MY GRANDFATHER'Sbackground was very different to my grandmother's, but there weresome parallels, such as the loss of their mothers, which no doubthelped to draw them together. Nonno belonged to the wealthy, veryassimilated Jewish bourgeoisie. His father's family, the Schiffs, hadcome from Mannheim around the middle of the nineteenth century. Werethey a scion of the ancient family of the Schiffs of Frankfurt,neighbours of the Rothschilds? Probably, but certainly they wereproud of their ancestry and achievements, very much removed from theworld of the Frankfurt ghetto. Their was a Meir Schiff, known asMaharam Schiff, a distinguished talmudist, 1605&endash;1641. DavidTevele Schiff was head of the Frankfurt Beth Din, who came to Londonas Chief Rabbi in 1765. Jacob Henry Schiff, 1847&endash;1920, born inGermany, became the leading American financier and philanthropist ofhis time. There was also the chemist Hugo Schiff, 1834&endash;1915,once known for Schiff's Reagent, a chemical test. The surname Schiffis a pun, from a word meaning a boat, as in the English skiff, a punon the term kahn, also a boat, and, a double pun, signifying a cohen,a descendant of the Jewish priesthood.
My grandfather'sgreat grandfather Samson Schiff is buried in the Jewish cemetery inMilan. The inscription on his tombstone is in German - 'im 78lebensjahre der liebe der seinigen entrißen; im schutze desewigen ruht deine milde rechtschaffene seele' [Torn from the loveof his dear ones at the age of 78; under the protection of theeternal rests your gentle honest soul ] - and bears no sign ofJewishness, being adorned with carved flowers and flaming urn. Butthey married within their faith. Samson's wife was Babetta Maier.Their sons Friedrich and Wilhelm Schiff settled also in what is nownorth-eastern Italy. Wilhelm was a sculptor. His daughters were incontact with the family until their deaths. They wrote a briefbiography of their father:
"Professor WilhelmSchiff was born in Mannheim on 23rd June, 1837. He passed severalyears of his life in Trieste, his chosen homeland. He died inGorizia, aged fifty four, on 25th March, 1891, and was buried there.He studied Fine Art in Venice as a young man, and became a sculptor.He was a friend of Counts Papadopoli. He later graduated in drawingin Vienna, and taught as professor initially at Pirano then at thenautical College at Pola, and then in state and private schools(Lyceum Olivo) in Trieste. He taught voluntarily at the Workhouse[?] and then in about 1885 he moved to Gorizia where hefounded the Craftsmen's Professional Drawing School and was nominateda director. He bore a heavy burden for a brief period and because ofexcessive work he fell ill and was forced to give upteaching.
Whilst living atPola he executed several works, including a bust of AdmiralBourguignon.In Venice he sculpted 'The Arms of Rome' (the wolf) in bronze andpresented it to King Victor Emmanuel II, who as a sign of hispleasure presented him with a gold pin with a letter of gratitude.[These now belong to my half-second cousin Valerio Schiff] Inaddition to 'Mephistopheles' which he presented to the museum, otherof his works are also at Trieste: the statues of the benefactorsTonello and Bauer in the entrance hall of the Pia Casa dei Poveri[workhouse?] and monuments of the Tonello, Bauer and Faningerfamilies in Section II of St Anne's Catholic Cemetery, and in theProtestant Cemetery there was the 'Angel of the Resurrection'destroyed by enemy action."
The statue ofMephistopheles was presented by his daughter in 1955 to the museum inTrieste. Presumably it is still there. Mince and Guglielmina Schiff(later changed to Sciffi) never married. The king's letter is dated3rd April, 1872: Wilhelm was thirty five when he made hispresentation. Why to the King of Italy? He was living in Trieste,then the only major port of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Its statusas an international port was reflected in its cosmopolitanpopulation. I once visited its cemetery, and was surprised by thereligious and cultural diversity: Germans, Italians, Greeks, Jews,Slavs and others living and working together. He was German speaking.Italy was only unified in 1861, just eleven years previously, andRome and the former Papal States were only included from 1870. Didthe Schiff family leave Mannheim after the Year of Revolutions, 1848,when revolutionary change was attempted but halted, and liberalsfaced oppression? Wilhelm Schiff may have been inspired by theRisorgimento, the campaign to unite Italy as a free, independentcountry. He may also have been inspired by the emancipation of theItalian Jews, and the important role they played in the foundation ofthe united kingdom and in its government.
Wilhelm's brotherFriedrich was an iron founder - many of the railings on the bridgesof Venice are purported to bear his name. He was married to Adele[no, Babetta] Cohen, nicknamed 'La Piccolina' because of herdiminutive stature, [this may refer to his maternal grandmother,Emma Teglio] my grandfather told me, and he remembered her still.On 17 February, 1895, Friedrich, aged 49, born 27 June 1845 atMannheim, Baden, an industrial engineer, and living at Via S. Celsa30, Milan, he became a naturalised Italian subject. On his deathFriedrich was buried at Gradisca, just within Austria-Hungary, andclose to Gorizia. I recall seeing a photograph of him, now lost, manyyears ago. My recollection is of a square-bearded, dark-haired,handsome man, much like images of Theodor Herzl, the founder ofZionism. I do not know how many children they had, but there wascertainly one son, Silvio Schiff, a naval engineer by profession, whomust have been born about 1875, probably in Venice. All that I knowof his life are snippets: he worked in Tripoli installing anelectrical generator and was presented with a large brass plate bythe Emir, and that he was bankrupted by a scheme to use naphtha as afuel. At the turn of the century he married EmiliaFinzi,daughter of one of Italy's oldest Jewish families, members ofFerrara's Jewish community, a community since made famous by thenovels of Giorgio Bassani. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was latermade into a film by Vittorio de Sica, capturing the lifestyle ofthese assimilated, wealthy, Italian-Jewish families.
[FriedrichSchiff must have had other relations, as in 1946 my grandfatherattempted to write to a Eugenio Schiff in Throgmorton Street, London,but the letter was returned.]
Silvio Schiff asa schoolboy
I found out moreabout her family in 1966, when I stayed with my grandfather and hisnew wife and family. On the 14th August that year it was hissixty-second birthday, and his aunt Elsa came to visit him, as shehad the custom of doing, and I had the opportunity of talking to herabout her family and her ancestors. She was my great grandmother'syounger sister. She recalled that her father, Constantino Finzi, wasthe son of Guglielmo Finzi of Ferrara. Her mother wasEmmaTeglio,eldest of the fourteen surviving children of Laudadio Teglio ofModena. Herself born at Genoa, Elsa was a rebel, feminist,acquaintance of the Pankhursts and Rosa Luxemburg, who refused tomarry the father of her daughter Anna Rosa, one Canitano. During thewar she fought with the partisans against the Fascists and theGermans. But she left her Jewish faith and became a Waldensian, anobscure Protestant sect founded in the Middle Ages. She lived at 11,Via Santa Maria alla Porta in Milan until her death. I believe herrelationship with her daughter was unhappy. Certainly she dislikedchildren. At my grandfather's on his birthday she would stand up andcross the room to another chair whenever approached by his youngdaughter Magda, then aged two. At her funeral many former members ofthe resistance came, only to be turned away. Her daughter Anna livedin London for a while, married to Riccardo Aregno, an intellectual Ionce heard taking part in a discussion on Radio 3. They had twodaughters, Anna and Susanna, one of whom was a balletdancer.
Emma Teglio,mother of Emilia Finzi, and grandmother of NonnoGiulio
Emilia Finzi, heryoungest sister Elsa, a 1905 De Dion Bouthon car, and achauffeur
Silvio Schiff,his wife Emilia Finzi, the 1905 De Dion Bouthon, and thechauffeur
Silvio and Emiliaonly had one child, my grandfather Giulio Cesare, who was born on the14th August, 1904. I do not know where they married, but I presume itwas a Jewish wedding, though they do not seem to have practised theirJudaism in any way at all. My grandfather said that he was not evencircumcised, which is surprising, and indicates perhaps howcompletely assimilated they had become. When he was only seven hismother died of tuberculosis on 14th November, 1911 at Chiavenna, highin the Italian Alps, whilst returning from St Moritz where she hadbeen convalescing. She was buried at the Jewish Cemetery inMilan.
Emilia Finzi,wife of Silvio Schiff
(this is thephotograph that was on her grave)
Nonno Giulio as atoddler
Nonno Giulio agedabout three
Nonno Giulio agedabout four
Nonno Giulio agedabout five, with his mother
Nonno Giulio agedabout five, with his father's stick
Nonno Giulio'smother, Emilia. This may have been the last holiday before shedied.
It was after theloss of his wife that Silvio Schiff undertook the project in Tripoli,and my grandfather became a boarder at the Collegio Berretta inSalò, a beautiful town on the western shore of Lake Garda. Oneof his teachers, and his favourite, was Giulia Grana, whom heintroduced to his father and whom his father married, probably in1915. It was at this time that Silvio Schiff converted toChristianity, for his second wife's sake, and my grandfather fromthis time was also brought up as a Catholic. Silvio and Giulia hadfour children, Italia, Umberto, Albino and Gino, who is only sixmonths older than my own mother. With the new family, my grandfatherseems to have been displaced in his father's and stepmother'saffections, and continued his education as a boarder, progressing tothe Collegio San Alessandro in Bergamo. At the age of fifteenoccurred the drama that is now part of family folklore. He took ayoung girlfriend to the Politeama Donizetti - some theatre - butwithout permission. He was punished with six days' solitaryconfinement, during which time he was brought the same bowl of soupto eat, which he repeatedly rejected. The finale on the sixth dayinvolved him flinging the soup in his 'jailer's' face, leading to hisexpulsion. His father met him at the railway station and, finalhumiliation, slapped him across the face. He left home and continuedhis studies as a day student, taking lodgings with agirlfriend.
Silvio Schiff andhis second wife, Giulia Grana
Nonno Giulio,aged nineteen
In about 1922 hewent to Mestre, close to Venice, to do his military service.Presumably he was moved to Gorizia, which was where, of course, hemet my grandmother. He did attend Officer Training School in Rome,and achieved the rank of lieutenant before leaving the army in 1924.Any career, though, was curtailed by the pregnancy of my grandmother,and the refusal by his father of permission to marry. Their daughterFausta was born in 1924, when they were both twenty. She died whenless than a year old, but he hardly knew his daughter, only seeingher when he visited my grandmother when on leave.
Nonna Caterinaand Nonno Giulio on their wedding day
My grandmotherbecame pregnant again in May, 1926. My grandfather had greatdifficulty in obtaining permission to marry, partly because he wasunder twenty-one, and he was threatened with losing his inheritancefrom his mother. This included a villa at Gradisca, which was whereKing Victor Emmanuel signed the armistice at the end of the FirstWorld War. Eventually, he agreed to relinquish his inheritance fromhis mother in order to obtain permission to marry, which he did on22nd December, 1926. They lived firstly at 58, Via Lungo in Gorizia,where my mother was born on the 6th February, 1927. My motherbelieves she was one of twins, one of whom died at birth. My motherherself almost did not survive. She was told that she was so tiny shewas thought to be dead, and it was a surprise when she moved and wasdiscovered to be alive.
My grandfatherworked first as a salesman - I believe it was typewriters - and usedto pedal a bicycle carrying wages to a place called Castegnizza sulCarso where the factory was. He worked for a while for Marconi,possibly the cause of his lifelong interest in radio. About this timetoo the family moved to Trieste, living at 5, Via Tigor, where theirdaughter Silvana was born. The turning point in my grandfather'scareer came at this time. The Bank of Sicily was offering a post bypublic competition, which entailed travelling to Palermo to take theexamination. He sailed from Naples, sleeping on deck in the cold tosave money. Out of seventy applicants he came second, but happily thewinner withdrew and Nonno was awarded the first prize - the post ofFirst Secretary, one step below Deputy Manager. My mother pointedthis out to me very carefully, insisting in a very Italian way on hisprecise rank and status. The family moved to Catania in Sicily in1932. Luciana was born there in 1932 and Sergio in 1934. In 1936there was another move, to Palermo, the capital, where the familystayed until November, 1938.
These years inSicily were happy years, the years of childhood, of a young andgrowing family, with, for the first time, security and comparativeaffluence. But it was in October 1938 that the Fascist Race Laws werepassed, experienced by my mother at the age of eleven as painfulrejection, flight and fear. There were about 35,000 Italian Jews, atiny number, and the majority had very little Jewish knowledge orawareness. With the passing of the laws about 6,000 left the country,and about the same number converted to Christianity in the hope ofthereby becoming exempted from the persecution. Although penalised inmany ways, it was not until the downfall of Mussolini in 1943 and theassumption of power by the German forces that deportations toAuschwitz took place. In this respect my mother's background andexperiences were typical of those who suffered at that time, thoughvery different from those of the fortunate Jews of Britain, or of thenightmares elsewhere in Europe.