Angelo, Massimo, and Sandro Soliani Identified
December 4, 2013
Sandro Soliani and his brother Angelo remember having their pictures taken when they were children. The brothers, faced with the deportation of their father Arturo, reacted in two different ways: while Sandro always tried to avoid the painful memory, Angelo never stopped searching for information, as if understanding how the events happened could help him cope with them.
Arturo Soliani was born in Lugano, Switzerland, in July 1912. Four years later, his brother Umberto was born. The two brothers ended up marrying two sisters, Rina and Elvira Terracina. From then on, the two young families lived close together. Arturo and Rina had two children, and Angelo. Umberto and Elvira had two children, as well, and to show how close the two families were, they named them Alessandro (Sandro) and Angelo, too. As the names were repeated, and the four children were always together, they had to call Umberto's kids Massimo and Franco to avoid confusion.
The two brothers had a shop where they sold souvenirs and postcards on Lake Garda, a resort for German and Austrian tourists. Their German was fluent, but they could not imagine how this knowledge would be useful later on in their life. When Italy entered the war, Umberto and Arturo deemed it safer to move with their families to Rome, where both of their wives had relatives. Despite antisemitic legislation established in 1938, Italian Jews were relatively safe, and they were not deported. Things got much worse in September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. Germany quickly occupied northern and central Italy. The German occupation radically altered the situation for the Italian Jews. The Germans established an SS and police apparatus, and in October 1943 started rounding up Jews for deportation.
In Rome, Elvira and Rina went into hiding in a convent: they had three children under the age of four, and Elvira was pregnant with Angelo. Umberto and Arturo found asylum in Saint Paul's Basilica, one of the seven main churches in Rome, where they hid together with Italian officers loyal to the Italian government. Arturo had a fake press ID, allowing him to disguise himself as a journalist with the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. Sadly, neither this precaution nor the extraterritoriality of the basilica saved them.
In the night of February 4, 1944, Italian fascists knocked at the basilica door, pretending to be partisans with an injured comrade. They found the refugees sleeping. Arturo and Umberto Soliani did not surrender without resistance: the pajamas the family received the next day were stained with blood.
The Vatican interceded to save the life of the Italian officers, but the nine Jews hiding in the basilica were arrested and transferred to the Fossoli transit camp. In April, Arturo managed to send a postcard to an acquaintance in Rome, as writing directly to his wife would have revealed her shelter: it was a picture of himself, talking to a Fascist and a Jewish man. On the back of the picture, Arturo wrote: "Greetings to your wife Rina and Elvira, and a kiss to Sandro, Massimo, and Angelino. Reply with news of Rina and Elvira."
From then on, Rina and Elvira did not receive any information about their husbands' fates. For many years, after the war was over, they waited and hoped for their return. Survivors from Auschwitz told them that they met Arturo and Umberto in the camp. Probably thanks to their fluency in German, they were assigned to the "Kanada" warehouse, where the belongings of those gassed were sorted and disinfected for shipment back to Germany. Being assigned to "Kanada" meant better food and treatment, which could be the reason why Arturo and Umberto survived the death marches in the first months of 1945. They went through the horror of the camps and the marches only to die few days before the liberation. Umberto died in Dachau, on March 15, 1945, six weeks before the Americans entered the camp. The fate of Arturo is uncertain: he was registered at Flossenbürg, Buchenwald, and finally Bergen-Belsen, on March 20. Three weeks later, the camp was liberated by the English troops, but it was too late for Arturo.
When Arturo and Umberto were deported, Rina was 27 and Elvira 23. The two women with four little children faced not only the economic penuries of the life in hiding, but also the uncertainty of not knowing their husbands' fate. During many years they kept hoping and never remarried, despite their young age.
After the liberation of Rome, with the help of an uncle, the women opened a leather shop on via Alessandria. They named it "Fratelli Soliani" (Soliani Brothers) and were always waiting for their husbands' return. They kept the younger children at home, but Sandro and Massimo lived in orphanages for a couple of years. They spent part of this time in the "Henrietta Solzd" orphanage in Ostia, outside Rome, and part in the "Franca Muggia.” Both institutions were opened after the war to assist Jewish orphans. Massimo remembers that he was always trying to run away to go back home, but since he was barely five, he never got very far.
In 1965, Rina and Elvira received a report from the Italian Red Cross with the death certificate of Umberto in Dachau and the registration date of Arturo in Bergen-Belsen. Only then did they lose hope of seeing their husbands again.
The four cousins—Sandro, Alessandro, and both Angelos—went to school until they were old enough to help their mothers. The leather shop still exists and Angelo now operates it at the same address, 65 years later. Angelo never stopped searching for information, reading books, and interviewing other survivors. He has a daughter, who works with him, and a son, who is pursuing an international career as a fashion designer.
Sandro studied at the ORT school, first at Ostia and then in Milan. He worked as a technician on an oil platform in Iran. When he went back to Rome, he opened his own leather shop, married, and had three children. Sandro was three when his father was deported. He prefers not to talk about the past; for him, knowing the details does not help him to understand what has no rationale at all.
Massimo and Franco are both married with children, and they live in Rome.