An Italian Fountain of Liberty


By Helen Eliassian

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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In Baedekar’s 19th-century guides to Italy, the small town of Ladispoli is described as a seaside resort with a fine beach. According to local lore, the sands were said to have a healing quality. Right in the middle of town, there was a little nondescript fountain.

Thanks to a few historical twists, in the 20th century that fountain would come to figure prominently in the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing westward to escape persecution. In the late 1970s, the American Embassy in Italy designated Ladispoli as the processing center for migrants seeking political asylum and refugee status in the United States. Many of them were Jews, and most of these Jews were from the Soviet Union, where they faced religious persecution routinely. Twenty-five years ago this month, the Iran hostage crisis occurred, raising awareness of the many Jews fleeing Iran. Years later, I was among them.

The refugees camping out in Ladispoli had come there with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and other organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Iranians and Soviets came through intermediary countries that agreed to serve as their gateways to freedom. They all spent several nights in Rome in a pensione — a hotel or boardinghouse — until the processing of their visa applications could begin. Then they were taken by train or by car to apartments in Ladispoli, where they stayed for weeks or months until the paperwork was prepared. The town became their temporary home.

In the mid-1980s, I was a young girl passing through with my mother en route to America. Since Iran did not allow Jewish families to emigrate together, many, including mine, were forced to separate. But even though I had left behind my father, friends and family in Iran, I was able to be carefree in that little town. I quickly befriended two Italian girls who shared with me their Barbie dolls, which didn’t exist in my native country. I also learned Italian from them and from the neighbor, the landlord, the store owner and the woman who walked her white dog every morning. During our stay in the town, I would acquire the name Elena and negotiate in Italian with landlords on behalf of other immigrants. I befriended other children who spoke Italian, Russian and Persian, and Ladispoli became our playground.

On any given evening, the immigrants would gather around the fountain and talk about lives left behind and the daunting choices they expected to face in the New World. The little angels at the fountain’s base overheard many a conversation about the Shah of Iran and how wonderful it would be if he still were king. They listened as new immigrants talked about politics and the news of the day. “I sold a doll at the bazaar today, what about you?” could be heard in Russian. “Iran is the land of golden borders,” was said proudly in Persian.

Since Ladispoli was a beach town, most residents rented their homes for the year and appeared during the summer. That left us deserted back yards with inviting swing-sets, and trees with apples to pick. There were fruit markets to traipse through and railroad tracks to cross. We were busy when summer came, as we started a business of gathering empty bottles and recycling them. At night, singers would come to town, and the sidewalks would be packed with listeners enjoying gelatos decorated with fruit and with paper umbrellas.

Of course, kids never had to go to sleep early, neither in summer nor in fall, as there was no formal schooling. When parades marched into town, we got dressed up and marched right along. When the circus came to town, we would sneak in and pretend we were performers.

While living in Iran, I acquired a fear from the adults around me: the fear of being discovered. But in Ladispoli, while climbing fences and skipping

over railroad tracks, I was able to break down barriers. I could be just an inquisitive girl who took risks, who was proudly Iranian and proudly Jewish.

I stayed in Ladispoli for close to a year, living every day in suspense, fearing we would once again have to pack our bags quickly and leave. When we finally did receive our visas, there was an excitement about all that was to come, about being reunited with a part of my family that I hadn’t seen for years and about all that now would be possible. But the happiness was bittersweet. I knew I was about to leave behind a piece of my childhood forever.

In 1991, immigration via Italy stopped, due to, largely, in-country processing and multilateral agreements, according to Leonard Glickman, president and CEO of HIAS. With this, a little-known chapter in Jewish history closed.

I hope that one day I can return to Ladispoli, where I had my first taste of freedom, where my only responsibility was to be a kid (and, at times, a translator). Now, when I speak Italian and am at a loss for words, I can still manage to explain, “Io ho dimenticato L’Italiano” — “I’ve forgotten my Italian.” And whenever I pass by a fountain, I close my eyes and feel that I am back at that first fountain, held up by angels, in Ladispoli’s square.

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