To Remain a Jew: The Untold Story of Luciano Camerino
Betrayed by the Nazis, Luciano Camerino was deported from Rome to Auschwitz where he survived Mengele's horrific experiments. He returned to Italy and rebuilt the Jewish community.
It is 5 a.m., Oct. 16, 1943, an autumnal Shabbat during the holiday of Sukkot in Rome. Members of the Camerino family are awoken by loud knocks on the door, terrified for their lives despite having paid the SS a considerable amount of pure gold to be spared, for which they also received an official receipt. They had given up their jewelry, a wedding ring, earrings, and gold-plated candlesticks in exchange for a promise of safety.
And yet the German soldiers brutally awakened the Camerino family from their sleep, changing the lives of its members forever.
A month prior, in September 1943, the Nazis took control of territories in Italy, a German ally in World War II. A few days later, the heads of the Jewish communities in Rome were summoned for a meeting at the city's German embassy, where they were given a one-time offer: to save the lives of the city's Jews for 50 kilograms of pure gold.
The Nazis gave the Jewish leaders a day and a half to gather the money. No one needed an explanation as to what would happen should they fail their mission. No one had a doubt as to how the funds would be used in the future either: to further propel the Nazi war machine.
Luciano Camerino in the mid-1950s | Archives: Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Roma - Fondo Famiglia Camerino
Despite the great difficulty, the gold was collected. No less than 80 kilograms in a matter of hours, consisting of the community members' jewelry and Judaica. Fifty kilograms of gold were earmarked for the SS, and the rest were hidden away. Five years later, they would be sent to the young State of Israel, to purchase weapons for the 1948 War of Independence. But meanwhile, in occupied Europe, the notion of a Jewish state is a distant dream.
The fifty kilograms of gold were handed over to the Nazis and were later sent to East Germany. Every Jew who "donated" got a receipt from the representative of the Nazi party, ensuring they would not be targeted.
SS men raided the homes of Jews in Rome, hunting them down one by one.
But on Oct. 16 that year, the promise was broken. SS men raided the homes of Jews in Rome, hunting them down one by one. Eventually, the members of the community who survived would accuse the city's chief rabbi at the time, Israel Anton Zoller, of passing on the names of the city's Jews to the Germans.
Zoller himself found shelter in the Vatican. After the war, he wished to return to Rome and resume his role as a chief rabbi but was turned down. He later converted to Catholicism.
That fateful morning Rome's Jews were rounded up. Many managed to flee before the raid and went into hiding in monasteries that agreed to help them.
The Camerino family secretly moved to another apartment down the street, thinking they could escape the Nazis. But a local concierge let the Germans know about the move.
Seven of the Camerino family members – father Italo (50), mother Julia (49), and their children Wanda (25), Luciano (16), Enzo (14), and two uncles – were all loaded onto a truck, together with other Jews, and transported to a train station where the Jewish community of Rome was taken. They were later crammed into windowless cattle cars, without water or food, and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in occupied-Poland. For most of them, it was their last trip.
Seventy-eight years later, Fiorella, one of Luciano Camerino's three daughters, shares this story with Israel Hayom. We sit in a café in the old Jewish ghetto of Rome, where the family lived after the end of the war, and where Fiorella, 67, continues to live today. Also present is Fiorella's nephew's daughter, from Israel, who translates for us, and others.
Deported to Auschwitz
According to Fiorella, on that fateful day in 1943, over 1,000 of Rome's Jews were deported. Official records say the number was even higher.
Seventeen members of the Camerino family, including Luciano's grandparents, managed to hide in a small apartment in the ghetto. They hid until the late hours of the night, and only then, when the trucks were gone and the guard dogs quieted down, did a Catholic restaurant owner arrive and bring them some food. After five days, the landlord informed the family that it was too dangerous for him to keep them there, and asked them to leave.
The family tried their luck at another aunt, but the place was too small to accommodate them all. They continued, escaping another Nazi raid that took place just a few days later. Whoever was in the apartment was deported immediately never to return.
At Auschwitz, the Jews were separated into two groups: some were sent to the gas chambers, others to do forced labor. Luciano's mother, sister, and uncle were sent to their deaths, and he never saw them again. His father, another uncle, and Luciano himself were in the second group and soon got numbers tattooed on their arms.
Luciano's younger brother, Enzo, who was selected to die in the gas chambers, managed to escape the line and join those deemed for forced labor. The two brothers received two consecutive tattoo numbers.
Luciano never forgot how he dragged his father’s body, throwing him into a pit full of other corpses.
Luciano and his father Italo were sent to work in the mines, which took a heavy toll on his father. One day, Luciano brought his father soup in hopes it would give him strength. Upon returning, he found him lying on the floor, lifeless. Luciano fell to his knees, crying bitterly. When an SS officer passed by, he hit him on the head and ordered him to dispose of the body. Luciano never forgot how he dragged his father’s body, throwing him into a pit full of other corpses.
Fiorella cries as she tells her grandfather's story, which she and her two sisters heard from him years after Luciano was rescued from that hell.
"A month later, father heard a rumor that his brother, Enzo, who had disappeared after the number was tattooed on his arm, lived on the other side of the camp and cut the hair of Nazi officers," she said. "Meaning, he hadn't been sent to his death, as Luciano was sure would happen given his young age."
The minuscule chance of the rumor being true prompted Luciano to take a risk and in the middle of the night, go look for his brother. Luciano found Enzo, and the two brothers embraced, crying. Enzo even gave Luciano some sausage and bread he had saved and vowed to meet again.
Around that time, Luciano was noticed by the infamous Josef Mengele, Angel of Death, who singled him out for his horrific experiments. He experimented on the boy, injecting him with unknown substances, the nature of which Luciano never learned. He did, however, know the side effects: the experiments greatly weakened his immune system, making him more vulnerable to disease. He also developed a sensitivity to penicillin.
The next time Luciano and Enzo met was many months later when the Soviet army came to liberate the camp. Luciano was 18 at the time, Enzo 16. The long road from Poland to Italy they took by train and on foot, constantly hiding from the Russians ("Dad used to say the Russians were as bad as the Germans, and Enzo was very afraid of them"). Forty days later, the two arrived in Rome, without food, or water and wearing torn clothes.
Back to Rome
"When Dad arrived in Rome, he weighed 35 kilograms," Fiorella said.
When the two arrived at their family home in Rome, from which they were uprooted two years earlier, Luciano saw the guard who had betrayed their family. This moment, too, he remembered for the rest of his life.
The guard had cut Italo's tallit into pieces and made it into lingerie.
The kosher restaurant Luciano opened in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, which operated until 1987, 21 years after his death (Courtesy of the Historical Archive of the Jewish Community in Rome, Giancarlo Spizzichino/Archives)
"My mother kept this tallit, which was made into underwear, for many years, so that we would not forget. Unfortunately, it has since been lost," Fiorella said.
Before the Holocaust, the Camerino family was wealthy and owned a large chocolate factory in San Marino. Their home was well-furnished, with large amounts of silver and gold. After the war, the two brothers found it had been looted, and the apartment was now completely empty. Luciano and Enzo had nothing left: no family, no home, and no property.
In the beginning, Luciano hoped that perhaps, by some miracle, another family member had survived the war.
"Every day, father went to the train station with pictures of the family members," Fiorella said. "He asked the few survivors who returned, 16 of them, if they had seen those pictured. That is how he learned they had all perished but managed to gather information about his loved ones' last hours in Auschwitz."
During one such trip to the train station, Luciano met his future wife, Fiorella's mother, Graciela. They married in April 1949.
"My mom, like my dad, also survived Auschwitz. She was the only one in her family to survive, after losing her parents, sister, and four nephews," Fiorella said.
In post-war Rome, Luciano had to face a bitter reality. In an interview he gave to a local newspaper in 1955, he said, "The most difficult part for me is to live in the same house I used to live in with my family. A house that is now empty and the people are gone."
In order to survive, Luciano and Enzo ate what they could find on the street. According to Fiorella, "the beginning was very difficult, but slowly he recovered and began to build himself anew."
Her father decided to stay in Rome, the city in which his family had been betrayed, because he didn't have any other place in the world, “and at least this place he knew," Fiorella said.
After recovering, getting married, and becoming financially stable, Luciano decided to reconnect to his Jewish roots. In 1961, he opened a restaurant, named "Luciano," the first kosher establishment in the area of the old ghetto.
The entire family worked in the restaurant: Luciano was the waiter, the host, and the cashier, the girls washed the dishes, cleaned and cut vegetables, and Graziella cooked. The restaurant was not a raging success, but the family earned a respectable income.
According to Fiorella, her father "was one of the pillars of the Jewish community. He volunteered a lot, was in charge of welfare services, and sent groups of disadvantaged children on vacation. From the outside, everything seemed fine, but deep beneath the surface, he carried the trauma of the camp with him every day.
"One day, my mom found him in the kitchen of our home, having opened the gas and trying to end his life. As a child, I remember that instead of telling us nighttime stories, he told us stories about the camp. About friends who threw themselves onto electrified barbed fences, because they could no longer bear the suffering, the hunger, the cold, and the forced labor, and family members who collapsed and never got up. These are the stories of my childhood, and that of my sisters."
Jewish scriptures salvaged in Florence, 1966 (Courtesy of the Historical Archive of the Jewish Community in Rome, Giancarlo Spizzichino/Archives)
In 1966, then-39-year-old Luciano, with the rest of Rome's Jewish community, heard of a massive flood in Florence that also reached the city's ancient Jewish library. He immediately headed to Florence, heading a delegation from the Roman community to help the city's Jews.
"They entered the damaged library and walked through the waters. The ancient Talmud books were all soaked, some had fallen apart. Dad used to say how he 'managed to fish out a page here, a page there.' The difficult sight took him back to the memories of Auschwitz."
After a few hours in the water, members of the local community dried up the sacred pages and sent them with Luciano to Rome, to a local synagogue. Luciano himself started feeling unwell and began to develop a fever.
His friends immediately took him to the hospital, but the doctors could not save his life due to the damage that Mengele had inflicted on Luciano's health. After a short time, Luciano passed away, at the age of 39. A late victim of the Holocaust.
He left behind a widow and three daughters: Julia, 13, Fiorella, 11, and Marina, 4.
"It was the first funeral in the community of a Holocaust survivor who had died," Fiorella said. "Although it was customary in Rome to bury Jews in a coffin, father was buried in a covering and was wrapped in tallit. Next to him, we buried one of the Torah scrolls he had saved from the floor in Florence."
Florence has held a memorial ceremony for Luciano every decade since the disaster as a token of their gratitude.
In 2016, 50 years after Luciano's passing, the Florence synagogue held a special ceremony, attended by his daughters, during which they presented the many sacred books he had saved, estimated at 95.
"Father never served for recognition and respect. He was humble and believed that we must do what is right for the community and God," Fiorella said.
Nofar and Emanuel, Luciano's grandson, run the city's Neman hotel. Established in 2019, it is the only hotel in the area that serves kosher food.
Not far from the hotel are installed the brass cobblestone memorials to victims of the Holocaust, created by German artist Gunter Demnig. There are 75,000 such memorials across the capital. Two months ago, two more were created in memory of Luciano and Enzo.
"Luciano told his daughters that in Auschwitz, he felt as if someone had been watching over him," she said. "Contrary to many Jews, he continued to believe in God. It was important for him to be part of a community, and that is the legacy he has left behind – to remain a Jew no matter what.
"He opened the first kosher restaurant in the ghetto so that the Jews of Rome would eat kosher. Today, there are many kosher restaurants that non-Jews eat at as well, because they serve traditional Jewish Roman dishes. This tradition has been kept alive by the descendants.
"Therefore, when I opened the hotel in the same building that the restaurant used to be in, I immediately knew we would have kosher food. Because if Luciano dies by sanctifying God's name how can I open a place that goes against his legacy?"
This article originally appeared in Israel Hayom.