Cipriana Selva was born in Rome on the 13 October 1920. At the time of the Fascist regime she was a young vivacious teenager living with her parents, her uncle and an unmarried aunt.
As the only child of a lawyer and a medical doctor, Cipriana had a comfortable middle class upbringing, and she remembers her early teens as being a happy time divided between parties, summer holidays abroad and a private-school social life.
”In the beginning,” she says when I asked her about the atmosphere in Italy prior to 1938, ”my life was as normal as that of any average teenager. I was attending a private school and the institution itself was not particularly political. I had many Jewish classmates and friends and some of our professors were Jewish. Generally, I don’t remember being exposed to Fascist propaganda and there were no doubts about the successful Jewish integration into Italian life. As a young girl I was not even aware that Jews had different surnames.”
Her words reflect the relative integration of Italian Jews within all strata of Italian society. Unlike in other countries, the majority of Italian cities did not have separate Jewish ”ghettos,” communities were often mixed and intermarriage was very common. Jewish people were present at every level of Italian societal structure, and occupied posts of great importance in the economic, academic and public sector.
Although during the fascist era the press occasionally published articles on the supposed ‘superiority’ of certain races over others, prior to the enforcement of the 1938 ‘racial laws’, anti-Semitism was not the main driving force behind Mussolini’s government. Fascists and Jewish were not always antithetical terms or mutually exclusive. Jewish people continued to flee to Italy from Germany, Poland and Croatia to escape the persecution they experienced in their own countries. One of Mussolini’s lovers was Jewish and paradoxically some of the people who supported Fascism in the very beginning were Jewish.
Cipriana recounts that of all her teachers the chief promoter of the ‘young fascist girls’ group was her Science tutor, a Jewish woman, who during school hours encouraged her and her classmates to join the extra-curriculum activities organized by the fascist party. Of course, Cipriana tells me, ”at that time it was still relatively easy – particularly for girls, perhaps not so much for boys – to avoid taking part in these fascist organizations and I always managed to come up with good excuses not to participate.”
Things, however, took a decisive turn in 1938. On July 14th 1938 ”Il Manifesto della Razza” was published and on September 1st of the same year the ”Racial Laws’ stating that all Jews should be banned from public life were finally enforced. ”I remember how a lot of my girlfriends suddenly stopped attending school and I could not understand why” Cipriana tells me. ”I was told that they were Jewish and that were no longer allowed to attend any public institutions. Similarly many Jewish professors suddenly lost their jobs. The situation was precipitating.”
Still, many Jewish refugees kept pouring into Italian territory from other countries, and whilst some young Jewish people were encouraged to leave Italy to avoid persecution, the majority stayed. Cipriana remembers the intensified presence of racist propaganda and scientific articles on the ‘inferiority of the Jews’ in all the major national periodicals.
Gradually, news of Germany’s death camps and of the unprecedented deportation of minority groups from all over Europe into these camps began to reach many Italians, including Cipriana and her parents. As a daughter of a very liberal anti-fascist family, Cipriana relied on Swiss newspapers and foreign editions to peer into the outside world and quickly began to get a clear picture of the tragic situation her country had contributed to creating.
Amongst Cipriana’s greatest friends was Silvia Almagia’, a Jewish girl of the same age with whom she had become very close a few summers earlier whilst attending a Catholic school in Switzerland. From that moment onwards the families of the two girls became extremely close. Cipriana would often spend her holiday in the Almagia’s residence in Cortina, in Northern Italy. ”It was all too natural then that when finding a secret place to hide became a matter of life and death for Silvia and her family, we should be the people to help them out,” says Cipriana.
On July 25th 1943, Mussolini’s government fell and the armistice was finally signed between Italy and the Allies. This event however, far from improving the situation for Jewish refugees still within the Italian borders, proved to be fatal for many of them. The fall of Mussolini in the liberated South and the establishment of Republica di Salo’ in the German occupied North split the territory of Italy into two opposed areas, and the destiny of many of the persecuted became inextricably linked to their geographical position at the time of the Liberation. Presided over by the orders of General Badoglio, the concentration camps in the south were freed. In the occupied north however the Germans were preparing for their ‘Final Solution’ and all Jews that happened to be living or traveling in the northern regions were hunted down and taken to concentration camps including Auschwitz.
Cipriana’s Rome was also taken over by the German forces and it was at this point that she became extremely concerned for the lives of her friend Sylvia and her family. ”We began to be really afraid,” remembers Cipriana. ”Rome was in the hands of the Germans and we stopped receiving news from Silvia and her family. The last we had heard from them they were traveling down the Adriatic coast where they would normally spend the rest of summer. We had no news for days but we did not dare to phone them, as we knew that the Germans could intercept our phone calls. In mid October we heard about a raid in the Jewish ghetto and we began to lose all hope for our friends.”
The silence was broken the night of October 23rd, as Silvia and 13 Jewish relatives suddenly appeared outside the door of Cipriana’s apartment. With the help of their driver Giacomo they had managed to escape from the Adriatic coast by hiding all the way in the back of a rented lorry. There was no time to waste: a safe accommodation needed to be found that very night for all the refugees. It was decided that Silvia was to remain under Cipriana’s family protection and the remaining members of the family including her parents and sisters were to be split amongst nearby households or alternative accommodations such as farmhouses and convents. Finding a ”safe house” however was not enough to ensure survival; with the German police constantly raiding apartments and checking on occupiers’ identities, getting hold of false documents was vital. Fortunately, the Italian Resistance was not only made up of priests and partisans. Many officials working in administrative offices, embassies and consulates and even some members of the Fascist police, became active participants in the rebellion against the Nazi-Fascist regime, and utilized their privileged position ‘within’ the government bureaucratic machine to provide the ‘outlaws’ with the necessary paperwork to escape deportation. Thanks to people such as these, Silvia and her family managed to obtain false identity cards featuring new surnames devoid of any Jewish association. ”The morning after their arrival from the Adriatic coast we got in touch with some individuals who were connected with the employees of Roman administrative offices and were able to issue the right papers” explains Cipriana. We only need to remember the stories of Giovanni Palatucci and Giorgio Perlasca to realize how much the lives of these State officials were at risk: ”they would take the official stamps home and work at issuing faked passports at night. There was an incredible network of people working underground against the Fascist- Nazi regime, not only to save Jews but also partisans, American and British.”
In what was certainly not an isolated instance, Cipriana and many other civilians, actively worked not only to protect human lives put at risk by the German occupation, but also boycotted their government’s plans. Carrying out what most people would define as life-threatening actions, she sometimes worked as ‘messenger’ for the ‘Resistance’, ”going around and carrying certain papers which were then delivered to the partisans fighting in the mountains.” When I asked how frightened she must have been to put herself in such constant risk she calmly replies that ”generally, [she] was not scared. …Many normal families like ours were working to help the resistance, often hosting secretive meetings or helping in every way they could.” Communal effort was the only way to fight against the evil design of the Nazi machine and one would just do what was necessary without thinking about the consequences. Only once she admits to having been properly scared, when she believed that her apartment was about to be raided by the German police. Disobeying her father’s orders to never let Silvia leave the house in case neighbors got suspicious and decided to report her presence to the police, Cipriana twice took her friend across the road to visit her cousin hiding place in a nearby household. A few days later, on New Year’s night, a loud banging on the door downstairs suddenly woke her up. ”… I quickly woke Silvia up as I thought that the Germans were about to come up to search the apartment. I hid the illegal papers I kept in the house for the Resistance and told Silvia to hide in the terrace. We waited for a while, our hearts thumping with fear but nothing happened. We later realized that that noise was nothing but the Germans celebrating in the streets below.”
Despite or perhaps because of developing what she ironically defines as a ”Spy complex”, which made her constantly suspicious of inquisitive neighbors and careful about revealing any details of Silvia’s identity, Cipriana succeeded in keeping her friend safe for more than 8 months, until the 4th of June 1944, when from her terrace she finally witnessed the Allied troops marching into Rome as the Germans fled the city.
”My father fell ill during that last winter and died soon after the liberation” she tells me with sadness in her voice. ”But I am happy he lived long enough to see his country freed.” The values of freedom and democracy her father taught her will always remain with Cipriana. When asked what made her stand up against the Italian and German regimes and risk her life, as the majority of people kept their heads down, she replied that it was her outlook on life that made her choose the path of righteousness. ”My father and my mother always spoke of the value of freedom and democracy… I had the privilege of being brought up in a very liberal international atmosphere and this is what made me believe in the necessity of fighting for democratic values.” As Cipriana speaks of freedom and understanding I am amazed at her compassion and strength. Along with her incredible courage, Cipriana shows a humility which makes her acts even more extraordinary: ”there were many people who were less fortunate than I was and quite restricted in their means or even brought up amidst fascist political ideas who did wonderful things and showed a great deal of courage… I don’t think I have done anything exceptional.”
”And Silvia? Do you still keep in touch with Silvia?” I ask at the end of our conversation. ”Of course… I see her all the time. She is my greatest friend. In fact she was here for tea just before you called…”