Thursday, April 27, 2006

A moving moment: Visiting with Paola Castagno

As readers of this blog know, I have just returned from a few months in Rome. While there I made contact with Paola Castagno who wrote me a very moving email after my trial. Below is the story of that enconter.

About a week after I arrived in Rome I began trying to find Paola Castagno. Paola is the young woman who sent me the incredibly moving email which I include in my book. She talked about her grandfather Aldo having been in Auschwitz for 8 months and that “he didn’t say me nothing about it.”

I sent her an email but heard nothing. The email did not come back. So I tried again. Still no response. Then I asked Flavia, our secret weapon, to help. She sent her an email in Italian. I am not sure if it was Flavia’s email that did it, but shortly thereafter she called the office.

I immediately called her and she said she would try to come to Rome. Turns out she lives in Torino [Turin]. My student Syliva Haya, who works in the Roman Jewish archives, told me that Castagno was not a Jewish name. So we began to surmise that either Aldo has not been Jewish or that he was her mother’s father and that her mother had married someone named Castagno, who was not Jewish.

A few days later I received an email that she was coming down from Torino with her mother and would arrive in the afternoon. Since the trip is about 5-6 hours, I figured that they would stay overnight. Turned out that they were planning to go back that evening. So, in essence, they were making a 10 hour train ride for a three hour visit.

They were coming on a Tuesday when I teach. It was the day we were scheduled to discuss Primo Levi’s Se Questo e un Uomo [If this is man]. I told her we would be doing so. She emailed me that she was excited about being there for that.

I told them to have the receptionist call me when they arrived. I immediately went down to find them. As soon as I walked into the area I spotted her. She is a tall, dark haired, long legged beautiful young woman with large dark eyes. Her mother is also a beautiful woman. She has a great spirit about her – but I knew that from the fact that she went to the trouble to find my email address after the trial and wrote me that beautiful email.

We got some coffee and I showed her that I had included her email in my book. She was touched. Her mother seemed quite proud. Turned out that Aldo was not Jewish and that they truly know virtually nothing about his Auschwitz experience or even why he was deported. It is obviously a big hole in their lives.

The mother brought a picture of Aldo. He was a stunningly handsome man. The picture was taken about six or seven months after he came back from Auschwitz.

At one point I asked her if she came to Rome often. She said, a bit sheepishly, that this was her first trip. People from Piedmont go North she said jokingly. She has traveled much – London, Germany, France, Oslo – but not Rome. I told that she was a couple of blocks from the Coliseum and the Roman Forum and since she had shlepped so far to see me, I felt obligated to show them some of Rome. So on this bright, beautiful late winter/early spring day we walked over to these ancient sites. I gave her a “tour.” We laughed at how the American was showing the Italian Roman history.

Paola told me how in life he suffered terribly from stomach problems which he attributed to his time in the camp and the terribly poor nutrition there. She stressed how he never told them anything. She described how she would ask him to come to her class to describe his experiences, as other Italian survivors did, but he refused adamantly. Every April 25th, the day on which the Italians mark the Holocaust, he would sit in front of the TV and cry. When she talked about it was as if she was relieving it.

I was struck by the fact that she talked in the present tense and as if she had personally experienced. “When he came back he was so much sadder than when he went.” “When he came back he was so much skinnier.”

When we returned to the Gregg [the University] a TV crew was waiting to film me. They had already done an interview and wanted some shots of me in front of the school and in my class. The reporter, who had attended my talk and read my book, knew about Paola. She was touched to meet her.

In the class we talked about Levi’s experience. A number of things struck me: First of all, we were discussing Levi in 3rd person, not dispassionately but certainly analytically. For them it was Aldo’s experience. We were discussing the author of this important work. They were hearing Aldo’s story.

Secondly, it also struck me that technically one could say that Aldo was not part of the Holocaust per se. After all, he and his entire family were not destined for death, as Jews would have been. Paola and her mother know he “did” something but did not know what it was. For a Jew it was not a matter of “doing” something, it was simply because they were Jews. Yet watching them sit there listening – with tears in their eyes – to our discussion of Levi’s experience, I realized that while my distinction was historically correct on a personal level it was somewhat irrelevant.

It was a brief but moving moment.

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