Grazia and Giacomo Sonnino Identified
November 6, 2012
When Grazia Sonnino saw this picture, memories of the war years came to mind. She was nine years old when German troops entered the old ghetto in Rome. They shot a man right in front of her. She still remembers the shock of seeing his body falling close to her. Until the end of the war, she was constantly running or hiding.
Grazia was born in Rome in 1935. Her father, Gabriele, worked in a ceramic and gift shop, while her mother, Celestina Sed, stayed home with Grazia. Five years later, her brother, Giacomo, was born. The family lived on via della Reginella in the Roman ghetto.
When Grazia was three, the fascist regime that ruled Italy enacted racial legislation modeled upon the Nuremberg laws that, among other measures, prevented Jewish children from attending public schools. At six, Grazia started attending a Jewish school. Despite the discrimination that Jews were suffering in Italy and despite the harshness of the war, Italian Jews had not been deported and Grazia was still living at home and attending school in October 1943. When the Allies negotiated a cease-fire with a new Italian government and then landed in southern Italy, many hoped the nightmare was over. But soon Germany occupied the country from the north, leaving Jews living in northern and central Italy trapped.
Grazia remembers the morning of October 16, 1943: The Germans entered the ghetto to round up and deport all the Jews living there. Grazia's mother woke her up and they went into the street to try to escape. A German soldier stopped them. They froze but the soldier shot a man who was trying to run away. The man fell right in front of Grazia, who still has vivid memory of that moment and says that her whole life she has felt nervous and scared because of what she saw.
After October 16, Grazia remembers a life of running and hiding. Her family had to separate to find places to hide. Her mother left her at the home of a Catholic friend whose daughter was close in age to Grazia. In the meantime, her mother hid somewhere else with Giacomo, who was only just three. Grazia did not know where her parents where hiding, but a Jewish woman, a neighbor and distant relative, visited her in hiding in order to bring her mother news of her. She remembers the woman’s name was Stella di Porto.
Soon, however, Grazia had to run again, as someone had told the Germans that a Jewish girl was hiding in the house. She found asylum in a convent, where the nuns gave her another family name, Longobardi, to better disguise her identity.
This trick did not work either, and she had to run again. Until the end of the war, she was running and hiding all the time. Many Catholic families helped her and her family, and sometimes they went back to their empty house in the ghetto for a while. But they were constantly betrayed to the Nazis.
The family discovered that Stella di Porto, who had been delivering messages between the hidden family members, was “selling the Jews.” She received 5,000 liras for each man betrayed, 3,000 for each woman, and 2,000 for each child. Stella was a cousin of Grazia's mother, and she went to visit her while in hiding, even at the convent, pretending she was caring for her.
Stella di Porto betrayed Grazia’s father to the Germans. Gabriele had been hiding in the outskirts of Rome, when she went to see him and said Celestina had been taken. Gabriele entered Rome to search for his wife. Germans were waiting for him, and he was arrested and murdered in the mass killing known as the Ardeatine Caves massacres on March 24, 1944.
When the the war was over, Stella di Porto left the ghetto; many people there suspected she was a spy. People say she converted and disappeared; she may have entered a convent.
Celestina returned home with Grazia and Giacomo. She had a clothing stand at the market, but despite working hard to make ends meet, was not able to take care of her children. Grazia and Giacomo lived in Jewish institutions for orphaned children for several years. They lived in three institutions in Rome and were assigned an American foster mother who sent them gifts. Grazia remembers her foster mother lived in New York and her name was Hellen. Grazia left institutional care when she was 13 and went to help her mother, while still attending the Jewish school in the morning. Giacomo, just five years old when the war ended, lived in institutions longer.
Grazia met her husband, Roberto Caló, called Pallino, when she was just 17. They were neighbors on via della Reginella. Roberto's father and one of his brothers had been deported. They came back, but they were so shaken that the responsibility to care for the family fell on Roberto, then just a teenager. Despite the difficulties, he and Grazia managed to marry and build a family.
Roberto had a good job demolishing cars and was able to employ Giacomo for a while after he left the orphanage. Giacomo’s real passion was singing; he had a tenor voice and studied singing with a teacher. He eventually worked at RAI (Italian State Television) as a technician. He married and had children. He died in his 70s.
Grazia and Roberto have three children and six grandchildren. They still live on via della Reginella in the old ghetto.