FEBRUARY 2007 – NO. 12
This Has Happened
"I, alone of my family, returned to life"
Genoa, July 20, 1960
My name is Piera Sonnino. I was born 38 years ago in Portici, near Naples, the fourth of six children of my mother, Giorgina Milani, and my father, Ettore Sonnino. Their wedding, celebrated in a Jewish ceremony in Rome in 1910, was lavish, in keeping with the social position of both families, and the ceremony concluded with a concert in which a well-known soprano of the time took part. For my mother, deeply in love with the man who had become her husband, and for my father, their life together had an auspicious start.
Their first child was Paolo, who was followed by Roberto, Maria Luisa, me, Bice, and Giorgio. My father was a handsome man. In the only photograph of him that has survived, he is still young and has the look of an elegant, turn-of-the-century gentleman, with a somewhat arrogant air. He was kind and generous, as the Neapolitans are. He came from a middle-class family — the Honorable Sidney Sonnino was a cousin of our grandfather's — and for his entire life, in spite of his physical decline and the atrocious humiliations he endured, he maintained, up until the final long night of Auschwitz, a natural refinement that instilled respect and obedience in us, his children. For many years the profession imposed on him by family tradition and — I believe — undertaken with many reservations, was that of a businessman, a shop manager or salesman, depending on the circumstances, and he pursued it with variable, and usually limited, success. In the periods when luck was with him or when he managed to conclude a favorable deal, my father, with an almost childish enthusiasm, filled the house with all sorts of things that, no matter how superfluous, he thought might brighten the lives of his wife and children. Even before 1938, the year in which the racial laws took effect and the situation of our family, both human and social, fell apart, we spent many days of dignified poverty comforted by gramophones and the latest cameras. Needless to say, these testaments to better times disappeared quickly under the pressure of household necessities.
My mother was born in Rome. She had earned a teaching diploma and was also an excellent pianist. She declared that she was an enemy of popular music, but we, her children, sometimes managed to make her forget Bach and Haydn, and would lovingly coax her to sit at the piano and play the songs that were in fashion. It always happened that in the middle of some light melody the music would suddenly stop and the notes of a sonata would rise into the air. Mamma played with absorption, as if she were drawing those often melancholy passages from within herself, and not just from her memory. At a distance of many years, and with the experience that life has brought, I've found that the love I always felt for my mother has been transformed into reverence.
Today I can fully appreciate, and, if not always comprehend, at least imagine, what a complex and heavy burden she carried, what a sum of sorrows tortured her for years, before the end that awaited her. My mother did not have a greatly expansive nature, like the other members of my family; her rules were silence and control of one's own feelings. But I remember when these rules were broken by events, the day we were arrested, and our last, long night in the transit shed of Auschwitz: I recall the continuous, uninterrupted weeping of a woman in anguish.
Paolo had graduated in 1940 with a degree in business and economics. He had had to work to support himself during his studies, and, particularly after the promulgation of the racial laws, the jobs that he found were always temporary and poorly paid. His degree was the result of great sacrifices and a serious and tenacious character. I think that although Paolo was the oldest and enjoyed a longer period of tranquility than the rest of us, he died having had no experience of love. In our house certain subjects were forbidden, and love was among them, but if there had been hints about Paolo I would remember. Instead, in my memory he is totally absorbed, first by work and study and then by our common anxiety: the anxiety that denied to us, too, his brothers and sisters, youth and love and even the chance to dream of a future. For five years, starting in 1938, we lived in a time without a future, a dark present overhung by a confused and indistinct nightmare, which enveloped us after September 8, 1943.
At 15, my brother Roberto had to interrupt his studies and go to work. What my father earned was not, as usual, sufficient to provide even a modest living for our family, which from 1925 included eight people. Roberto's first contribution was 200 lire a month. Roberto was a practical, cheerful youth who loved life. As, gradually, our father and mother were increasingly unable to react to the nightmare that pressed around us, he became if not the mainstay the one who, more than any of us, assumed the family responsibilities. It was Roberto who took initiatives that many times procured food for us or got us out of terrifying situations. He was anything but contemplative and, if he could have continued his studies, probably would not have had the same success as Paolo — though not, certainly, because he was less intelligent. He had the somewhat disorganized, capricious character of a man of good sense and many ideas.
Giorgio was the youngest. From the age of discretion, he grew up in the nightmare. He spent the last nine months of his existence shut up within the walls of the apartment on Via Montallegro, in the neighborhood of San Martino, where we had found lodging and refuge. For nine long months he was cut off from society and from life. He became nervous to an extreme degree, and during the aerial bombardments he suffered breakdowns that left him exhausted. We, his sisters, brought him books: he asked us continually for history books, in particular about the first Risorgimento. He became profoundly knowledgeable about the lives of Mazzini and Garibaldi. In the last days he had begun to memorize a dictionary, and in the morning, when he came to help us in the kitchen, he would ask us the meaning of the most abstruse, least modern words he could find, entertaining himself by embarrassing us. We gave him the opportunity to embark on long dissertations that originated in the need that he had, and that we understood, to feel, through his words, that he was alive. But these were rare moments of relaxation. Giorgio, minute by minute, day by day, lived nine months of terror. He was the first among us to enter the antechamber of death, and when death arrived he yielded without resistance.
Maria Luisa was the oldest sister. She was beautiful, and her character was similar in many ways to Roberto's. At Auschwitz and, later, when we were separated from our parents, in Belsen and Braunschweig, she was like a mother to Bice and me. Sometimes now, at a distance of 15 years, when there is silence all around me, I seem to hear again her thin, hoarse voice rising in the barracks, as she sang for Bice and me, to keep us alive in the absurd hope of surviving. One evening, when we had just returned to the barracks in Braunschweig that we few Italian Jews shared with 700 Hungarian Jews, a supervisor came to read a list of those of us who were to be deported. Among them was Maria Luisa. Our sister lined up with the others whose names had been called. Bice and I thought that they were bound for an extra work shift, as often happened. Our sister wasn't even given time to say goodbye to us. We never saw her again.
Bice, of all of us, most resembled our mother, above all in her character. She was the second youngest and still a child at Auschwitz, at Belsen, at Braunschweig. For four days her body lay abandoned on a wooden bench and in the end disappeared under the snow. My father, Ettore Sonnino, and my mother, Giorgina Milani, at the ages of 74 and 58, respectively, were killed in the gas chambers at Birkenau on October 28, 1944. Paolo, at the age of 27, and Roberto, at the age of 26, were killed in November. Giorgio, at the age of 19, was killed a few days after his brothers. Maria Luisa was killed at Flossenburg on March 20, 1945, at the age of 25. Bice was killed at Braunschweig on the night of January 15-16, 1945. She was 21. The number that death imprinted on my arm, and that I still bear, is: A26699. In September 1950, after five years in rehabilitation centers and sanatoriums, I, alone of my entire family, returned to life.
From This Has Happened by Piera Sonnino and translated by Ann Goldstein. Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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