Rosner (Spizzichino), Elena Olga
Elena was born in Pisa, Italy in September 1924. Her family name is an Italian Jewish name. One side of her family originally came from Spain, and then moved from Gibraltar to Pisa. The other side of the family was originally from Rome and lived there during the conquest.
Elena has accurate records dating back to the 1700s as well as pictures and the family bible that recorded all the family members. It is on display in an Italian museum in Jerusalem.
Her great-grandfather was an industrialist in Pisa and in 1870, when Rome was annexed and the Jews were emancipated, he founded three textile factories and raised a family of eleven children. On the other side of her family, the other great grandfather was also in textiles and was a talented musician.
Her life before the war was pleasant. Her father worked as the administrator of the family textile factory. She went to Jewish school and learned the Bible. Her father Giulio and mother Elda (Milano), belonged to a small synagogue which was hundreds of years old. Her mother’s family was “enlightened,” not religious but her father’s side was devout.
Elena was the oldest of four children, three girls and one boy: Franca, Laura and Enrico.
On one branch of her family, there were ardent Zionists and a Kibbutz in Israel was founded by her cousin. Her grandfather was born in Tunisia and began a pharmacy in Pisa. He discovered “treatments” and cures.
The children were all born near the main square of the city, where there was no water or electricity.
Her grandmother’s family made hand-loomed shawls, like serapes and cooked both Italian and Tunisian style.
They vacationed in the mountains near Carrara.
Their school went through the 5th grade and she aspired to be an artist and an author.
Before the war, Jews were even generals and prime ministers, were all in the arts, politics, medicine, etc. Some embraced Fascism and some, Communism.
The Italians were very sophisticated and were even good friends with the clergy. Overall, it was a well-blended society.
In 1936, Mussolini joined forced with Hitler and the Jewish beatings began….beatings, but not killings. Mussolini, who came from a lower class family, tried to prepare the public to hate the Jews, although his mistress was a Jewess.
By 1938, Jewish children were no longer allowed to go to school. Each day became worse and Elena’s father lost his job in 1938. Jews were no longer allowed to teach or serve as bank clerks or professionals. They were cut off from every phase of their former lives. Because the family’s factory was sold against their will, they left for Rome where Elena’s father worked in a small family store.
By 1938, inflammatory magazines against all Jews were being published. In 1940, Mussolini declared war on the U.S.
Her father hired tutors for the children and the girls learned how to be seamstresses. Elena became successful and did sewing in boutiques, she employed many girls to work for her, working sometimes eighteen hours a day or longer.
The food situation was difficult . . . they now ate only to live. There were no luxuries or even coffee.
The doormen at her apartment building were all paid spies. Life was not easy, but she felt no immediate danger until July, 1943, when they began to go to the basement during air raids.
Elena remembers that the Americans began bombing on July 19, 1943 and homes were destroyed.
On September 8th, an armistice was signed. During that time, the Germans had tea with Pope Pious XII, who was an anti-Semite. He felt that no action was the best action.
On September 27th, Major Kapler demanded fifty Kilos of gold within thirty-six hours and all the people came up with the money to save the Jews.
Quiet then ensued for a while. Shortly afterward, the Germans demanded addresses of the Jews. Elena’s father said that all the Jews were going to be killed. Her grandmother, Olga Pontecorvo, and two uncles, Tulio Milano and Ugo Milano, who lived with their mother, were on the list and were taken away by the SS.
Elena and her family went to a convent to hide. Although they were liberated on June 4, 1944, they were asked to leave the convent and the media still insisted that the Germans were winning the war.
The magazine “The Defence of the Race” said that Jews were horrid and committed crimes. Italians began believing what they read. At this point, their money was cut off. Leaving the convent, she went to the home of her friend, Maria Santarelli, who Elena said was responsible for saving her life.
Maria was her friend and mentor, seven years her senior. Her father was friendly with a cardinal, who put her younger brother and sister in a convent for the children of criminals, which was outside of Rome.
Elena and her sister sold the family silver, some of it generations old, on the streets, very discreetly.
She heard that her grandmother and two uncles were in prison, so she took packages to them, but her uncles were killed along with over three hundred Jewish men a few weeks later.
Over 85 per cent of the Italian Jews were saved by good Italians and good clergy. One year later, they got a postcard from her grandmother saying she was being taken to a concentration camp (Auschwitz), where she was killed the day she arrived, May 23, 1944.
Elena spent nine months in hiding, in four separate places, all the while selling silver and buying food on the black market to survive. When it was dark, Elena and her sister went back to their home to collect more of their family silver, ignoring the curfew. She even swam in the polluted Tiber River, having no fear of the unknown.
On June 4, 1944, the British entered Italy, followed by the U.S. soldiers. Eleven months later, Northern Italy was liberated . . . during those eleven months, many more Jews were killed.
When her family reunited, after the war, they felt like strangers to each other and had very little feelings. Her father was reinstated as the factory administrator and she and her sister had a sewing “laboratory.”
Her home before the war was happy and filled with classical music at all time. Both of her grandmothers were concert pianists. But, after the war, all was doom and gloom. The city of Rome made attempts to bring the young Jewish adults together and planned parties and dances. She was then twenty. Her sister met her husband, a doctor, at one such dance and one year later were married. Her father sent the younger brother and sister to Israel with the older married sister and her husband.
Elena was preparing to leave as well, but instead, because she was depressed, went back for a last visit to Pisa and there, she met her teacher who took her to services. That evening she met her GI husband, Harold Rosner, whom she married in February of 1946.
She first arrived in Dayton, Ohio, where she raised three children, Sandra, Daniel and Patty.
She never spoke of her past to anyone.
Interviewer: Jaqueline Zeff
Format: Video recording