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JewishJournal.com

July 19, 2012

How one Italian village helped raise a child

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/how_one_italian_village_helped_raise_a_child_20120719

Gerti Kopfstein and Sam Goetz in 1947, while both lived in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Photo courtesy of Sam Goetz

Gerti Kopfstein and Sam Goetz in 1947, while both lived in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Photo courtesy of Sam Goetz

Castilenti, a remote Italian mountain village, will be pulling out all the stops to welcome Gertrude (Gerti) Goetz and confer an honorary citizenship on the Los Angeles resident on Saturday evening, July 28.

The first time Gerti saw Castilenti was back in 1940. She was 9 years old and had fled her native Vienna with her parents after Hitler’s takeover of Austria.

Although Italy was allied with Germany, the villagers, who were barely eking out an existence and had never before seen a Jew, received the refugees with warmth and kindness.

Castilenti, in the east-central Abruzzo region of Italy, had a mayor, but the real power rested with the fascist secretary, Luigi Savini. The man, whom Goetz respectfully refers to as Don Luigi, was instrumental in saving the family by warning it of an upcoming SS roundup of Jews and deportation to a concentration camp.

Twelve years ago, Goetz wrote a book, “Memory of Kindness: Growing Up in War Torn Europe.” It started out on a familiar note, with her father, a World War I veteran, and mother, both solid Austrian citizens, suddenly uprooted and stateless after German troops marched in in 1938.

But unlike most autobiographies of the Holocaust years, the author also celebrates the human decency and moral courage of the people of Castilenti.

So, on July 28, the mayor, the president of the cultural association, Holocaust scholars, regional dignitaries, a good part of the 1,600 inhabitants and the national media will gather in the Piazza Umberto I, the central square, “to transmit our history and remembrances from the old to the new generations,” in the words of Gianni Cilli, the event organizer.

The people of Castilenti were not the only Italians to display kindness and courage during the war, and Jews were not the only beneficiaries. Historian Antonio Bini, who will speak during the celebration, noted “There were many people who paid with their lives for the help extended Jews and Allied prisoners during those terrible years.”

Another speaker will be Giorgio Savini, the son of the now-deceased fascist secretary, whom Goetz credits with saving the family’s lives.

Gerti and her husband, Dr. Sam Goetz, will present to the mayor a plaque from the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League as well as a letter from the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, expressing the gratitude of American Jews for the villagers’ fortitude during the war.

The Goetz couple have petitioned Yad Vashem to add the name of the elder Savini to the ranks of the Righteous Gentiles who risked, or paid with, their lives to aid Jews during the Holocaust.

Earlier, Gerti had asked that the entire village be so honored, but she was told that Yad Vashem could recognize only individuals, not entire communities.

“Memory of Kindness,” recently published in an Italian edition, is one of a million stories of the Holocaust years, but with a difference.

It is told from the emotional perspective of a bright and intelligent girl, two years younger than Anne Frank. Gerti was 9 when the family, then penniless, fled Vienna in 1939, and 13 when British forces liberated the family in 1944.

In one of the many oddities of the era, in mid-1939 the fascist government of Benito Mussolini allowed some 4,000 German and Austrian Jews to enter Italy — though only for a six-month stay en route, supposedly, to another country. Fortunately, the time limit was never enforced.

Gerti and her parents first settled in Milan, where the local Jewish community provided one room for the family, and a meal each day. As tough as times were, they got worse when Italy entered the war in June 1940, on the side of Axis partner Germany.

Gerti’s father, Alfred Kopfstein, who had been held in the Dachau concentration camp under the Nazis, now found himself in an Italian prison as a Jewish alien.

In early 1942, Gerti and her mother were sent for wartime internment to Castilenti, later joined by the father, under a strict set of rules: No family member was allowed to leave the village, to seek work or to attend school, and they had to report each day to the fascist secretary, Don Savini.

Unlike the typical Nazi bureaucrat, Savini interpreted the rules quite leniently. Mother and daughter were allowed to roam the surrounding countryside to pick berries and beg for slices of bread from tenant farmers.

Best of all from Gerti’s view, she was allowed to attend school, where she learned to speak Italian with the distinctive local dialect. She became fast friends with her classmates, who nevertheless wondered, without animosity, why her people had killed Christ.

Life was very difficult for the family, but still bearable. That changed when Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and German troops immediately occupied northern and central Italy, while American and British invasion forces were slowly moving up from the south.

Savini now allowed the family to leave the village for a nearby farm, but a few weeks later he called in Gerti’s parents with ominous news.

He had received orders from the region’s SS commander to round up all Jews, including the Kopfstein family, for “relocation” to Poland in three days. At the risk of his career, and probably his life, Savini gave the family a three-day head start to find refuge.

The family hastily packed the two suitcases containing all their possessions, disappeared into the surrounding forest and found shelter with an impoverished peasant, who put them up in a former pigpen.

There the family lived for nine months, until British troops pushed the Germans out of the Abruzzo region. Finally free, the family moved on to the first of three displaced persons camps in southern Italy, where they were to spend the next five years.

One camp, in Santa Maria, came with a beach bordering the Mediterranean. There one day in the summer of 1945, the 13-year-old Gerti, wearing her very first swimsuit, met a fellow camp inmate, Sam Goetz.

He was born near Krakow in Poland and had just turned 17 after surviving three years in Mauthausen and other concentration camps. The two became friends. Then, in early 1949, Gerti and her mother finally received the long-awaited entry permit for the United States and settled in Los Angeles.

Four months later, Sam was also admitted to the United States, staying with relatives in New York. But he could not forget the girl from the displaced persons camp and splurged $55 for a Greyhound bus ticket to Los Angeles.

Sam and Gerti married in 1950, and despite struggles, both went on to earn doctorate degrees — he in ophthalmology and she in Germanic languages and library science.

Gerti, now 80, worked for many years as a librarian, including at the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at USC, and Sam still sees patients in his office. He has also become a leading figure in the Jewish and survivor communities and was instrumental in establishing the 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA. The couple has two children and nine grandchildren.

In 1976, Sam and Gerti Goetz traveled to Castilenti to thank Savini, the former fascist secretary, in person for his wartime help. They arrived to find that he had died five days earlier, and his death notice was plastered across the village market place.

Now few are left in Castilenti to remember the little Jewish refugee girl, but her story — and the story of a village that retained its humanity in the midst of hatred, persecution and death — will be passed on to another generation.

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