Documentarian Climbs Her Family Tree


By Susan Zuccotti

Published August 28, 2008, issue of September 05, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

After surviving the German occupation of Italy during the Second World War by hiding with his parents and brother and sister in the home of non-Jews, Vittorio Volterra immigrated to Israel in 1952, when he was 20 years old, and never looked back. He met his wife in Israel, and his daughter, Hava, was born there. After what his daughter calls a “near-death experience” with tuberculosis, Volterra enrolled at the Hebrew University to study physics. He went on to become one of the great physicists of his time. In 1998, while still in his prime, he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Thirty days later he died in Israel.

PERSONAL HISTORY: Hava Volterra’s documentary ‘The Tree of Life’ seeks to uncover the mysteries of her Italian-born father’s roots. Above, the director with her father.
PERSONAL HISTORY: Hava Volterra’s documentary ‘The Tree of Life’ seeks to uncover the mysteries of her Italian-born father’s roots. Above, the director with her father.

Hava Volterra, an engineer by profession, left Israel to live in the United States when she was 21. She had loved her father deeply, but when he died prematurely, she realized that she had scarcely known him and was left with scores of unanswered questions. Vittorio was, she says, totally, utterly Italian in his mannerisms, language, culture and heritage. But why had he never talked to her about his family’s roots? Why had he never talked about his feelings for Italy? Who were his ancestors, and what had it meant to him to be an Italian Jew? And what might it come to mean to his daughter? To answer these questions, Hava set out to research her father’s family tree and make a documentary. The result is “The Tree of Life,” a remarkable 76-minute film of great beauty and substance.

Hava’s several voyages of discovery to Italy and Israel unearthed an almost unbelievable amount of information. With the help of a professional genealogist, as well as her father’s brother, she was able to trace her paternal grandfather’s family back to the first years of the 15th century, to a money lender granted the right to live among Christians because his professional services were needed. That man’s descendants included money lenders, merchants and bankers, most of them highly successful. One of them was close to Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, Italy. Vittorio’s mother’s family was equally entwined in Italian culture and society. Here, his daughter goes back to the 13th century, to Jews in the ghetto of Venice who were rabbis, mystics and scholars. One of these was the brilliant Kabbalah scholar known as the Ramhal, exiled from Venice by the Jews themselves, who feared that his mystical claims would provoke Christians and divide the Jewish community. The Ramhal and his wife and children died of the plague in Israel in 1747.

Hava’s search also brings her to the age of emancipation in mid-19th-century Italy. On her paternal grandmother’s side, she discovers Luigi Luzzatti, a Venetian economist who did much to address grievous social issues and in 1910 became the first Jewish prime minister in the Western world. On her paternal grandfather’s side she meets Vito Volterra, a brilliant physicist and mathematician who lost everything in 1931 when he was one of only 12 university professors to refuse to swear an oath of loyalty to Mussolini. And so Hava reaches the black years of Italian-Jewish history, when Mussolini’s racial laws and Hitler’s occupation of Italy after September 8, 1943, disillusioned and finally decimated the fervently patriotic community of some 50,000 Jews. For the years prior to the age of film, she tells the story of her ancestors with clever, charming animations and an appealing Jewish and Italian musical score. To convey the aura of the increasingly bleak 1930s, she uses family photographs and superb archival footage. We see Mussolini at his most pompous and the Italian people in their most fanatic adherence. We also see films of the devastation of both the First and the Second World Wars.

To better re-create and understand her father, Hava interviews those who knew him best: his wife, his sister, a cousin, teachers, students, colleagues and friends. She also speaks with noted specialists of Italian-Jewish history, physics and Kabbalah. Finally, she and her aunt visit the Catholic family that saved his life in a mountain village 70 miles outside Ancona during the German occupation. The result is not only a portrait of a man, but also a personal glimpse of the history of Italian Jewry and its complex, delicate, often fraught but equally often intimate relationship with Italian culture. Hava never directly answers the question of why her father did not talk about Italy to her. But the answer is there for us to see. It involves love of country, passion, devotion, commitment and, ultimately, profound disillusionment and betrayal. It involves painful emotions perhaps better conveyed visually than through the written word.

“The Tree of Life” will open at New York’s Pioneer Theater on September 12 and at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles on October 24.

Susan Zuccotti is the author of the books “The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival” (University of Nebraska Press, 1996) and “Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy” (Yale University Press, 2000).

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.