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How An Italian Villa Gave Holocaust Survivors Renewed Joy In Life

This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.

I, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, was born in Tradate, a small town in Northern Italy located in the Varese region. I spent the first two years of my life at Villa Mayer, a beautiful mansion surrounded by acres of lush orchards and a beautiful flower garden located in Abbiate Guazzone, a suburb of Tradate. As a psychoanalyst I am well aware of the fundamental role the first years play in one’s identity, even though most people do not have conscious memories of that period.

While the story must have been idealized because the villa was crowded with people, my parents used to look back at their three years in Italy with great fondness. And although Italy was grappling with the recent dark past of fascism during the war, my parents were overtaken by the warmth, liveliness and good spirit of the Italian people. I liked hearing their stories about Italy, because their faces would light up and pleasant memories would be told, such as my father’s admiration for the way Italian peasants would sing entire operas by heart, or his good-natured imitations of the locals loudly playing cards on the sidewalks of Tradate. Those memories stood in striking contrast to the sadness their faces conveyed any time memories of Poland would come up, even good memories, because everything was overshadowed by the Holocaust.

Having spent years in an attempt to deal with my parents’ tragic Holocaust trauma, and its impact on me, the Italian chapter of our family history was set aside for a later time.

I was only two years old when my parents immigrated to British-Mandate Palestine, so my first conscious memories are about life in Israel. But the joy of life my parents experienced during the first couple of years after the Holocaust, living in total freedom in a welcoming and sunny place — documented by numerous photos — must have been transmitted to me, and so I love anything Italian.

My parents, Avraham and Rachel Bekerman, did not know each other before the war. They both survived four-and-a-half years in the Lodz ghetto and then were taken to Auschwitz. After liberation, they returned to Lodz separately to search for relatives, but did not find any. My father was a Zionist, and had dreamed of going to Mandatory Palestine even before the war, but refused to leave his mother, sister and small niece behind. Now that they were tragically all gone, he was convinced that there was no other place for him. As a young amateur photographer, my father had taken thousands of pictures in Poland that he had hidden together with his Laika camera, but those too were lost. Typical to the way survivors related memories to their children, the stories were never told in any particular order and were filled with gaps. By the time I was fully ready to hear the entire story and ask specific questions, it was too late. Both of my parents were gone, and there seemed no way to fill those gaps.

In the late 1990s, my husband and I made two trips to Tradate and were able to locate Villa Mayer in Abbiate Guazzone. What we found was a deserted and dilapidated structure sitting on a large plot of overgrown trees surrounded by a wall. Through an opening in the wall, we were able to go inside and find remnants of what must have been an elegant mansion with a beautiful marble fire place. But despite our attempts to look for some old locals who knew anything about the villa’s past, we couldn’t find a trace.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2017, while planning another trip to Italy, that my husband and I found a book in Italian online by a historian, Alberto Gaglliardo, called “Jews in the Province of Varese — Tradate 1938-1947.” We also found a second book in Italian about Tradate, edited by Marco Paganoni, “Reconstruction and Being Reconstructed.”

The information I found in these books were invaluable to me. They helped confirm many of the stories that my parents had shared with me over the years. So here is their story.

The years following WWII were years of chaos in Europe. It was at this time that an underground organization emerged in Eastern Europe called Bricha — “flight,” in Hebrew. The organization began with the ghetto fighters Aba Kovner, from Vilna, and Yitzhak Ciukerman, from Warsaw. They joined with the partisans to form the United Partisan Organization while the war was still raging, in order to fight the Nazis, and after liberation to help Jewish survivors flee from the displaced persons camps. Their plan was to smuggle Jewish survivors out of East European countries and bring them to Greece or Italy in order to ultimately settle them in Mandatory Palestine.

In 1946, however, the British shut the Mandate’s border to Jewish refugees, leaving the survivors only one option: Illegal immigration. At that point, the Bricha expanded to become part of what is known as the Mossad LeAliyah Bet. That underground multi-operational organization, members of which were the founders of the present-day Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, was in charge of the massive exodus of 250,000 refugees from Europe to Mandatory Palestine.

Between 1945 and 1947, the Mossad LeAliyah Bet brought together fighters of the Hagana — the underground army in Palestine — Jewish residents of Palestine and members of the Jewish Brigade who fought with the British, and gradually spread its wings throughout Europe. Together with members of the Bricha in Europe, that coalition helped Jewish survivors travel through Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece and Italy in order to eventually arrive in Mandatory Palestine. Their operations were initially funded by meager donations from the mandate’s preexisting Jewish population, but grew after the war to include funding from the United Nations as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This story powerfully resonates today, as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Africa are moving through Europe, and refugees from Central America are arriving illegally to the U.S. with no place to go.

After WWII, Italy became a coveted destination for Jewish refugees, both because it was surrounded by numerous ports by which they could leave covertly by boats, and also because the Jewish Brigade was stationed in Italy and would become highly instrumental in carrying out the operation.

A story I heard often from my mother, the storyteller in our family, was that after the war, my parents participated in a long and arduous journey, crossing borders without papers, on trains and by foot, from Poland to Czechoslovakia and Austria. They were instructed to say that they were Greeks traveling back to their homeland, and they were constantly in danger of getting caught by anti-Semitic train conductors. In fact, every time the train stopped at a station, my parents would run out and lay down on the rail road tracks until the train started to move again, at which point they’d jump onto the moving train. I used to think to myself: “My small and anxious mother had the courage to do that?”

She also told me how they climbed the Alps by foot from Austria to Italy, and that when they finally arrived at the beautiful villa in Tradate, owned by Saly Mayer, an industrialist, philanthropist and Zionist leader who invited Jewish refugees to live there during their stays in Italy. During WWII, Mayer had escaped to Switzerland with his family where he became the chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities. After the war, he helped absorb thousands of refugees from the displaced persons camps who had arrived in Italy. He became deeply involved in Aliyah Bet operations, collaborating with its leaders Yehuda Arazi and Ada Sereni and organizing financial, medical and living resources for the refugees.

A gathering point for Holocaust survivors in the Austrian Alps, 1946 Image by Avraham Bekerman

One of the people whose families stayed at Villa Mayer at the same time we did was Shmuel Atzmon, the founder of the Yiddish theater in Israel. Later, in Israel, my father chose to become a sound and lighting theater designer with Dzigan and Shumacher, the two renown Yiddish comedians, and in the 1960s when they retired began to work with Atzmon.

Atzmon was 17 years old when he and his family arrived to Villa Mayer, and has distinct memories of that experience. He recently told me that Mayer had been a religious man, and actually chose to donate his villa to members of the religious organization Tora ve Avoda, since he understood that its members, as Orthodox Jews, would obey the Jewish laws at the villa’s kosher kitchen.

In the villa the Jewish survivors formed a kibbutz, of which my father later became secretary, a story that I listened to with wonder because I thought that kibbutzim had existed only in Israel. When the group with my parents arrived at the villa, the Jewish Brigade representative asked for a volunteer who would be willing to go back to Austria and lead another group. My father, who had served in the Polish Army and loved hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, volunteered for the mission. During 1946 and 1947 he was gone for a period of about eight months as he brought several groups through the Tyrol Mountains.

The residents of Villa Mayer came from all over Eastern Europe and spoke a myriad of languages, but the official language was Yiddish, which also became my mother tongue. But I never realized that the fluent Hebrew my parents spoke later in Israel developed from the training they had received by the shlichim, or emissaries from Israel working in Austria and Italy. The emissaries also provided vocational training in agriculture, sewing, construction and even fishing.

At night, the survivors organized their own cultural events; they sang Yiddish and Hebrew songs and some played musical instruments. My father, who was a natural comedian, would improvise comedy acts and recite Sholem Aleichem stories.

When my father returned to Lodz after the war, he must have found out about the Bricha movement through the grapevine, and contacted their representative in Lodz, which led to his volunteering to organize a group. My mother and her sister, who were inseparable in the camps and the only survivors of their large family, soon found out about it and joined the group, which by then included about a dozen people. I assume that with the help of a Bricha guide they left Lodz, and without any papers reached a hidden path by the Polish border and crossed it at night into Czechoslovakia. They were led to a place to spend the night, and in the morning bordered a train heading to Bratislava, where they met some other emissaries.

After a couple of days they boarded a train to Vienna, where they arrived at a displaced persons camp. I had known that they stayed in Austria for about six months, and that they got married there. The first thing my father bought in Austria was a new camera, which fortunately helped document my parent’s journey through Austria and Italy. I keep looking at the photos of breathtaking views of the Austrian Alps. The people in the photos look like young, healthy and attractive travelers rather than refugees.

On one chilly night In September 1946, about 100 people, all members of Tora ve Avoda, travelled by train with recently acquired fake documents to Zalfelden, a small town on the border of Austria and Italy. In the early morning, they began a 10-hour climb on a 1,500-meter mountain until they reached the border between Austria and Italy. Some members of the group were older than 50, and others were carrying small children. My mother was pregnant with me at the time.

When they arrived at a designated forest, they slept until the border patrol arrived to arrest them and transfer them to the border, where members of the Jewish Brigade, who must have orchestrated the entire operation with the help of Mayer, were waiting for them with food and drink. They loaded them on three covered trucks, and by midnight they arrived at Villa Mayer, where they were welcomed with a big feast.

When my husband and I arrived in Italy last summer, we met Galliardo, the author of “Jews in the Province of Varese — Tradate 1938-1947” in Verona, who told us that he had recently met Mayer’s granddaughter, Maria Luisa Mayer-Modena, in Milan. At our request he was able to connect us with Mayer-Modena, who agreed to meet with us in Milan a couple of days later.

My emotional meeting with Mayer-Modena allowed me to close a meaningful chapter of my family story that took place 70 years earlier. Mayer-Modena is a linguistics professor who devoted her career to Jewish-Italian dialects in the Italian language. She is a woman of stature who, although modest, conveys pride in of her family’s history. She seemed to be as excited and happy about meeting us as we were excited and moved about meeting her.

Rivka Greenberg (right) and Maria Luisa Mayer-Modena, granddaughter of the late owner of the Villa Mayer, Saly Mayer, 2017, in Milan Image by Phillip Greenberg

Mayer-Modena was about eight years old during the period of “Aliah Beth.” She shared with us some of her childhood memories of seeing in her house its leaders — Yehuda Arazi, Ada Sereni, “all of them.” But she also knew that the meetings were secretive and not to be talked about. We exchanged childhood stories — mine conveying the gratitude of a family of survivors, who were generously taken in by her father and grandfather, and hers of growing up in a family of benevolent rescuers. We expressed a mutual wish to stay in touch and I felt fortunate to be able to close a meaningful circle in my family’s history.

Rivka Greenberg is a practicing clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City.

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