Northern Italy between Turin and Milan
Posted by David
Our first stop in Italy was Casale Monferrato where we had arranged to meet two remarkable people, Adriana and Giorgio Ottolenghi. Casale Manferato is a small town in the Piedmonte region of Italy (yes, that’s the same Piedmonte that supplies us with that delicious low-fat beef). The town, like all Italian towns, has a very long and storied history involving Romans, Kings, Queens, Napoleon, and a few Jews who have somehow remained in this town for over five centuries.
Adrianna and her sister, Rene Tore arrived to my Mom’s hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, from Italy after WW II. After surviving the war by hiding in a convent among other places, their parents decided that they wanted their children to come to America. Both girls ended up graduating from the University of Wisconsin, but later Adriana went back to Italy to care for her grandmother and fell in love with Giorgio. She returned permanently and her sister and parents followed. It was pretty easy to track down Adriana as she and Giorgio take care of the Jewish Museum and the ancient synagogue in Casale Monferrato. She was thrilled to hear from me and invited us for a visit to her town.
So, back to our encounter with Adriana and Giorgio…….
Adriana greets us like family at the gate to her and Giorgio’s home that has been in his family for over 500 years. She has a beautiful smile and a warmth that defies the fact that we have never actually met one another. We enter a courtyard to her building, which once housed Giorgio’s entire extended family and is now subdivided into apartments that they rent out. Their apartment is like a museum, filled with centuries old paintings and Judaica that they have collected.
Prior to WWII, Adriana’s father owned land in France (I believe vineyards) and when the Nazi’s took over, he lost everything. The family hid in various places for more than four years, always on the run. The girls could not go to school but they were spared deportation to Auschwitz like so many other Italian Jews. Giorgio’s family, who had lived in Casale Manferato for over 500 years, was able to slip into Switzerland with his parents and wait the war out, even managing to enter university while he was there. He returned to Casale Manferato after the war and unlike most other parts of Europe, his family was able to reclaim their house. Giorgio will be 89 in January and looks about 70. Incredibly, he graduated from medical school when in his late 40’s. His intellect and incredible disposition must be what keep him young because he said he doesn’t exercise or eat particularly well.
We walk to the synagogue down very old brick streets to a non-descript building where we enter through a side door. Prior to the Jews being emancipated (sometime around the unification of Italy in 1870) synagogues could not be built on a main street or face a church. Inside, the sanctuary is incredible. It is decorated in a baroque style and although it has been restored over the years, it made it through WWII with only minor damage and the theft of several Ner Tamid fixtures that hung near the Ark. The sanctuary is set up with the Ark at the end of the room and the Torah reading in the middle. The pews have little boxes for members to keep their sidurs, talisim, and tefillin and of course there is a balcony for the women as the shul pre-dates any sort of orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist type delineations. The Museum part of the building has some incredible pieces of Judaica including a document signed by Napolean regarding Jewish emancipation in Italy. How these things were saved through the war is itself a miracle. The basement of the Synagogue has an amazing collection of Hanukah menorahs that are part of an annual contest of artists sponsored by the community. We also see the ancient matzah oven as well as the outline of the mikvah that was once in the basement.
Adriana is an incredible guide. She shows us the displays they use for the local schools who come for visits showing the major Jewish holidays. There are only 8 Jewish people left in Casale Manferato, but the Synagogue and museum is visited daily by school groups, foreign Jewish tourists, and people observing the annual day of Jewish Heritage that Europeans observe at the end of each September. Adriana meets all these groups.
We walk back to her house for a bite to eat and to say goodbye to her and Giorgio. Before we leave, she takes us down to her garage, which has four enormous wooden doors that must have been a horse stable at one time. She opens one of the doors to show me her 1966 Fiat 500 that has been meticulously cared for since Giorgio bought it for her new. It’s another one of her museum pieces.
Adriana and Giorgio wish us arrivederci with hugs and kisses and we are off to our next stop in Asti.