All roads lead to Rome for a Jewish family reunion

ROME — We stood in a circle in the lobby of Rome's Hotel Fiamma. Bruno Contini, my second cousin, kissed each of us first on the right cheek, then on the left then again on the right.

After kissing each of the seven of us, Bruno began again. Once around the circle had not been nearly enough. I cried. I hadn't seen Bruno since I last visited him in Turin 15 years ago.

Late last month, we arrived in Rome from the United States, Israel, France, Holland, England and several cities in Italy. We were there to celebrate the 90th birthday of Bepi Contini, one of the last living cousins of my father's generation.

Edgardo Contini, my father, was born in 1916, the eldest of two sons of Ciro and Lydia. He was one of nine cousins, the grandchildren of Benjamino and Alegrina Contini.

Going one generation further back on the family tree, the family name was Finzi-Contini, a name made famous by the Academy Award-winning movie "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis."

My father came from Ferrara, the town in which the film takes place. His father, Ciro Contini, an engineer and urban planner, designed the master plan for Ferrara and many structures in the region. The granite gate over the Jewish cemetery, seen in the film, was designed by my grandfather.

Contini is an old Italian Jewish name. The book on which the film was based was written by Giorgio Bassani, a contemporary of my father's. The book, however, is a novel, and like most novels it is a mosaic of fact and fiction. The name is ours, but the story is a blend of many families and many fantasies.


It was just three months ago that an e-mail arrived from Bruno, addressed to family members. "Carissimi Cugini" (dearest cousins), it began. The e-mail proposed holding a party in honor of Bepi's 90th birthday.

One by one, from all over the world, 16 of the 20 great-grandchildren of Benjamino and Alegrina Contini made plans to attend. Bepi is the last remaining grandchild of that august couple.

For more than a century and a half, the Contini family had been blessed with creativity, a passion for learning and a zest for life. They shared alpine treks, skiing holidays, Passover seders, family celebrations and unavoidable tragedies

In the late 1930s, life changed for them. The cousins were faced with the reality that Italy no longer was a safe home for Jews. Each made difficult decisions that forever altered their personal lives and their close-knit family.

When the "racial" laws took effect, my father was discharged from the Italian army. He and his brother Roberto moved to the United States, followed by their parents. His cousin Paulo also moved to the United States. His oldest cousin Gualtiero took his wife and five young children to Palestine. The other cousins remained in hiding in Europe. All but one survived the war.

Last month all of Gualtiero's five children arrived from Israel. They were now in their late 60s and 70s. Many of their children had also arrived. There was an easy sense of comfort and familiarity, even though some of us were meeting for the first time.

What was clear was that we knew of one another, that the web of connectedness spanned the distance of time and continents. While emotion was the common language, Italian, English, French, Dutch and Hebrew flowed freely.


We took several crowded buses to a neighborhood near the Villa Borghese. We missed our stop but eventually found the green apartment building. It was a modern building from the 1930s that was showing its age but was still handsome. We posed for photos in front of the elegant doorway. As we leaned back, the door opened.

All eight of us walked into the entry hall. As we gazed about, a woman approached us with a inquisitive look. My cousin Lili explained in Italian that we had come to see the building. It had been designed by my grandfather, Ciro Contini.

The woman disagreed. "No," she said. "The architect lives on the top floor."

We left a little puzzled because the building is in a book about my grandfather's work. We later described the incident to Bruno, who had lived in the building at the end of the war. Bruno remembered that the man on the top floor had lived there since the '40s; perhaps he had taken credit for the building after my grandfather had been forced to flee Italy.


The birthday party was held at a large hotel in a newer suburb of Rome, near Bepi's residence. About 90 people attended, the majority relatives.

Bepi sat at a table in the middle of the room looking handsome in his gray suit. His eyes were bright and alert. He greeted each guest warmly. As he sat in the center receiving his guests, others mingled in groups.

A woman approached me and asked anxiously if I remembered her. She remembered me. As she spoke, my memory of her returned. In 1969, I had spent my junior year of college in Florence at the Badia Fiesolana. I was often invited to the home of her uncle Giorgio, one of my father's first cousins, for Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays.

I was 20, she was 11. She adored me, her American cousin. I remember she would patiently speak to me in Italian. Today she is an elegant woman.

The dinner was served casually and at a leisurely pace. Relatives mingled between the many courses, changing tables, telling stories. Toward the end of the evening two cake were presented, the first in the shape of a 9 the second in the shape of a 0. We sang "Happy Birthday" in English. There is not an Italian equivalent. Cameras flashed, videos rolled and Bepi beamed.


The days we had spent together were emotional. I heard details about my father's life I had not heard before:

Bona, Gualtiero's daughter, asked if we knew of the story when my father first learned of the Fascisti racial laws and his dismissal from the army. We did not.

She recalled that my father was stationed in Rhodes with the Italian army. My father, who was an officer, had light hair and piercing blue eyes.

When his commanding officer read the notice of the racial laws to the other officers he mused, "But how can we tell which of us is Aryan? None of us looks like an Aryan except Contini." The irony was that my father was the only Jew among them.

My father died nearly 10 years ago. Most other family members of his generation have also died. If we do live on in the memories of those who loved us, then he and many of his family were brought back to life at the reunion.

Despite the fact that as a family we have had our fair share of illness and untimely death — despite the wrenching disruption of the Second World War and great untold sorrows — those of us who came together last month shared a joyfulness and optimism that was contagious.