"The voices of the Neppi Modona family are interwoven with their discussions with the author. The frequent shift of focus enlightens rather than obscures. Four stories that remind us of the human dimension of history." from a review from Kirkus Reviews 11/1/96
Kate Cohen wrote this book with the financial help for foreign study from the Dartmouth College Committee on Graduate Fellowships. The award financed a trip to Italy so that Cohen could interview relatives of her father - Rachel Neppi Modona and her daughter Lionella, the two surviving members of their immediate family of four. The entire family had survived World War II, but Rachel’s husband Aldo and their son Leo, both of whom had kept diaries during the war years, died before the author began working on this book.
Having access to the two diaries and being able to interview the surviving women gave the author a window into how the family and many of their fellow Jews survived during World War II, first under Mussolini and then Hitler. The memoir is divided into four sections. In a general introduction we meet these Italian family members and learn some of their history. The next two sections consist of excerpts from the two diaries, first Leo’s rather short one, then his father’s longer diary. Throughout both sections Cohen intersperses diary entries with conversations she had with both Rachel Neppi Modona and her daughter Lionella who clarify and expand upon some of the circumstances discussed in the diaries. In the fourth section the author contextualizes their World War II experience and discusses the effects of the trauma of uncertainty, fleeing and hiding had on family members during the war and in post-war Italy.
Some of what we learn from reading this memoir is that the Neppi Modona family whose home city was Florence was financially well off, well educated, and part of a large social circle. Aldo Neppi Modona’s family had lived in Italy for many generations and he was not at all an assimilated Jew. He was traditionally Orthodox and his religion and observance were very important to him. He was a fervent Italian patriot who had served in World War I and, in fact, was a member of the Fascist party. He could not believe that he would become a pariah. Little by little his status was eroded. Eventually he lost his teaching position, had to leave his home, and with his family wandered from one town to the next boarding with relatives, friends, and friends of friends in order to evade detection.
In reading the excerpts from these diaries, the discussions with the survivors, and the author’s commentary, we learn about the specific situation of the Neppi Modonas during World War II as well as the situation of Italian Jews in general. The author ends by explaining how reading the diaries and conducting the interviews helped her to gain insights into her own upbringing as a post-war Jewish American.
To read an article in the New York Times about recent research that deals with Jews in Italy during World War II, click here.
Leone Neppi Modona – married to Ada
Aldo Neppi Modona – son of Leone and Ada; married to Rachel Fintz
Lionella Neppi Modona – daughter of Aldo and Rachel; married to Guiseppi Viterbo
Ada Viterbo – daughter of Lionella and Guiseppi
Tal – daughter of Ada
Emanuele Viterbo – son of Lionella and Guiseppi; married to Lia
Leo Neppi Modona – son of Aldo and Rachel
Carlos Alberto Viterbo – father of Guiseppi Viterbo (married to Lionella Neppi Modona)
Family relatives – exact relationships unstated
Valentina Neppi Modona
Leone Ambron – cousin of Aldo Neppi Modona
Bettino and Luisa Errera
Ernesta Neppi Modona
Ralph Cohen – son of Amalie; married to Judy
Kate Cohen – daughter of Ralph and Judy; married to Adam Daniel Greenberg; author
Amy Cohen – daughter of Ralph
Friends and Acquaintances
Riccardo Dallo Volta
Enrico Dalla Volta – son of Riccardo
Margherita Dalla Volta – daughter of Riccardo
Nathan Cassuto – married to Anna
David Cassuto – son of Nathan