Interview with Marcella Servi
Siegel: Under the Tuscan Thumb: A Holocaust Survivor’s Tale from Pitigliano,
Interview Conducted By Judith Roumani and Jacques Roumani for
Abstract: Marcella Servi Siegel, born in the small Jewish community of Pitigliano, Tuscany, tells in the interview of her childhood, the tight-knit social relationships, and the unraveling of a five hundred-year old Jewish community, due to antisemitism. Still a child, she hid from Fascist and Nazi persecution with her siblings in the countryside for many grueling months and received help from farmers and partisans.
Marcella Servi with her parents, uncles and aunts, and older siblings.
Marcella is on the far left. Jerusalem, December 2007. Photo courtesy of
Marcella Servi Siegel
C: The story of how Italians acted during the Holocaust is a complicated, even
ambiguous one. Some memoirists tell us of how ordinary Italians sheltered Jews
in the Shoah, and saved many; others emphasize that the Fascist racial laws were
as harsh as those of Germany, that the majority of Italians belonged to the
Fascist party, that Mussolini was no paper tiger, and that at least 15 percent
of Italian Jewry perished. We’d like to hear your
personal story of growing up in Pitigliano, a small town in Tuscany where Jews
were historically well integrated and well treated, and how Fascism and Nazism
affected your life, as well as the actions of the local people.
MS: It was true that most Italians belonged to the Fascist party, because you
couldn’t get a job without party membership. Jews were doctors, lawyers (liberi
professionisti) which meant they had less need to belong to the party than
other Italians. A large proportion of Italian Jews were killed, with the
collaboration of Italians. My own grandmother and her relatives were killed
because Italians brought them to the Nazis in Rome. That wouldn’t be true that
most Italians saved Jews. It might be true that it was mostly Italian Jews that
were saved, with the help of Italians.
C: Would you like to tell us about your childhood, growing up in Pitigliano?
MS: I was born in 1930, from a father that was the Jewish leader of the town, of
the village and my mother that was born and raised in Rome. She came to
Pitigliano as my father’s bride.
C: Wasn’t you mother’s family from Livorno?
MS: No, my mother came from Rome.and her name was Di Capua, two separate words.
C: Was your mother happy in Pitigliano?
MS: No, she hated it!
MS: Oh, I don’t know, specially in those days, that was like going back, as she
used to say, five hundred years. There was no real communication with the
outside world. Everyone was linked to the outside world only through a bus
service that was unreliable.
C: Even today…
MSS: But in those days it was totally isolated. The culture was 500 years back.
Only recently they had received electricity, and the person who did it was
related to my father. This is a little anecdote: we honor Edison, who invented
the light bulb, but maggior glory to Engineer Sadun, who brought it to
Pitigliano. This was within my father’s lifetime, so as you can see the life of
the town was very, very backward
C: So your father was born in Pitigliano?
MSS: Absolutely, from a father that was born in Pitigliano, from a mother that
was born in Pitigliano. The family name was Lattes, the family of Dante Lattes.
My great-grandfather was born in Pitigliano. My father’s family had been in
Pitigliano for hundreds and hundreds of years.
C: So how did he meet your mother, in Rome?
MSS: No, the engineer I had just mentioned had gone to study at the University
of Pisa. The University of Pisa was and still is a very, very prestigious
university and many of the Jews that went there, in order to maintain a kosher
lifestyle, lived in a pensione run by a Jewish woman in Livorno. So this
man met this aunt of mine, my mother’s sister, and this is how my parents met,
through my aunt and the engineer. My grandfather had a hard time finding a
second wife, because he was a kohen and he couldn’t find so easily a
betula, a virgin girl who was willing to marry a man with four children. So
he didn’t remarry for a few years. At that time, my mother and her sister were
sent to the two aunts and brought up in different households. From the second
marriage he had a son, and a daughter who was killed in Auschwitz with her
mother (my step-grandmother).The son was saved by the fact that he was married
to a non-Jew, a Protestant from the isle of Malta. The antisemitic laws forbade
the children to go to public school. To go to the Jewish school, they had to go
to the school across town, the Jewish school in Trastevere, Rome. So instead of
going across town, they went to a private Jesuit school.
C: And that’s how they were saved?
MS: That’s so. When the crunch came, the still-Jewish husband, and the
still-Jewish kids, (he had three of them at that time) went to this convent and
they were saved there. But, when they came out, they were committed Christians.
So there was a price to pay for survival.. My mother’s oldest brother also
married a girl from a mixed marriage. She had a Jewish name, because her father
was Jewish, but she was from a mixed marriage, and they also ended up in a
convent and were saved this way.
C: The convent was in Pitigliano?
MS: No, no, in Rome. My
mother and father and us four children in 1943 (my twin brother was dead, he’s
buried next to my parents in the Jewish cemetery in Pitigliano, he died less
than a year old, so there is his tombstone, next to my parents and grandparents
and great-grandparents) were living in Pitigliano.
So, back to when the German occupation came to our part of Italy…
C: How did that change your lives?
MS: Up until 1943, we were under the Fascist laws These laws came in 1938, and
they covered the education system, the marriage system, the work laws, they kept
increasing in severity almost daily for the first year. Every day we got a new
law: we couldn’t keep a Christian maid, that we had always had until then, we
couldn’t get a work permit, we couldn’t work, we couldn’t own a radio, and so on
and so on.
C: But you were a child then. Were you aware of these things?
MS: Oh, I couldn’t go to school! I had finished my second grade, and I was
kicked out of school. The day after, they kicked out all the Jewish teachers.
C: So you must have been happy, no school? It’s like a teachers’ strike…/p>
MS: Well no, I wasn’t happy at all. I remember that day very well. My mother
came and sat on the bed. We were usually summoned to school by the church bells.
We lived in the old ghetto .The school was at the opposite end of Pitigliano.
You know, Pitigliano is long and thin, to
go to school we had to cross the whole length of the town. I was still lingering
in bed, and she was teary and sad, and she said I couldn’t go to school any more
. . . . It took a little time to
organize a Jewish school. There weren’t enough children to have a real school.
C: So you went to the new Jewish school then?
MS: Yes, it was a little makeshift. They put us all in the same room. Whether we
were first grade or fifth grade. Pitigliano. had school only until the fifth
grade, elementary school. Recently they had started a vocational school. Up
until the eighth grade.
C: A trade school?
MS: Yes, a trade school, up to the eighth grade. So, the children of the Jewish
community ranged from those who had finished the second grade to those in eighth
grade. My little brother Mario had never been to school before. But they put us
all in the same room.
C: Was the school near your house? style="text-align:justify;text-justify:inter-ideograph">
MS: Yes, near the synagogue, and we coud even enter directly from my home, the
rabbi’s house.. And what we were allowed to do was at the end of the school year
to take the exams as external students to be promoted to the next grade. But we
didn’t take the exams with the other children of course. We went up to the
school proper (each of us being the one Jewish kid in each grade), and had to
take the exam. The teachers were wearing the Fascist uniform, naturally everyone
had to wear it that had an official capacity. I don’t want to sound
chauvinistic, but we were smarter than the other Italian children who came from
poor and often illiterate families. For us, it wasn’t an academic difficulty,
but there was a very big emotional difficulty to pass this exam. So I finally
reached the fifth grade, and that was the end of it.
C: And then the Germans came?
MS: No, let me see, it was 1941, I was eleven, the Germans had been there all
along, because Italy and Germany were allies. There was a lot of coming and
going of German troops. On July 25, 1943, the king put Mussolini in jail, he and
General Badoglio signed an Armistice with the Allies. He went on a ship to
Portugal. He left us Italians, Jews and non-Jews, to fend for ourselves. The
Germans were there already, but now they were the occupying power. There was no
more Italian government. This was September 8, 1943, and I was thirteen years
old. The Germans liberated Mussolini and formed the Republic of Salo, and they
gave the Italian soldiers an ultimatum: to be part of this republic, or to be
victims. Arrested or executed.
C: Is that when the Resistance started?
MS: It existed before, since the 1920s, but they were the nucleus. There were
soldiers who had a musket, a weapon, and were running away from the
repubblichini, we used to call them, the government that the Germans had
installed. So the real armed Resistance began, but the Resistance had existed
C: How did your family react to these events in 1943?
MS: The first thing we had to do was: the men in the family, my two older
brothers, those of military age, were possible victims of seizure. They ran away
to hide. This was the first week of September, 1943. They joined the local
partisans, the macchia, we used to call it.
C: So they had to leave the family and just go away?
MS: Yes. If you saw a young man walking in the street, you would know he was
doing so illegally. Until then, because Jews were not allowed to be in the
military, they were safe. The town knew that my brothers couldn’t go in the
army. But as of Septermber 8, anyone could stop them and say how come you’re not
in the army? Either you could be eliminated as a Jew, or you could be eliminated
as a deserter. Every young man was in hiding. So my brothers joined the
partisans. By October, the Jews of Rome were all taken. The news reached Pit
eventually, we didn’t have any television or radio, the news didn’t travel fast.
There was an outstanding number of pitiglianesi who were concierges in
Rome, because their children were in higher education there. They had housing
and a bit of money and they could keep their children. So the news of this
‘clearing’ of the Italian Jews in Rome came back to us, we heard that, I don’t
know how fast, and that they were doing the same all over Italy, and our family
had better go into hiding. So my mother, father and my younger brother, who was
only nine years old, went to a farm that my father knew. My father was the
religious leader of the town. My father knew many of the farmers around
Pitigliano. He had five children, a wife and a maid to support. He took whatever
jobs he could find. And one of the jobs, that his father had done before him,
and his grandfather had done before that, was to help the poor people. You see,
in Pitigliano there were only three classes: the noblemen (the Orsini and so
forth); the few middle class bureaucrats, a pharmacist, the doctor, paid by the
government, a bishop, and my father belonged to that middle class. The other
pitiglianesi worked for the rich landowners and they were sharecroppers,
mezzadri. In those days, 25 percent stayed for the workers. 75 percent went
to the owner of the land. The system was called mezzadria. They did not
read or write. They had to keep an account of every egg, every chicken, every
kilo of grain, everything they produced, in order to get their share. They went
to my father to keep the accounting. My father didn’t receive money from them,
but he received a few eggs, a handful of beans, payment in nature.
C: But his employers were the rich landowners?
MS: No, his employers were the poor farmers. The rich noble people that had a
mezzadro, they had an administrator, and these poor guys, the workers, had
to go to the administrator once a year to get their share.
C: So that’s how he got to know the farmers?
MS: Yes, my father knew all of them. So the name of Servi was in high esteem
with these people who had used our services for generations. Many
pitiglianesi had gone overseas. And they worked and sent the money for their
family to join them. All that correspondence, who did this? My father did it,
and his father before him. Wrote the letters, translated them, helped them out.
So one day a poor woman came to my grandfather, she had received a letter from
the consulate that was in Livorno.
C: The American consulate?
MS: Yes. She had to be there at such and such a day (I don’t know whether she
had children or not) to get a boat to go to America where her husband was. My
father was there at the time, he was about thirty seven, (born in 1883, this
happened in 1920) and this woman started tearing her hair out: How do I get to
Livorno? I don’t know how to take the train, I don’t know how… My father said,
You know what, I have a friend that lives in Livorno, I’ll take you. And he took
her to Livorno, and went to visit his friend. And that’s how he met my mother.
My fahter’s friend had married my mother’s older sister…The picture gets very
C: The Jewish community of Pitigliano was fairly isolated from other Jewish
MS: Yes, there was no way not to be. A trip to Livorno, now it’s a two-hour
trip, but then it was going across the world! When my father’s sister, the
eldest of fourteen children, got married, as a gift, a wedding present, she was
sent to see the sea. She said, “My God, Come e grande Haolam!”[in Italian
and Hebrew: How big the world is!] This is a woman who was relatively educated,
she knew how to read and write, since my grandmother was a Hebrew teacher. This
was an intellectual family. To go from Pitigliano to the sea, which is 60
kilometers, was such a thing, that it was breathtaking. Because she was born and
bred in Pitigliano, what did she know of life?
C: What kept this community together as Jews?
MS: I have wondered myself, what caused people to cling, and I have come up with
two answers, I don’t know if there are more, but these are my two answers. One,
that Pitigliano had a synagogue, a yeshiva, a cemetery so anyone from Pitigliano
at least once a year came back. Besides, most of them had emigrated to places
where they were the only Jewish family. So they came back for a little bit of
‘Jewishkeit’ to Pitigliano, as the Jewish center, the ‘Little Jerusalem’ they
called it. For the Jews that lived in surrounding villages this was the mecca,
they came to Pitigliano to get Jewish life. There was a library, a good library.
After the war, they found an incunabulum from Yehuda Halevi, they had 18
Sifrei Torah—riches! The yeshiva had functioned in my father’s day, and they
had had a Jewish school. My older brothers, they went to the Jewish school and
had a Jewish education. By the time I was born it had shrunk to 80 people, the
whole community. By 1943, it was even smaller because there were no economic
possibilities. Jews had emigrated to the big cities, to larger Jewish
communities. What could you do to maintain a family? Perhaps if you had a small
store, dry goods, you could do something. But how many Jews could have a job
that would support the family? And then there was this big expense of sending
the children away for education. Once they lost their bureaucratic jobs, the
town didn’t have anything to give, once the Jews were excluded, that was it. But
most of the time they were eking a living to send the kids out to study
C: They were investing in the future, right? But this situation obvious
interfered with maintaining the traditional Jewish life of Pitigliano…
MS: I remember my father was a shohet [ritual slaughterer, also used as a
verb]. Now to shohet a cow, he had to make sure the Jews could use a cow.
There weren’t enough families to eat a cow. So the kosher meat started to
dwindle. So on the holidays, he would shohet a lamb, or two maybe. But to eat a cow, who the hell is going
to have enough money to eat a cow? I remember the matza business. But you had to
have enough families, with enough money, to keep the matza oven going. If the
community has declined to the point where they couldn’t provide my father as
acting rabbi enough for a living, then Jewish life is declining.
To get back to the story I was telling: my father, mother and the little one
went to one farm.. My brothers mixed with the partisans. Eventually, my sister
and I, we also had to leave the town and join the brothers.
C: The farmers themselves were supporting the partisans?
MS: That’s a tricky question, if you really want to know. The farmer was in a
very, very precarious position. All the men had been in the war. The war had
started in 1936 when Italy went to get the empire in Africa. So there were men
who had gone into the army in Africa and never made it back because they were
taken prisoner. So the farming population amounted to the very old people and
the women. There were no young men. When you say they were helping the
partisans, I don’t know who helped who more. Because those partisans would help
with the harvest and the farmers sheltered them. Young men were a precious
commodity. Also the Italian and German armies confiscated everything. If it was
food, they took it, if it was livestock, they took it. You know, the army in
this particular war, was a very poor army. Italy was a very poor country. This
was before the postwar economic revolution. They didn’t even have clothes or
shoes, and they sent them to Russia. This was not the German army. This was the
Italian army that was really very raggedy.
C: So the farmers weren’t for the Fascists?
MS: The second point was that 1943 was only twenty-five years after World War I,
so there were people, like the old man, the leader of the macchia, who
had served against the Germans. It wasn’t an alliance of the people. The fathers
of the kids serving in the army had lost life and limb against the Germans. So
it wasn’t a national affinity at all. The fact that at this point they found
themselves occupied by the Germans, most normal people, not psychopaths (farmers
usually are the most normal of all people) didn’t have any sympathy for the
situation. Italy is a Catholic country. Most of the rebellion against the
Fascists came from the Communists. They were considered enemy number one, of the
Fascists. Many exiled Italians in America had before the war been Communists or
Socialists. Tuscany is a left-wing country.
C: Even today…
MS: The big landowners were not very nice to the farmers. How to rebel? Become
left wing or Communist. I don’t know if you can call it ideological, it was
because of economic necessity. I would say more—opportunistic. My grandmother
had five sons in the war at the same time, 1914-1919. One came back in not good
condition, and the other four with various degrees of disabilities. Never mind
whether he is Jewish, imagine that he had to be the ally of the Axis.
Twenty-five years is a very short time.
C: They were taken into the army in 1914 even though they were living in an
isolated, mountainous community?
MS: Yes, of course, everybody had to go into the army.
C: The state, in 1914, was able to reach there, nobody escaped?
MS: Nobody could escape but I doubt whether anyone wanted to escape. They were
part of an independent Italy, Italy had been dominated by the German Empire
until one generation before. The father had fought for Italian irredentismo,
the son was in the army against the Germans, and here they were asking for the
grandson to be a loyal German supporter. For normal, sane people, it wasn’t a
marriage made in Heaven.
C: So the farmers did not mind helping the Jews, but up to what point?
MS: Here’s the thing: during that harsh winter, when we were in hiding, in
various farms, they had no food to give away. It was extremely, and became more
and more, dangerous. I remember one incident when we went to visit some
ex-prisoners of war that had jumped the truck that was transporting them and
were hiding in a cave near San Martino, a hamlet near Pitigliano. So we went to
visit them because we heard that one of them was Jewish. We wanted to see them.
The daughter used to go down in the cave and bring them food.
C: The daughter of the farmer . . .
MS: Yes. It was nice, they had food, they had shelter. Remember, I was thirteen
years old. I had no clothes, no shoes, and I was constantly hungry. Salvation
was in our moving, constantly being on the move. The farmers would receive two
kilos of salt for handing over a Jew. Remember that the coast where salt was
normally to be found, was mined, and in those days salt was used for the
preservation of food.
In the meantime, the local chief of the carabinieri sent a message to my
father at the farm where they knew he was hiding, that the Germans would begin
rounding up the Jews from their hiding places, from the farms, unless my father
(as community leader) could provide a few Jews. Voluntarily, my father, my
mother and the little one turned themselves in (presented themselves), on
December 1, 1943. My father’s action was a heroic, generous gesture, but I’m not
sure he was really aware of the risks he was running. There were four other
members of the family left at large. Our father, mother and little brother were
sent in a guarded bus to Roccatedeirighi, in the mountains near Grosseto,
actually a villa that was the summer residence of the bishop of Grosseto, on a
mountain between Grosseto and Siena. It had been turned into a Campo di
Smistamento, or sorting camp, a depot. Father was sixty by then, mother was
fifty, and the little one was nine. There was no food for anyone, certainly not
for the Jews, at that time. The Germans went in alphabetical order by last name,
methodically sending families off toward the north and the extermination camps.
By the end of the war, they had taken everyone whose name began with a letter
before ‘S’ and disposed of them. Our family hid in a bathroom, and were saved by
the director of the camp, on the understanding that they would save him when the
The four of us who had joined the partisans were never all together. I myself
that winter fell on the ice and broke a bone, which immobilized me. I lay alone
in bed at the farmer’s house for weeks. I had to share the bed with the farmer’s
daughter, who had lice. They would wash my hair with kerosene to treat the lice
that were swarming there, and to this day I vomit at the smell of kerosene.
Eventually I got better, and could walk again. At one time, since we didn’t have
a calendar, we had figured out from the full moon that it must be Pesach, and we
had baked our own matza.
I was very sick, I was anemic and my body was swollen. When we visited those
fugitives in the cave I wanted to stay there, it seemed so comfortable. But my
brother had a feeling of danger, and he made me move on. He had to slap me and
pull my hair to get me out of there. Soon after that they were discovered and
all were killed. Mussolini’s soldiers burned down the farm of the family that
had been sheltering me and the others, killed the husband and raped the
daughter. Many, many years later, his widow had moved near Grosseto, and we went
to visit her there. She told us that they never succeeded in bringing her
husband’s murderers to justice. Usually it took some time after a tip-off for
the carabinieri to arrive and locate fugitives, but this time they had
arrived very fast. We suspected it was because the local priest, unusually for
the time, had a phone and had tipped them off.
In order not to draw attention to ourselves, we would walk at night and
constantly kept on the move. We were so hungry!
Later, the Front was coming closer and closer to where we were, until it
eventually arrived right in our area of Tuscany. Livorno was bombed, even
Pitigliano was bombed. The Allies were trying to hit the bridge near the town in
order to prevent the Germans from retreating, but one bomb fell right on the
main piazza, and a hundred people were killed there.
After the Liberation, we went right back to Pitigliano, where we found a mound
of stones and bodies. We belonged to a Resistance group called Monte Amiata,
after the highest mountain in the region. We wanted to find our parents at all
costs. We split into two groups, a brother and a sister in each. We stayed this
side and let it, the Front, overtake us, Gino and I. Lello and Edda went up
ahead of the Front. It was a crazy thing to do. We lost contact. Then we heard
that Roccatedeirighi had been liberated, but we didn’t know whether our parents,
or our brother and sister, were alive. We went there, the two of us, hitchhiking
as best we could. Along the way, we heard of another Jewish family from the camp
at a tent hospital. The parents of that family told us that our parents had been
saved. This was in August. As we were leaving we passed a group of three
children playing on the steps of the church, with something that looked like a
small box. After we had passed, we heard a terrible explosion. Those children
had unknowingly been playing with a bomb, and it had blown in their faces. All
were killed. I had a sort of nervous breakdown then, and had to be taken to the
C: Did you bring yourself to go back to Pitigliano?
MS: Yes, but from then on, we could never feel at home there again. In fact,
when we had gone back to our home, I, all by myself, had had to evict a Fascist
family that had taken it over.
The synagogue of Pitigliano in the 1960s, after the aron kodesh had been
removed and sent to Israel. The building later collapsed and was eventually
restored in the mid-1990s. Photo
courtesy of Marcella Servi Siegel.
The day the Front passed, we were in Sorano (a small town close to Pitigliano).
The Germans were retreating and taking their ammunition with them. The partisans
wanted that ammunition so they could blow it up. My brother hid me in a cave and
covered me with straw, telling me in strict terms not to move until he came
back. I heard fireworks, but Gino didn’t come back. Eventually, after many long
hours, I came out of the hay as I couldn’t stand the suspense any more. The
valley below was full of soldiers, I couldn’t tell who they were. I ran to town
to look for Gino and they told me the partisans were in the cemetery, burying
the German dead. Gino and I were reunited in the cemetery. The nuns in Sorano
had organized a lunch. When I arrived they said, “Tu non puoi entrare” [You
can’t come in!].. After many months on the run, my clothes were threadbare and
torn, and I was not dressed decently. But I protested, being very hungry, and
they told one nun to take me in the back and dress me. For my first meal as a
liberated Jew, I was dressed in a Fascist uniform!
C: What kept you from despair during all those months of danger?
MS: I was desperate, really desperate. I was convinced I was going to die, so I
was no longer afraid. I think, when the fear of death is removed, there is
nothing stopping you. It is simply the life force asserting itself, something
different from mere courage, and that is what made me go on.
C: Thank you, Marcella, for sharing you story.
About the Interviewee
Marcella Servi Siegel was born and grew up in Pitigliano, Italy. During the
Second World War, as a teenager, she hid from the Fascists and Nazis with her
brothers and sister, who had joined the Resistance. After the war, she returned
with her family to Pitigliano but soon moved to Florence as their Jewish
community had disintegrated. In Florence she met an American Jewish tourist,
traveled to America and with her family’s blessing married him. She lived in
America for about forty years, brought up a family there, finished high school
and earned a degree as a social worker. After her husband’s retirement the
family moved to Jerusalem, where she now lives.
 For a
range of scholarly approaches, see Bernard Cooperman and Barbara Garvin (eds.),
The Jews of Italy: Memory and Identity (Bethesda, MD: University Press of
Picciotto Fargion has published a book on non-Jews who saved Jews, I Giusti
d’Italia: I non-ebrei che salvarono gli ebrei (Mondadori & Yad Vashem,
2006); Vera Paggi has made a documentary on the inmates of the Roccatedeirighi
camp for RAI Italian television.