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Rescuing A Vital Piece of 20th-Century Jewish History


Rosh Hashanah greetings from Sciesopoli, 1947.

Rosh Hashanah greetings from Sciesopoli, 1947.

Among the many places forgotten by history and lost in memory is Sciesopoli, in Selvino, Italy. Originally built as a retreat and training center for Fascist youth in the 1930s, it is located in the Alps near Bergamo, less than 100 kilometers from Milan.

In Sciesopoli, which was named after Antonio Sciesa, a hero of the Risorgimento movement for Italian reunification, young people were trained in martial arts, sports and military drills, and the facility served as the barracks for the soldiers of the future.

There were dormitories, dining halls, an indoor swimming pool, a cinema, an infirmary – all located in a 29,000-square-meter park that also included courtyards for military parades. The walls were decorated with pictures of dictator Benito Mussolini and banners of the youth brigades. To this day there is a marble plaque in the entrance hall with the names of those who contributed to the building of Sciesopoli; Mussolini’s name and his contribution of 5,000 lire appear on top.

In September 1945, after the end of the war and the fall of Fascism, a delegation composed of Raffaele Cantoni, head of Jewish community of Milan; Moshe Ze’eri, a member of the Palestine Unit of the British Royal Engineers; and Teddy Be’eri, a member of the same unit, was able to obtain the use of Sciesopoli for Jewish orphan survivors of the Holocaust.

Hundreds of young Jews arrived from all over Europe – from the camps, from convents, from forests and graveyards. They arrived one by one or in small groups, skin and bone, frightened, hungry, delusional.

In Selvino they discovered a paradise they could not have imagined: a fabulous castle where they reclaimed their childhood, had plenty of food, were loved and cared for; “reborn to a new life,” as Aharon Megged wrote in The Story of the Selvino Children: Journey to the Promised Land.

The people of Selvino, led by their mayor, Vinicio Grigis, welcomed the children with generosity and acts of personal hospitality, helping them to regain their smiles.

Sciesopoli continued to provide food, shelter, rehabilitation and education to survivors and refugee children until November 1948. The majority of the children eventually found their way to Palestine with the help of the nearby Milanese Jewish community, the municipality of Milan, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, Youth Aliyah and former partisans who fought the Fascists and the Nazis.

In 1984, a group of sixty-six former “Children of Selvino” returned with family members. The mayor and the town’s residents received them warmly. The city was twinned with Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev, where some of the Selvino children had settled.

In subsequent years, many survivors and their family members returned to Selvino, tracing the journey they had made so long before.

In 2012 the city was graced with the presence of Miriam Brisk. Miriam’s parents, Lola and Salek Najman, were Polish survivors, members of the Gordonia Zionist Movement, who were sent to Sciesopoli to help the small staff and the growing number of children who were arriving daily.

Miriam, who resides in Ithaca, New York, retraced her parent’s route as it was recorded in her mother’s diary. After wandering through Poland and former Austrian DP camps, she met me in Bergamo and together we went to Selvino via Unione in Milan (which was the center for Aliyah Bet operations in Northern Italy and a shelter for Jewish refugees), Genoa and Bogliasco.

In Selvino we met with the former mayor and Walter Mazzoleni, son of the former custodian of Sciesopoli, and visited the building and vast grounds.

Walter is the only person in Selvino who still carries around memories (and a photo album) of the days he lived with the Children of Selvino. He guided us throughout the site, which is now deserted and vandalized.

Nothing is taught in the local schools and no memorial plaque is in place, despite the fact that one had been unveiled in 1984. The epic of the young Jews who resided between these walls has essentially been erased from public consciousness.

Selvino was an important place in the history of the Bricha, the underground effort that helped survivors escape post-World War II Europe, and Aliyah Bet. A significant number of displaced youngsters passed through Sciesopoli and Selvino. They were survivors of the European catastrophe, and only those still alive can tell the story.

In recent years the subject of the illegal immigration through Italy to Palestine between 1945-1948 has aroused the interest of some scholars and as well as Jews searching for their roots and information about their relatives’ activities after the war.

Today, Sciesopoli is a privately held property owned by a real estate company. Efforts have been made to sell it but the municipality has imposed an injunction, claiming the former retreat center has a “collective and social purpose” and insisting that if Sciesopoli is rebuilt it must either serve the public or bring in tourists. We fear this would put to rest the historic chapter of the rescue and rehabilitation of child survivors of the Holocaust.

There is a lot of work to be done in Selvino, such as adding the story of Sciesopoli to the local school curriculum, affixing a plaque at the site to commemorate the story of the surviving children and their counselors, installing adequate road signs directing people to the grounds.

These goals certainly are attainable, both from an economic and a bureaucratic perspective. However, time is crucial as the Children of Sciesopoli are in their twilight years and many are no longer with us.

The suggested sale and/or demolition of Sciesopoli, which was mentioned during our visit, shocked us. Given the immense significance of this institution, we feel strongly – and are supported on this by historians, social and psychological researchers, and human and social rights activists – that part of the premises should be dedicated to housing a museum of European rescue and Aliyah Bet, while the rest could be developed as a guest house, thus becoming a source of income that would contribute to the sustainability of the museum.

We are looking for support from the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the Italy-Israel Foundation for Culture and the Arts, the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Joint Distribution Committee, ORT – as well as anyone who finds this project important for present and future generations.

We would appreciate suggestions and constructive ideas. Please contact either mcavallarin@gmail.com or miriambisk@gmail.com.

About the Author: Dr. Marco Cavallarin is a Milano-based historian, researcher and filmmaker specializing in the history of illegal immigration to Mandatory Palestine and the Bricha movement. He was assisted in writing this article by Miriam Bisk.


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