Newsletter 2

In this second Newsletter, I have some thoughts upon returning from seeing the Paris Holocaust Memorial, and also the news that I have been invited to an audience with Pope Francis.

1. The Holocaust Memorial in Paris

I have just returned from a two week visit to Paris with Shirley.  We had a great time. 

We set aside a day to visit the Memorial de La Shoah at 17 Rue Geoffroy l’Asnier on the fringe of the Marais which is the Parisian traditional Jewish neighborhood.  I have been to several Jewish Museums in New York, Rome, Ferrara, San Francisco and even one in Paris.  I also visited Yad VaShem the Holocaust memorial in Israel so long ago in 1973.  The Paris Memorial turned out to be a completely different experience. 

First, I had no expectations.  I had no idea what I was in for.  Previously when I had visited Memorials like Yad VaShem or the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, I had what I call “expectations of memory.” The sites were so well known it was impossible not to preconceive what the visit would be like.  I was primed for a somber experience where memories that I had read about prior would be invoked once again. Well known history would be retold.  There would be a wall of names or an eternal flame and large Cathedral-like interior, yet open, spaces eloquent in their emptiness and silence. 

There was all of that in Paris; although on a smaller scale.  Upon entry there is a courtyard roofed with white draperies and in the center a round sculpture bearing the names of death camps and concentration camps.  From there a few steps lead down to an open-air labyrinth of white walls about ten feet high bearing the names of the 76,000 French Jews, including 11,000 children, who were deported to the camps.  I found myself in a narrow but not claustrophobic passage with names and dates of birth carved in black on either side of me.  The sheer volume of the names is overwhelming stretching in front and in back and on both sides.  And you are reminded that these are only the French victims, a fraction of total number of Holocaust dead. 

And then, because my father’s family emigrated to the United States from France in the 1880s, I began to look for our name.  More than a little background is necessary here.  My father never told me his parents came from France.  I guess he knew and probably my mother knew also.  But things like that were never discussed when I was a child, and by the time I had become a teenager my parents had died.  I did not learn about my French heritage until 1991 when I was forty three and had just passed the California Bar Exam.  A lawyer from Redwood City, California, Martin Brandfon, called me out of the blue to say that every year for twenty years he had been checking to see if anyone with our name passed the California bar.  Finally, when my name popped up, his annual search was rewarded.  He explained how we were related and how after some genealogical research he had discovered that the family came from Strasbourg.  They had left when the Germans conquered Alsace in 1870.  France recovered Alsace-Lorraine after World War II, and I had spent the summer of 1966 studying French at the University of Strasbourg, not knowing its place in my family history. 

What I did know since my childhood was that my name, Brandfon, was a truncated version of the family name Brandfonbrenner.  My father had told me that much, and also that he had shortened it “so that it would not take me half an hour to sign a check.”  Then sometime in the 1980s, my cousin Sylvia, from my mother’s side of the family and therefore not a Brandfon, informed me on good authority, she having a Ph.D. in Linguistics from MIT, that my name means “Liquor Distiller”.  Brandfon is an anglicization of the Yiddish “Bronfon” which is from the German “Brenntvein” meaning burned or distilled wine.  The full name, Bronfonbrenner, derived from the German Brenntveinbrenner means literally “burnt wine burner” or again “liquor distiller.”  Finally, the brilliant scholar Amos Funkenstein has written about the profession of liquor distiller being predominantly Jewish in Central and Eastern Europe.  Jews may have a reputation among antisemites for being money-lenders.  But they were more popular as innkeepers and purveyors of distilled spirits.  In one bizarre and poignant example, before World War II, Oswiecim, the Polish town that the Germans turned into the Auschwitz death factory, was the home of one of Poland’s largest Vodka distilleries, a distillery owned by Jews, although they were not named Brandfonbrenner. 

Knowing all that I stood before the walls of white stone staring at thousands of names etched in black and craning my neck or crouching down to find a Baandfonbrenner.  The names are listed alphabetically, but they are also grouped according to the year of deportation. On the walls devoted to 1941 I found Jules and Jacques Bronfmann ages 51 and 17 respectively.  I imagine they were a broken-hearted father and son.  Maybe they or their family had once been distillers. But probably they were not my family.  Under 1942, nothing.  But more than halfway up the first wall of 1943 deportees, there she was “Brania Bronfonbrener 1881.” 

I never knew she even existed and I have no further information about her. The Archives at the Memorial were closed, and she does not appear in the online archive. She was the only Bronfonbrener on the wall.  But I can create a bare bones story for her based on her birth date.  She was born in 1881 at roughly the time my grandparents were emigrating.  If she was related to them they barely knew her and she barely knew them if at all.  Moreover, because Bronfonbrener was more than likely her married name, she probably had been born into another family altogether, having no contact with my grandparents or their family.  She might have married a nephew of my grandparents who would have been himself a child when my father’s parents left France. Brania’s imaginary husband may have been a few years older than she, and when she was deported at age 62, alone she was probably a widow.  At that age she was certainly not eligible for work in the Auschwitz complex.  I can see a frail Jewish woman being herded directly from the box cars to the gas chamber. 

My actual connection with Brania while not mere fantasy is surely attenuated.  She could have married someone who may have been related to my grandparents.  I can say nothing more than that.  However, the very name itself establishes a cross generational connection apart from concrete or practical considerations. 

We passed from the labyrinth of the memorial to the Holocaust museum attached to it.  It is a good museum telling the history of the Shoah in France and Europe and we watched a somewhat bored school group being led through the various exhibits.  But within the museum is a second memorial consisting of a small claustrophobic room whose walls, floor to twelve foot high ceiling, are plastered with photographs of French children who had been deported.  It is really not bearable to spend any time in that room. 

Between the Museum and the Memorial, especially the part where I found Brania’s name,  I am reminded of the difference between history and memory.  There are many explanations of that difference.  The one that speaks to me today is the understanding that history is what we tell ourselves about the past, while memory is how we bind ourselves and our present identities to that past.  Any good Holocaust Museum provides a representation of what happened in the mid-Twentieth century.  But feeling bound to a name among thousands on a stark white wall is another experience altogether. 

I am also reminded about the difference between loss and absence.  If I once had something but no longer have it, I feel loss.  When I realize I do not have something that I never had in the first place, I feel an absence. I had my parents and friends, but I lost them when they died.  But I never had brother or sister; that is an absence.  Finding Brania’s name feels like both a loss and an absence.  I have lost something I never knew I had.

 2. An Invitation to Rome

Upon exiting the Museum, I stopped to take a photograph of the round bronze installation covered with the names of the camps.  As I was snapping the photo, I received an email from Deena Schoenfed, the publicity director at The Jewish Publication Society, informing me that I had been invited to the Vatican to present my book, Intimate Strangers A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome to Pope Francis.  Apparently Father Norbert Hoffman, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry, has read the book.  No firm date has been set, but I have been invited to attend one of the Pope’s General Audiences sometime after September 1, 2023.  Late in August, Father Hoffman should propose a date.  General Audiences are large affairs.  There can be hundreds of people at a General Audience.  Most attendees make their own arrangements and get a ticket.  The Pope does not know most of the people at a General Audience.  However, I am invited.  The Pope will be aware that I am there and will be expecting the gift.  That is all that I know right now.  There will be another Newsletter after the Audience.


So What Else is New?

On publication date, May 1, 2023, I was fortunate to receive some gratifying reviews in The Jerusalem Post, Library Journal, and The Jewish Book Council

“[Fredric Brandfon’s] book is rich in detail, with comprehensive research drawn from biblical texts and papal decrees, inscriptions from the catacombs, medieval art, and folktales and poetry in Italian, Hebrew, and “ebraico” the language of the Roman Jews.” 

Elaine Elinson, The Jewish Book Council

“A fascinating and readable history that’s essential for those interested in Jewish or Italian History.” 

Joel Neuberg, Library Journal

“The theme of Intimate Strangers is that from the beginning, Roman non-Jews recognized Roman Jews as familiar, as almost family members, but with the accent on the “almost.” 

Aaron Leibel, The Jerusalem Post

An interview with me was published in Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, and I am looking forward to an interview on AJU/MAVEN on June 27 at noon. 

The piece in the Jerusalem Post was a feature, not a review and there are already 4 nasty comments, not about me, but about Catholics.  Good Luck cancelling the Catholic Church!  Below are some more thoughts on topics of interest to me. 

What I Learned Since I Wrote My Book

            After some seven years of research and writing, Intimate Strangers A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome is officially published as of May 1, 2023.  I had to learn a tremendous amount to write it, and at every step along the way I was fascinated.  Therefore, I did not stop reading and studying after the manuscript was finally submitted in January 2023.  I have been reading whatever I can get my hands on when it comes to Italian history, and among the many new things that I have learned, there are a few that I wish I had known when I wrote the book. 

1. Art Imitates Life:  Casablanca at the Brenner Pass.

When I wrote the book I was already aware of the unforgettable scene in the movie Casablanca where the patrons of Rick’s Bar, French refugees during World War II, rise together to sing the “Marseillaise” and drown out the few German officers singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhein), a patriotic song from the Franco-Prussian War (1870).  The German song was implicitly insulting to the French, and they responded with the French national anthem.  Although occupied by Germans forces, the refugees in the bar perform their own act of resistance against the Nazis. 

Some have said the scene is the greatest moment in cinema, but of course it is fictional.  It never happened.  But something like it did.  And that is what I wish I knew when I wrote the book. 

Towards the end of the war, Germany occupied Italy.  Hitler’s ally, Mussolini had been deposed and the Nazis responded with an invasion of their former Axis partner.  The Italian army was caught off guard, not knowing whether to defend their homeland from invaders or welcome their former allies.  Some Italians fought the Nazis; some quickly surrendered.  In either case, Italian troops who were captured by the German army were deported to German work camps.  Their destination was not the death camps established for the extermination of Jews, but the work camps like Mauthausen which were part of the Nazi camp system that interned Jews, political prisoners, Roma, and homosexuals.  Persons in those camps were not automatically executed, but death was often their fate anyway.  These are grim facts, but nothing new. 

But then I read that Italian military prisoners while still jammed in the box cars headed through the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria sang Giuseppe Verdi’s “Va pensiero” (Fly my thoughts) that had become the anthem of the Italian War of Italian Unification, the Risorgimento (1848-1871).  “Va Pensiero” is a song from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, composed in 1841 but based loosely on the Biblical story of the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites deported from Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 BCE.  In Nabucco, as the Israelites sit on the banks of the Euphrates River in Babylon they mourn for their homeland, Judah and sing Va Pensiero.  In the Opera, Verdi’s song was put in the mouths of Jewish characters of long ago, but Va Pensiero was meant to evoke the nationalistic feelings of Italians, Jewish and non-Jewish at a time when they were fighting for their independence and their own nation.  Verdi was an ardent nationalist, and his song of longing for a homeland was adopted as the anthem of the Risorgimento.  For many Italians even today, it packs the same emotional punch as the “Marseillaise” in France. When I saw Nabucco, “Va Pensiero” was performed first by the chorus in character as Jews, and then performed a second time at the close of the performance by the same chorus dressed as Italian peasants and soldiers displaying the Italian flag.  Somehow Jewish exile and Italian independence became intertwined. 

Back in 1943, Italian soldiers, many of whom had fought for Mussolini, joined the Resistance, in their own way, by singing “Va Pensiero” while headed in a manner similar to the deportation of the Jews, to Nazi camps.  The scene deserves a movie of its own.  And if I had known about it, it would have been in my book. 

2. More on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.

A significant portion of my book covers the Holocaust in Rome and the role Pope Pius XII played in that catastrophe.  I concluded that “even [Pius XII’s] critics described the pope as a profoundly spiritual man . . . . Yet according to the available evidence, during the war years of 1939 through 1945 and specifically from September 8, 1943, through June 5, 1944—the time of crisis when the Nazis occupied Rome—Pius XII failed to live up to that image.” (p. 245).  He failed because while sympathizing with the suffering of innocent people during World War II, he could not bring himself to say that many if not most of those sufferers were Jews.  He did not once confront the Nazi regime or its leaders about their murder of Jews.  As I note there are several explanations for the Pope’s reluctance to specifically identify Hitler’s victimsOne explanation has some plausibility.

“Pope Pius may have been afraid to jeopardize Church institutions across Rome, Italy, and Europe that were clandestinely sheltering Jews.  Had the Pope given Hitler any excuse to move against the church, even invade the Vatican, the lives of thousands of Jews in safe hiding would be risked and might well have been lost.  While such an explanation is plausible, there exists no evidence that the Pope had such concerns.” (p. 243). 

            After writing the book, I did not learn of any such evidence directly about the Pope.  However, in my reading of Claudio Pavone’s A Civil War, A History of the Italian Resistance, I came across a statement of exactly that policy from Monsignor Ambrogio Marchioni, the Secretary of the Nunciatore in Italy, that is the ambassador from the Vatican to the Italian government.  He was answering a question from General Rudolfo Graziani who was a commander of Mussolini’s armed forces and the Duce’s Minister of Defense.  On October 15, 1943, three months after Mussolini was deposed, and a month after the Nazis rescued Mussolini from jail and installed him as the dictator of a puppet Italian regime in northern Italy, the General asked for the Monsignor’s support for the newly minted Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana) known also as the RSI. 

The Monsignor made a well-considered reply.  He insisted that the Church and the Vatican must remain neutral in any contest between belligerents.  

“The duty of priests rather was to instill calm, tranquility, order so as to ensure that ill advised actions do not produce serious reprisals against so many innocent people or the entire population.”

            Here is an explanation of the Pope’s silence set forth in one sentence.  And like Pius XII, the Monsignor studiously avoids identifying who the “innocent people” are.  In this particular case, the innocents were Jews, and more than Jews.  The innocent could have included priests, nuns, peasants and townspeople.  All were vulnerable to reprisals from the RSI or the Germans.  But the Monsignor does not want to further opine on that delicate subject.  Indeed, it appears to have been Vatican policy in both the statements by Pius XII and Monsignor Marchioni to deplore the suffering of innocents without identifying who was causing the suffering.  The Nazis and the Fascists were the agents of the suffering but that was a matter left unsaid.  As Pavone notes it was a policy to “deprecate the deeds without denouncing the culprits.”  And it might have been done to protect the Church, which, to be sure, was using its offices to give shelter to innocent Jews and others in its Churches, convents, and monasteries. 

            Evasive as his reply sounds, Monsignor Marchioni also said “the Church does not and cannot remain neutral between good and evil.”  True enough.  Yet, as in the statements of the Pope, there is a palpable reluctance to state clearly who the forces of evil were.  In a Letter of the archbishops and bishops of the region of Piedmont to the clergy and the people at Easter 1944 the clerical recommendation is for “an able and eloquent silence.” 

A policy of silence avoided challenging the murderous Nazi activities, while hoping that someone else would take the steps necessary to alleviate the suffering of Jews and other innocents. If that “someone else” was a priest, nun or other Catholic cleric – and often it was–that may have been what was intended.  When the policy is silence, the intent of the policy cannot be certain. 

            I might have included these musings in my book.  But does that mean I was wrong when I said the Pope Pius XII failed to live up to his image as a spiritual person?  I think not.  Pius XII would have appeared in history as a courageous spirit if he had directly confronted the Nazis over their actions to exterminate Europe’s Jews.  And that possibly could have saved Jewish lives.  Or it could have cost numerous Jewish lives.  It was impossible to know.  Instead, the Pope acted, not as a spiritual person, but as a political person.  He made a political calculation,  No one can know if it was a calculation that was ultimately correct. We are left with an uncertainty that may accurately reflect a flawed solution to an excruciating dilemma.

            The past rarely reveals itself to the historian with crystal clarity. That can be most disturbing, and frustrating, when questions and complexity both illuminate and obscure our darkest moments. 

3. Italian Soccer

If you write anything about Italy, you eventually run up against the national passion, football.   What we call soccer, is, in Europe known as football.  But in Italy it is called Calcio because in Medieval Florence there was a game, Calcio that involved a ball.  That was enough for Mussolini, who was never overly concerned with the truth, to claim, falsely, that Italians created football or as he insisted, Calcio, and gifted it to the rest of the worldThe name stuck and has outlived the Duce by almost 100 years.

You can watch Calcio—and I do– on Paramount plus where Serie A, the major league, is televised in the United States.  And you do not have to watch it at 3:00 in the morning or any other inconvenient time.  All the games are taped automatically, and I watch the replays when I can. 

In years past, Italy dominated European and even world football but lately the mighty Italians have fallen somewhat.  True, the billionaire Berlusconi poured money into his team AC Milan, but the “real” money from Russian oligarchs and the Middle Eastern sheikhdoms has ended up in British football. This year Italy did not even qualify for the World Cup.  But surprisingly the Italian teams are making a comeback. 

A brief guide for those of you who are already perplexed follows.  Serie A Calcio is similar to American sports.  It has a long season which runs from August to May.  If your team wins enough games, it comes in first.  Simple.  Napoli is cruising to the championship this year.  But there is also the Coppa Italia which proceeds simultaneously and includes all the teams in Italy including those in the lower leagues.  That is a separate tournament with often a separate winner.  This year Florence (Fiorentina) could win the cup.  More importantly, the top four teams in Serie A qualify for the next year’s Champions League which is yet another annual tournament running at the same time from September through May and includes the top four (or three) teams from the national leagues of England, Germany, Holland, France, Scotland, Spain, Poland etc.; most European countries.  Finally, there is the Europa League which is a tournament for the runners up in all those European countries.  Again, the tournament starts in September and the winner is crowned in May.  And if that is not enough, some teams that are eliminated from the Champions League early in the season are shunted into the Europa League and have to play a separate series of games to qualify. 

So, right now Serie A, and the Coppa Italia are coming to a conclusion.  So are the Champions League and the Europa League that include the best teams from last year’s national league’s all over Europe.  And in those two European tournaments, Italian teams have made it to the top.  Both tournaments have reached the semi-finals. In the Champions League two of the four remaining teams are Italian:  Inter Milan and AC Milan.  They are from the same city and they play each other which guarantees that one Italian team will make it to the final.  In the Europa League as well, two of the four semi-finalists are from Italy:  Juventus and Roma.  But they do not play each other.  Therefore, the semi-finals may be the last stop for the Italian clubs if both lose, Juventus to Sevilla, Roma to Bayer Leverkausen.  In any event, the next month is going to be great fun because the semi-final round is not a one game elimination.  The teams play each other twice, and the one with the highest aggregate point score is the winner.  There will, therefore ,be six crucial games for Italian teams in the next few weeks. 

On the other hand, I cannot ignore the virulent antisemitism and racism in Italian soccer as well as the rife corruption.  But that is for another Newsletter. 

            I am learning new stuff every day, mostly by reading as much as I can.  But if any of you have stories, books, movies, or museum exhibits that you recommend or, if you are a fan of Calcio, please let me know.  I want to hear from anyone who wants to respond.

Fred Brandfon