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Graduates Provide Lectures on Italian and Jewish History

Melissa Marinaro, Barbara Aiello, and Kathy Rosella

From left: Melissa Marinaro, curator of the Heinz History Center’s Italian American Program; Barbara Aiello; and Kathy Rosella (Courtesy of Kathy Rosella)

By Kathleen Vescio Rosella ’62 (with contributions by Adam Reinherz of the Jewish Chronicle)

Rabbi Barbara Aiello with boot representing Italy

Rabbi Barbara Aiello used as a prop a boot showing former locations of Southern Italy’s Jewish populations. (Courtesy of Kathy Rosella)

Working together, two IUP graduates were able to bring to the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh an informative lecture series highlighting Italian/Jewish history, customs, and heritage. The lectures took place October 28 and 29, 2017.

Kathleen Vescio Rosella ’62, chairman of the Italian genealogy group Roots in the Boot, collaborated with Melissa Marinaro, Italian American Archive curator at the John Heinz History Center, and Eric Ledji of the Rauh Jewish Archives to bring Rabbi Barbara Aiello ’68 to Pittsburgh for two lectures involving Italian genealogy and heritage.

Born in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Barbara was the recipient of the IUP Distinguished Alumni Award in 1986. She is the first woman rabbi in Italy. She is the founding member of Sinagoga Nel Tamud de Sul, the first active synagogue in Calabria, Italy, in 500 years. Her father, Antonio, was born in Serrastretta, Calabria, and was liberator of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Rabbi Barbara began studying her ancestral village six years ago to learn how many villagers had Jewish roots. Southern Italy and Sicily were possessions of Spain and had a Jewish population of approximately 40 percent before the Spanish Inquisition. During the Inquisition, Jews were forced to flee their villages in Italy to escape persecution, arrest, or death. During that time, Jews were forced either to abandon their Jewish religion and submit to conversion or to face execution. When Rabbi Barbara returned to Calabria, her aim was to help Southern Italians discover the roots that had been hidden from them. The first lecture she presented in Pittsburgh, “I’m Italian, but Could I Be Jewish, Too?” focused on the similarity in Jewish and Italian customs and traditions, such as covering mirrors for mourning, putting red string around a baby’s wrist to ward off evil, and not using a broken egg for cooking if there is a speck of blood in the yolk.

Her second lecture, “How Southern Italians Saved 4,000 Jews,” focused on the large detention camp in Ferramonti, Calabria. The Italian commander in charge of the camp was very benevolent toward the Jewish prisoners. He built schools, libraries, a synagogue, and nurseries. He permitted families to remain together and prisoners to engage in cultural, educational, and religious activities—experiences that were unimaginable to detainees at other European camps. “It’s not part of the Italian character to treat another person badly,” Rabbi Barbara said. Of the 4,000 people confined there, only four died, and those were all of natural causes and not as a result of harsh treatment.

More than 80 percent of Italy’s Jews survived the war, as “many Italians didn’t turn their backs on Jews,” Rabbi Barbara said. Though praiseworthy of Italians who hid Jews or parties who resisted anti-Semitic government pressures, Rabbi Barbara also acknowledged the actions of Italians who exposed Jews for financial gain. “Italians can be embarrassed of our alignments to Hitler, but there are moments to be proud of,” she said.

Joseph D’Andrea, former honorary consul of Italy in Pittsburgh, praised Rabbi Barbara for her “informative report of Italians in the pre-fascist and postwar world.”

Using teaching techniques that were a part of our basic instruction at IUP, Rabbi Barbara did not do a PowerPoint presentation but instead displayed photographs, a miniature chair to demonstrate the lowered “shiva seat,” Italian shawls similar to taleisim, and a boot with multiple pins that served as a three-dimensional map of Italy to hold the attention of the audience.