at Santa Maria al Bagno.
Kids on the beach at Santa Maria al Bagno. Credit: From the collection of Paolo Pisacane
János Chialá
János Chialá

Seventy years have passed, but Antonio Sanapo still thinks of the two old Jewish ladies who lived next to his family’s house when he was a child. “Paprika, paprika,” he remembers them saying, while pointing at the red peppers grown by his father. “They would always come around and give us cans of peanut butter in exchange for our peppers. They were really fond of red peppers,” he adds.

We are in Tricase, a small, coastal village in the Salento region of Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot, and the two old ladies Antonio is talking about were Jewish refugees staying at Displaced Persons Camp 39. As World War II neared its end, millions of refugees were on the move all across Europe, looking for new homes. Laying right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the southern Italian region of Puglia was a busy junction along many of those journeys.

Salento has always been a crossroads between East and West. It was here that Titus’ ships returned after his legions laid waste to Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., bringing thousands of Jewish captives with them. Upon disembarking, some were ransomed by local Jews who wanted to spare them the humiliation of being paraded in chains through the streets of Rome. Nearly 2,000 years later, other Jews would come to these same shores, looking to embark on the reverse journey.

'They saved us all from starvation. After all, many of them had just been liberated from concentration camps, and they knew what hunger was.'

Antonio Sanapo

Between 1944 and 1947, thousands of Jewish refugees were housed in DP camps in four Salento villages, and the memory of their extraordinary encounters with the local communities still reverberates here today. “In the end, they all went to [British Mandatory] Palestine, and some to America,” Antonio says, wistfully. “But I still remember them. I will never forget the time when the Jews lived with us.”

To catch a glimpse of that time, the Museum of Memory and Hospitality, in Santa Maria al Bagno, is a good place to start. It was built to exhibit a triptych of wall paintings left by one of the refugees who stayed in the DP Camp 34 there. In one of the paintings, the Jews of the Diaspora break through barbed wire to gather in southern Italy, from where they march to the Land of Israel.

There are old photos on the walls, showing beach scenes, women with babies and groups of smiling people. At the center of the room, a table displays an accordion and a wedding dress, as if they have been chosen to symbolize the entire experience.

The museum is the brainchild of Paolo Pisacane, a local historian who arranged for the wall paintings to be restored, and assembled a beautiful collection of photographs from the time. He has devoted spent much of his life preserving the memory of the refugees’ passage through the villages of Salento, and is currently working on a book of their testimonies. As with many people in the four villages, this is his story, too: Around the time of his birth, his mother, Anna Pisacane, was very close to a refugee girl, who helped her take care of her newborn son. Pisacaneeventually met that Jewish girl many years later in Jerusalem, “and she told me she felt more attached to our village than to her birthplace. There, the Jews had been betrayed, she said, and sometimes she felt as if she was reborn in Santa Maria al Bagno.”

Puglia had largely been spared from the fighting during the war, and the advancing British and U.S. armies turned it into a logistics hub for their invasion of the rest of Italy, seizing many properties along the coastline to use as rest areas for their officers. To reduce frictions with the locals, the new authorities confiscated mostly empty holiday homes – and there were plenty of those in Santa Maria al Bagno, Santa Maria di Leuca, Tricase and Santa Cesarea Terme, four small seaside resorts that mostly consisted of summer villas scattered among the houses of the few permanent residents.

As the frontlines moved further north, these villas were then used to house the masses of displaced people flocking to the liberated areas. This included growing numbers of Jews, who made their way to Italyin the hope of sailing to pre-state Israel. By 1944, DP camps had been established in each of the villages, and in time they came to be inhabited by Jewish refugees exclusively, many of them survivors of Nazi death or concentration camps. But instead of being kept in an isolated area, as was the norm with such camps (and still is today), these refugees found themselves living in the heart of the surrounding communities, becoming part of their daily lives.

Like Sanapo and nearly everybody else in this story, Paolo Iacobelli was a teenager at the time, studying at Tricase’s elementary school. “One morning, the headmaster came in to tell us we were getting a new classmate – and then he brought in this beautiful, blue-eyed girl. Her name was Geltrude Krauss,” he recalls.

She was part of a group of refugees that had arrived by boat from Albania and spoke some Italian. At first, nobody understood what had brought her to Tricase, although that didn’t seem to matter. “We just sat there and stared at her, hypnotized by how different she looked,” says Iacobelli. “We didn’t know she was Jewish, or what that meant. And anyway, back then, one just didn’t go and talk to a girl. So we tried to impress her from a distance.”

Instead of being kept in an isolated area, as is the norm, these refugees found themselves living in the heart of the surrounding communities, becoming part of their daily lives.

They came from very different worlds: Geltrude Krauss had grown up in Vienna (where she was known as “Gertrude”), while her new classmates were mostly the offspring of farmers and fishermen. Many of the Jewish refugees originally came from the great cities of Central and Eastern Europe, and must have seemed highly sophisticated to the village folk of one of the poorest regions of Italy. “Everybody was totally enamored with Geltrude, but she was going out with some older guy and was totally out of our league. She was also the best student our school ever had,” Iacobelli says, “although one day I managed to solve a math problem that even Geltrude hadn’t been able to understand. That was probably my proudest day at school!”

Other times, it did not go so well initially. In one of the testimonies collected by Paolo Pisacane, Enrico Schirosi recalled the day his family found out their summerhouse had been occupied by strangers. They tried to approach the newcomers but were violently chased away.

“In the following days, we began hanging out with the new residents of our house, and got to know them,” Schirosi told Pisacane. “One of the older refugees had eaten an entire prickly pear fruit without peeling it, and you can imagine the consequences. My mother had to use her pliers to pluck all the thorns from the poor fellow.”

As often happens, it was food that brought these diverse groups together. After years of war and rations, the people in the villages were starving. The Jewish refugees, on the other hand, were under the care of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which supplied them with bread, canned food and blankets. Aside from these basic staples and shelter, the newcomers needed practically everything, and before soon they started trading what they had for fresh vegetables, clothes, wine and much more. Legend has it that the first thing they looked for in Tricase was an accordion, and were given one in exchange for white bread.

Donato Schirinzi, born in Santa Maria di Leuca in 1927, remembers the efforts of the refugees in DP Camp 34 to improve their dietary situation. “The American soldiers had already established a kitchen, with an old Italian guy making pasta all the time. But the Jews wanted to cook their own stuff, so they asked for raw food and set up their own canteens. The food they made was a bit salty.”

In fact, over the following years, the refugees often ended up feeding the locals – especially during the winter months, when they shared whatever they had with those who were in need. “In Tricase, they saved us all from starvation, I tell you,” says Antonio Sanapo. “Some were against the refugees and some were more in favor, but we all benefited from them. After all, many of them had just been liberated from concentration camps, and they knew what hunger was.”

There are plenty of stories about food – like the time some fishermen in Santa Maria al Bagno caught an enormous sea turtle, and their families threw a party to celebrate the event. Some of the refugees pointed out that the laws of kashrut forbade them from eating a turtle, but refusing an invitation for food in southern Italy has never been easy, and in the end they joined the feast – an act whose significance was not lost on the locals.

Listening to the countless stories about refugees gorging on polpette (meatballs), on the one hand, and locals coming to terms with exotic dishes, on the other, it seems that shared meals were definitely not an exception. Donato Schirinzi’s mother, for example, often had dinner at the house of a neighboring Jewish couple from Poland – two doctors she had befriended after giving them some wool socks. “Their children had died and they were completely alone, so she tried to visit them every evening,” says Donato.

As the contacts between the two communities intensified, any initial diffidence was quickly overcome. Vittorio Perrone, who was also a teenager in Santa Maria al Bagno, jokes that, “at first we used our hands, and every small thing took forever to explain. But we were young and we picked things up fast. I learned my English playing poker with some of the Jewish boys.”

Very few of the refugees spoke any Italian, but everybody tried their best to get by. “There was this Romanian girl who had come to use my mother’s sewing machine,” Rita Basile tells me in Tricase. “She kept saying she wanted her dress ‘shorted,’ and my mother really couldn’t understand what she wanted. Nobody wore such short dresses at the time.”

'She felt more attached to our village than to her birthplace. There, the Jews had been betrayed.'

Paolo Pisacane

Just as with food, there are plenty of stories about another one of life’s basic needs, clothing, with quite a few concerning the “modern” dress choices of the refugees. At the time, women wearing trousers was simply unheard of in southern Italy – and the sight of Jewish girls hanging around in shorts undoubtedly provided further incentive for local youth to try and make small talk, no matter the language barriers. Paolo Iacobelli says he taught himself “a few sentences in German from a dictionary I found, like ‘Wie gehts?’ [How’s it going?]. But I was never brave enough to use them.”

Rita Basile shows a UNRRA blanket she was given by a refugee.Credit: János Chialá

The blankets provided by UNRRA, whose high-quality fabric made them highly coveted, also played an important role. For example, in his book, Paolo Pisacane writes how his mother met a refugee girl after being asked to make a jacket out of one of the blankets. “It had UNRRA written on it and, however I tried to cut it, you could still see the letters,” she told her son, “so I decided to leave the entire word across the back, like one of today’s brands, and she loved it.”

Shortly afterward, the girl’s parents sent her to Anna Pisacane to learn how to make clothes and over time, several vocational schools were established in the villages, where other local artisans and fishermen shared their skills with the refugees.

At the conference of the Organization of Jewish Refugees in Italy, held in Rome at the end of 1945, the refugees demanded that the network of Jewish and Zionist groups assisting them focus not only on their material needs, but also on providing education and cultural activities in the DP camps. Almost a third of the organization’s budget was allocated to this purpose, which led to the establishment of schools, theaters and several Yiddish newspapers, all of them operating in a foreign land after a world war. In the villages of Salento, the locals were impressed by the degree of organization within the DP camps, and tried to get involved in one way or another as much as possible.

Perrone had befriended a group of refugees while being treated in the camp’s hospital and, therefore, had access to the camp’s two communal villas: Kibbutz Aliyah and Kibbutz Baderekh. “They kept themselves busy all the time, you could really see they wanted to start a new life,” he relates. “There was a drama school with a big stage where they were always rehearsing shows, and dance classes too. They taught themselves Hebrew, Italian and English, and there was also a lot of music, sometimes with the American soldiers. That’s where we discovered jazz and the boogie-woogie. I also learned that Russian song, ‘Ochi Chyornye’ [“Dark Eyes”].”

In the best Zionist tradition, great emphasis was also placed on sports, and many locals said they retained fond memories of groups of young Jews doing gymnastics on the beach, and running around their village singing. Sanapo witnessed this so many times he learned the songs by heart, and can still sing them today.

Another thing people remember are the parties. “The refugees had a bar in one of the villas by the harbor, and there was a lot of dancing going on there,” recalls Rita Basile. “I used to go quite often with my sisters.” Many of the Jewish refugees were young, “and we were young too, so we met, like young people do,” she adds.

Listening to the stories and looking at the pictures, it is easy to imagine the time as being like summer camp. And everybody I meet points out it was only a matter of time before couples appeared among the refugees, and people began getting married. Hundreds of weddings were celebrated, and local women often offered their wedding dresses to the young brides. Everybody was invited, and many people I met said they attended at least one Jewish wedding, including Sanapo. ”There was a guy with a small hat, he was the one actually doing the marriage, under some strange umbrella they had,” he recalls, referring presumably to the chuppah. “Then they all started dancing in circles, shouting and singing. They danced the whole night!”

A few weddings between refugees and locals also took place, although these were less celebrated. A young Italian girl in Santa Maria al Bagno actually ran away from home to marry her Jewish fiancé, Zvi Miller – the artist who painted the triptych in what is now the museum. She eventually converted to Judaism and sailed with him to Israel. In Tricase, a young lawyer from Tricase married a girl from Bucharest, but the other refugees did not take their mixed relationship too well and the newlyweds had to move out of the village for a while. They returned after her camp was closed, and have been living there ever since.

Julia, an Italian who married Jewish painter Zvi Miller before the two made Aliyah.Credit: From the collection of Paolo Pisacane
A painting by Zvi Miller at the Santa Maria al Bagno museum. Credit: János Chialá

More than 200 children were born in the camps, and Sanapo still smiles when he remembers “the Jewish girls walking around the village with their babies and looking so happy. They had told us what German soldiers had done to them.”

The sight of young Jewish women pushing baby carriages was perhaps one of the strongest symbols of the rebirth experienced by the refugees, many of whom were just emerging from the horrors of the Holocaust. There were no Jewish communities in Salento before the war, and Italian state propaganda had kept largely silent about what was being done to the Jews in other parts of the country. As a result, most of the townspeople did not know what the refugees had gone through, although some, like Sanapo, had immediately noticed something was amiss. “When they arrived, sometimes it was a grandmother with a child, sometimes a lone widow, sometimes orphans who had lost their entire family. Then they started telling us what happened,” he relates.

One person who did know from the beginning was Elena Iannace, Paolo Iacobelli’s teacher, who wrote a note in the class register on the day Geltrude Krauss arrived. “The students have warmly welcomed their new classmate, and promised not to hurt her feelings. On the other hand, my job has became a bit harder, especially when it comes to history. But I shall not alter the truth of the facts because of her, for to do so would give my students a distorted idea of what really happened in the history of our country.”

Although Mussolini’s Fascist regime had collaborated in the Holocaust, anti-Semitism had not really taken hold in Italy, and the refugees apparently encountered little or no hostility in Salento, nor were there any incidents serious enough to be remembered today – save for one incident in Tricase, in February 1946. “On that Sunday, we had an agreement,” says Iacobelli. “We were going to borrow the army truck the British had given them to go play an official match, and they could have our soccer field for the day. But then for some reason they said we couldn’t get the truck, and that they wanted to play on our field anyway.”

Slogans written by the radical rightist party Forza Nuova in Salento. Credit: János Chialá

Iacobelli relates that tempers ran high, and they didn’t calm down when one of the refugees shouted that since the Italians had lost the war, they should just shut up and go away. Things escalated quickly, stones were thrown, and the refugees found themselves surrounded by an angry mob. They ran en masse toward the harbor and, in their anger, broke a few windows along the way – enraging the locals still further.

After that, relations were frosty for a few days. “There was a bit of a cold war,” says Iacobelli. “They kept a low profile and stayed away from the center of the village. But about a week later, we got an invitation for a reconciliation dinner in one of the villas.” The refugees cooked a lot of food, an orchestra from the village played music, “and we made peace. Things were back to normal the next day.”

It is easy to imagine the time as being like summer camp, and was only a matter of time before couples appeared among the refugees, and people began getting married.

But the growing numbers of Jewish refugees – many of whom remained unregistered in order to elude the British authorities, as they planned their way to mandatory Palestine – and the extensive modifications carried out on the villas to accommodate them, did cause some resentment among the locals.

In May 1946, a demonstration was announced: “We are not responsible for what they claim to have suffered in the German concentration camps,” the posters read, before demanding the immediate return of the villas of Santa Maria al Bagno to their owners. Although it did cause some panic among the refugees, who set up barricades to defend themselves and asked their local friends to hide their families, the demonstration was called off after only about five people showed up.

Certain local officials known for their Fascist sympathies denounced the extensive black market activities of the refugees – which must have been quite extensive, considering that people in the villages still refer to shopping at a market as “Going to the Jews” – and tried to use news of the fight in Tricase to demand the closure of the DP camps. In particular, the prefect of Lecce, Giuseppe Grimaldi, petitioned the police and the local government, claiming in his letters that the local communities saw the refugees as “traffickers, loan sharks, profiteers and the main cause of all hardships,” and demanding that they be moved somewhere else, possibly to a closed camp.

However, in the words of historian Ercole Morciano, who is from Tricase, “Every attempt to divide the two communities failed miserably,” and the fight remained an isolated incident. “The relationships were too strong,” he adds. “People met everyday, they shared everything, and they knew each other personally.”

It is worth noting that just a couple of weeks after the incident, the Tricase municipality made several people from the DP camp honorary citizens of the town, including an Austrian doctor, Friederich Mayer, who had treated hundreds of locals for free and had brought penicillin to the village for the first time.

By the spring of 1947, the camps were being gradually closed as the refugees continued their journeys, which were often clandestine and dangerous, since Jewish emigration to British-controlled Palestine was still illegal and there were persistent rumors about boats containing Jews being sunk by the British.

Many locals remember being afraid that something bad would happen to their friends while they crossed the sea. Sometimes they prepared a farewell dinner for them, but usually the departure was kept secret so as not to alert the British. “One day you were at the beach with them, and the next day they were gone,” explains Perrone. Geltrude simply stopped coming to school, and the villas were once again empty. “I was 16 when the refugees arrived,” Schirinzi tells me at the end of our interview, “and in a sense we became adults together. I moved to Rome shortly after they left, and lived there nearly all of my life – there was nothing to do here.”

After decades of relative obscurity, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in this story among the people of Salento. Thanks to the efforts of local historians, such as Pisacane and Morciano, and the establishment of the museum, knowledge of the Jewish refugees has spread far beyond those who have met them personally and became part of the collective memory of the four villages.

Local schools and authorities have also embraced the legacy, and cherish it proudly as a symbol of Salento’s tradition of hospitality to others – a tradition that remains very much alive.

“We try to apply the model of our grandfathers to the current migration emergency, which is actually no longer an emergency,” says Mayor Giuseppe Mellone, from the nearby town of Nardo, explaining that, “hundreds of migrant workers come here to work every year, so we set up a place where they can live with dignity. This has always been a land of passage, it’s part of our history and it’s still true today.”

The stars of '#39,' a play written by Walter Del Prete based on the stories of the Jewish refugees and their interactions with locals.Credit: János Chialá

In Tricase, a local theater company produced a play, “#39,” based on the stories of the Jewish refugees and their interactions with the people of the village, which they regularly perform around the region. “It was a bit hard not to compare what happened then with the way we think of refugees today, and not to wonder why the two are so different,” says the play’s author, Walter Del Prete.

Living side by side and sharing their everyday life, the refugees and residents of these four villages could see each other as people, and formed bonds that continue to this very day: From time to time, some of the refugees and their descendants come back to visit. On one such occasion, in 2013, a group of Israeli women who were born in the DP camps symbolically returned the wedding dress and accordion that are now on display in the Santa Maria al Bagno museum, and serve as a fitting symbol for the time when the Jewish refugees lived with the people of Salento.

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