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Revealing Family Secrets

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ROME -- On a fine March morning at her home in Via Cesare Pascarella, Sara Terracina breathed in deeply as she took the postcard-sized, black and white photograph that her mother handed to her. It was the picture of a boy and a girl, brother and sister, standing in front of a railing overlooking hilly Italian scenery.

Sara stared at the image of the boy for a few moments. His pants were a little too high above his waist, and the white shirt he wore seemed too big for him. His hair was combed back, his eyes looked downward and there was a hint of a smile on his bashful face.

"This was my uncle, Amedeo," she said. "This is the first time I am seeing what he looked like."

Amedeo Di Cori was 16-years-old when he was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 in Rome and kept at the Regano Coeli prison in the city for a few months. He was then taken to the camps at Auschwitz, and was eventually killed in Germany toward the end of the Second World War.

Although Sara, 32, grew up knowing that her mother had a teenage brother who died in the Holocaust, her mother had never told her about the existence of this photograph of Amedeo, or about the letters that he sent during his few months at Regano Coeli.

Sara, a graduate in international affairs and history, works as a tour guide taking visitors around the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, explaining the history of the Jews in Rome. Sara often peppered her talks with anecdotes from her own family history, but today, she realized there were still many details about her uncle that her family hadn't yet told her.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to get families talking. I met Sara during a trip to Rome with my "Covering Religion" seminar at Columbia University. Sara had invited me to her home to meet Amedeo's siblings -- her mother, Luciana Terracina, and her uncle, Angelo Di Cori -- and they retold the story of the uncle Sara never knew.

As Sara cradled her own son, 1-year-old Gideon, Angelo and Luciana brought forth first Amedeo's picture, and then his letters. Sara had never seen them before. But these were the only remains the family had of Amedeo: a young life that was cruelly ended by the Nazis and their Italian collaborators.

Regina Coeli
April 25, 1944

Dear Mother,

It's only now that I am able to write a few lines to you. I can tell you that I am fine, my health is fine. I am quite relaxed, and I hope that you feel the same. I received all your packages. I ate all the food that you prepared for me. I was very happy because everything was prepared in our house -- it was delicious.

We are waiting to leave for an unknown destination, on maybe Tuesday or Thursday. If you can, could you send me some more things that I need? Can you send me some thread and a sewing needle, some cigarettes, some soap -- it's very useful in here. And please, more paper and envelopes. I am writing a lot of things in here, although I don't know when they will reach you.

With this letter, I send you a lot of kisses, and a million more to Franca and Luciana. I hope to see you all as soon as possible. Please tell me any news you know about Marietta. I hope that she is fine. Once again, a trillion kisses from your dearest son,

Amedeo

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Amedeo was the eldest son in the Di Cori family; a large Jewish family that consisted of the parents, Mario and Giulia, and six children: Rina, Amedeo, Angelo, Giuseppina, Luciana and Franco. They lived in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome, and his father made a living both as an oculist and as a hawker on the streets of Rome.

However, this changed with the laws under the "Manifesto della Razza," the Manifesto of Race issued by the Italian government in 1938. Under these laws, Italian Jews were stripped of their citizenship, and weren't allowed to practice their professions. With Mario unable to work anymore, the onus of taking care of the family was taken up by the young Amedeo.

Amedeo followed his father's example, and became a hawker, laying out his wares on a table in the street. Although this makeshift shop became the Di Cori family's primary source of income, Amedeo was working in extremely dangerous conditions. The fascist regime had put out rewards for people who caught Jews breaking the racial laws -- and Amedeo was a prize catch for anyone greedy enough for the money.

"It used to be 5,000 liras for a Jewish man, 3,000 liras for a Jewish woman and 1,000 lira for a Jewish child," Sara explained. "At that time, it was a lot of money. People were starving, and they would do anything for the money."

Sara paused for a minute, breathing in deeply. "I'm not saying I condone their behavior. I hate the people who sold out the Jews," she said. "But yes, I can understand the situation they were in."

One day in April 1944, Amedeo's luck ran out. A fascist soldier arrested him, and took him to the Regano Coeli prison in Rome.

Regina Coeli
May 2, 1944

Dear Mother,

I received your package with food, and I thank you so much for that, and for everything you do for me. I ate everything you sent me and I'm very glad to know that all of you are fine. I hope Franca and Luciana will never forget their beloved brother and that, one day, when God wills it, I hope I will be able to hug you again and hug them again and to buy for them all the sweets in the world, all the sweets and candies they want.

Dear Mother, do not send me more bread, just send me three of those since I have enough of that in here. For the next package, please send me some toothpaste, a toothbrush and soap. I am in good health and I am very relaxed. Again, a lot of kisses for everyone at home. And please say hello to all my friends and relatives.

From your beloved son,
Amedeo di Cori.

Once she learned that her son was in the Regano Coeli prison, Amedeo's mother made an arrangement of sorts with people who worked at the prison. Through them, she was able to send her son food, clothes and other items of daily use. It was through the exchange of laundry that Amedeo and his mother found a way to communicate with each other as well.

Every time he gave away his clothes to be washed, Amedeo would replace the cards that were used to keep the collars stiff in some of his shirts with small pieces of paper on which he had written letters to his family. It was a risky practice, but a channel of communication was opened between them.

In his four letters from Regano Coeli, Amedeo has put up a brave front, constantly telling his mother not to worry about his welfare. Loving words to his mother and siblings make up most of his letters. Amedeo seemed to have a relentless hope for a future when he would be able to see his family again.

Amedeo also made sure that he didn't run his family into trouble if his letters were found by the prison guards. Since he knew that the Nazis were targeting Jewish men in their arrests, he changed the names of his family's male members to make them seem female. Thus, in his letters, he referred to his father, Mario, as Marietta and his brother, Franco, as Franca.

Such actions by Amedeo in his letters were characteristic of his protective nature, said his youngest sister, and Sara's mother, Luciana. While he was the caretaker of the entire family, Luciana remembered his particular fondness toward his youngest siblings.

"Every night -- every single night -- when he would come back home after work, he would always have some little gift for me and for the little one, Franco," she said, her eyes welling up as she remembered."He never came back without something for us."

May 20, 1944

Dear Mother,

I am writing to you these few lines because I'd like to let you know that I am about to leave. If I can, I will write to you from where I am going.

Be strong, and have faith. Please pray for me to the holy God that He will assist me. Just like the way that I am praying to him now, please do the same as well. I am full of courage and faith. I pray and I have faith in God that one day, he will let me hug you again.

It was not just the photograph of Amedeo that took Sara by surprise today -- she was seeing the letters for the first time as well. As Sara read the letters out loud, her voice broke several times, and she struggled to keep her composure. Later, Sara said that she wasn't surprised that her mother had chosen to keep these documents away from her all this while.

"The answer to why my mother she didn't show me these things is because I am her little daughter," Sara said. "She thought this was too much for me and that I should be protected. She knew that this was too painful for her, so she must have thought it's too painful for her little daughter."

Luciana was only a young girl when her brother was arrested but her memories of the time are still vivid. Nightmares of the Nazis coming wake her up from her sleep even today. Although Luciana still finds it difficult to watch historical video footage on Nazi concentration camps, she grits her teeth and continues to see them, hoping to see her brother somewhere in those clips.

"It still hurts," Luciana said, pressing her hand against her heart. "Every time we sit down to eat, every time we go out, the memories are always in my heart. Every moment we get together with family, we always return to talking about the past. Sharing the burden of memories doesn't make me feel better -- I'm just passing along the story."

It was many years after the war that the Di Cori family carried out research of their own to find out what exactly had happened to Amedeo. As the war reached its end in 1945, the Nazis were taking out prisoners and indiscriminately killing them. Amedeo was one of those victims -- he was shot and killed on Jan. 6, 1945 at Hailfingen in Germany.

Sara gave birth to Gideon a year ago, and her new role as a mother has helped her better understand the pain and trauma her family, particularly her grandmother, had to live through.

"Because I can imagine that it could happen to me -- not to die myself, but to suffer the pain of a mother seeing her 16-year-old son taken away from her and die in a horrible way, so far from home, maybe calling my name," she said.

"Because that is the thing that most scares me," she added, as she tightly hugged Gideon. "My son is calling my name and I am not there to help him."

(undated, final letter)

We are leaving for the concentration camp, maybe the one in Carpi, Modena. Once I get there, if it is possible, I will write to you. We are all fine, and full of courage.

Greetings to everybody.

Kisses,
Amedeo.