Davanti a Villa Emma: a place devoted to the memory of the young jewish refugees rescued in Nonantola.

Our project has the task to make the most of the Prato Galli area, in front of Villa Emma, and build a memorial place dedicated to the encounter between the young Jewish refugees rescued in Nonantola during WW2, and the local community.

The area is located in a crucial and highly symbolic spot. On one side it faces the main his­torical place of the event. On the other, it repre­sents (and it was, at the time of the facts we want to narrate and remember) a transit from the Villa and the village center.

Right here, in the symbolic density of the Nonantola landscape, we want to narrate that meeting, and create a place for that story.

The project – developed by the Studio Bianchini e Lusiardi Associati in Cremona – envisages the creation of a memorial com­plex that will include the construction of a multifunctional building and the mapping of an ar­tistic itinerary, that will mark some places in the village and in the outskirts, that were the thea­tre of specific moments in the story.

Vista prospettica da via Mavora
Vista prospettica da via Mavora

Once visitors have accessed the area, they are led to the museum section through a long covered hallway, flanked by a wall portion from a pre-ex­isting building. The planned exhibition will portray the encounter between the local community and the foreign refugees, coming from far away.


The space at the entrance, leading to the exhibi­tion area, opens towards the group meeting-point area, and the Cloakroom and Restrooms area.

Prefigurazione dell'area di ingresso
Prefigurazione dell'area di ingresso

The centrality of the work, carried out within the building, is indicated by the location of the internal environment: the location of offices and archive indicates they are full part of the itinerary; all the rooms have been planned with a regular layout, in order to provide use flexibility, also thanks to mov­able partitions.

Prefigurazione dello spazio espositivo guardando verso l'ingresso
Prefigurazione dello spazio espositivo guardando verso l'ingresso

The classroom is placed at the end of the exhibition area, as the final stage of the visit.

All the ambients have an exit/entrance also from outside the building.

Veduta prospettica a volo d'uccello
Veduta prospettica a volo d'uccello
Assonometria schematica concettuale
Assonometria schematica concettuale
  1. On the backbone at the center of the building, the story of the young Jewish refugees of Villa Emma physically coagulates and is presented to visitors. It is made up of large container / archive elements that house and expose to the public part of the documentary material, together with videos, images and interactive insights, thus forming the first level of the narrative;
  2. The outermost walls support the second level of the story, that is the more general times (persecutions, hospitality, migration) and the historical events that flank the matter of the young Jewish refugees. Some of these partitions are inclined according to lines of force and directives that connect Prato Galli with the emblematic places of the story, both near and far;
  3. The path that winds behind the central wall hosts interactive stations and documents to delve into some of the themes and events presented in the first part of the visit;
  4. A young olive tree, located on the ideal route that connects Villa Emma to Palestine, represents the Land of Israel, the destination of the long journey of the young refugees;
  5. The wooden false ceiling with its pattern of criss-crossed wave forms symbolically refers to the s’chach of the sukkot and recalls the role of Villa Emma as a temporary shelter for the young refugees and their companions during their journey to Palestine;
  6. A large frame visually and metaphorically frames Villa Emma, just beyond the road and the curtain of trees;
  7. A portion of the external walls of one of the two farmhouses currently in the Prato Galli area has been preserved and included in the entrance area. They are the witness stones of the daily life of the young refugees, who will welcome visitors at the beginning of their journey.

The artistic itinerary is marked by small chairs, the ultimate welcome and hospitality symbol. The bronze-cast chairs are placed in the vicinity of some landmarks of the story. Their purpose is to highlight the strong existing relation between the main memorial scene, placed in front of the place where the story took place, the historic center of Nonantola, and its immediate outskirts. In turn, those places represent the poles around which it was organized welcoming, friendship between the persecuted and the locals, and the final rescue of the group.

Therefore the chair – a common use object – evokes the most domestic and, at the same time, the most significant part of the story: the network of homes, workshops and shops which welcomed the group of young Jewish refugees arrived in No­nantola from eastern and central European coun­tries, and from the Balcanic region.

Prefigurazione di tre tappe dell'itinerario artistico
Prefigurazione di tre tappe dell'itinerario artistico


The young refugees of Villa Emma

Seventy-three Jewish young refugees on the run, across a war shaken Europe, arrived in Nonantola (Modena) between the summer of 1942 and the spring of 1943.

Welcomed by the local population, they experienced a brief peaceful period at Villa Emma. After September 8th, 1943, because of the German occupation, rescue was necessary, in order to avoid their arrest. At that point, the people from Nonantola decided to take a risk and helped them. Eventually, the young refugees managed to reach Switzerland, against all odds. At the end of the war, most of the young refugees sailed from Barcelona to Palestine. There is a grey area in their story. Far from Nonantola, the fifteen years old Salomon Papo and Goffredo Pacifici, a man affiliated to the group, were arrested and deported to Auschwitz.

Jewish children in front of Villa Emma
Jewish children in front of Villa Emma

In the afternoon of July 17th, 1942, a group of forty young Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria arrived at the Nonantola railway station. Thet were accompanied by nine adults.

There were originally directed to Palestine. On April 6th, 1941 they had been held up in Zagreb by the German invasion. From there, led by Josef Indig and thanks to a special authorization of the Italian Ministery of Interior, they moved to Slovenia, where they lived for one year, in Lesno Brdo. When fightings reached them, they were forced to leave, once again.

Then, an Italian Jewish organization, known as Delasem (Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei) found an ideal place to lodge the young refugees. It was a long time unhabitated mansion in Nonantola, called Villa Emma.

On April 10th, 1943, thirty-three other Jewish boys and girls joined the original group. They arrived from Split, accompanied by Yakov Maestro and had managed to flee from Bosnia and Croatia. Like the first group, they could count on an official authorization. Overall, they were younger than those already housed at Villa Emma. This fact, alongside language differences, resulted in a somehow complicated relation between the two groups.

It was quite difficult and expensive to supply with food such a large group of people, in a period of food rationing. Black market turned out to be an inevitable option. Luckily, the refugees could count on supplies coming directly from the rural environment they lived in. From time to time they starved, although their leaders managed to skillfully obtain commodities.

When the young refugees arrived in Nonantola, they found themselves in a rural context. This greatly differed from their places of origin, as far as mentality and material conditions. Nonantola is a countryside village, not far from Modena. In 1942, it counted 10.746 inhabitants, many of them living in nearby hamlets. Agricolture was the main occupation and it employed around 80% of the active population. Professionals, including members of the clergy and school teachers, were about thirty people.

Upon closer examination, the Villa Emma young refugees were a mixed and varied group, with regard to age and gender: thirty-four girls and thirty-nine boys. There were thirteen children, males and females, ranging between the age of six and twelve. Forty-two adolescents between thirteen and seventeen and eighteen young men and young women between eighteen and twenty-one.

The idea of attending the Jewish School in Modena was soon discarded. Around the middle of October 1942, various courses were organized at the Villa: four classes for each age level. The youths studied Music, Literature, History, Philosophy, Anthropology, Judaism, Sionism and Modern Hebrew. Moreover, they learned Italian. It was also decided to keep a school register: class attendance was compulsory. On the other hand, students were free to decide about taking an exam.

To support their school activities, the students could count on a rich library. Its core was made of books they had brought along from Lesno Brdo. Other book, mostly in German, were later added thanks to the Delasem organization. There were also music scores for piano and singing, some records and a grammophone. In addition to classes, they were trained in agricultural works and handicrafts, under the guidance of peasants and craftsmen from Nonantola.

Soon, however there were contrasts concerning the organization of cultural activities. Umberto Jacchía, the director nominated by Delasem, would have liked more time to be devoted to Jewish traditions and Italian literature. Indig, a young Sionist activist, with lay and Socialist leanings, did not agree: “It is a farce, if you consider that this group of youths reached by chance Fascist Italy, while it should be prepared to its future life in Palestine!” (J. Indig).

Any discussion with Jacchía was hopeless. The Italian Jews who lived at Villa Emma, where the Delasem organization had also moved its warehouse, were worried. At some point every exit from the Villa had to be authorized in writing by the director, Umberto Jacchía. Then, especially the older refugees, began to go to the village “covertly”, and came back with the feeling they had won a challenge.

At first there were also other problems and reasons of bewilderment that affected both the young refugees and the static and witdrawn local society. Both the refugees and the inhabitants of Nonantola had encountered people who were quite distant from their imagination. There were language differences, different lifestyles and mentalities. These young refugees, who came from far away, spoke various languages and quickly learned Italian. They aroused the curiosity of the local population because they belonged to another and unknown world. Moreover, they did not fall within the usual judgement benchmarks of the local people. These facts, however did not contrast the positive dynamics of good reception.

Indig realized that in Nonantola only a few joined Fascism. Those few ones did it “for more or less practical reasons” (J. Indig). This especially because in the area the regime showed the petit bourgeois and apparatchik face of Carlo Zanni, a lawyer who was podestà from 1930 to 1943.

Josef Indig, Don Arrigo Beccari, Giuseppe Moreali (1964)
Josef Indig, Don Arrigo Beccari, Giuseppe Moreali (1964)

For the young refugees of Villa Emma, war seemed far away until the summer of 1943. On July 25th, the people in Nonantola and in other places, celebrated the fall of Mussolini. Despite the fact that Marshal Badoglio, the new Chief of the Government, declared: “War continues”.

In August, as a precaution, the adults responsible for the Villa Emma group, asked the local authorities for new identity papers. They were issued without the note “belonging to Jewish race”.

On September 8th, everything changed. When the Armistice with the Anglo-Americans was announced, those who were responsible for the group immediately asked Giuseppe Moreali for help. He was the local physician. In the previous months he had weaved meaningful relations with the Villa Emma community. They were all aware the situation was getting dangerous and they had to find hiding places for the young refugees. The Villa was not a safe place anymore.

Doctor Moreali thought the best solution was to turn to don Arrigo Beccari and ask for his help. He was the treasurer of the Seminary annexed to Nonantola Abbey. With the permission of the Rector, mons. Ottaviano Pelati, he offered hospitality for some nights to a wide number of boys in the seminarists’ rooms.

When the German soldiers entered in Nonantola, the next morning, September 9th, Villa Emma had been abandoned. The largest part of the group was hiding in the Seminary. The others had been welcomed by numerous local families.

The young refugees, however, could not hide any longer in Nonantola. The possibility of a Nazi roundup was more and more realistic. Their new identity papers allowed them to pass unscathed German Feldgendarmerie and Italian police controls. The initial idea to take the group to the South of Italy and meet the Allied forces, soon waned. Only some of the elder youths went South. At that point, Switzerland became the only alternative.

They youths and their leaders left Nonantola divided in three groups, between October 6th and 16th, 1943 and reached Switzerland adventurously. After the first attempts to cross the border that ended with rejection, our young refugees managed to get in touch with the Jewish organization in Switzerland. They interceded with the Swiss authorities.

The young refugees finally found shelter in Switzerland. After a period they spent in different refugee camps, the members of the group met again at Villa des Bains, near Bex. After the war, almost all of them sailed from Barcelona to Palestine, where they arrived on May 29th, 1945.

Salomon Papo e Goffredo Pacifici
Salomon Papo and Goffredo Pacifici

Everyone was safe, except for Salomon Papo and Goffredo Pacifici. Salomon, fifteen years old, had reached Nonantola with the group from Split. Ill with tubercolosis, he was sent to the sanatorium in Gaiato di Pavullo and could not follow the rest of the group on its way to Switzerland. He was arrested in March 1944 and his name is listed among deportees from Fossoli to Auschwitz, with the April 5th train. Goffredo Pacifici, a Delasem official, lived at Villa Emma and led the youths, when they fled to Switzerland. Having reached the Swiss border, he decided to remain on the Italian side, to help other Jews to cross onto the safe side. He was later arrested with his brother by the Fascist militia, and deported to Auschwitz, where he died.

Watch the documentary «The young refugees of Villa Emma»


Support the project “Davanti a Villa Emma. The construction of a place devoted to the memory of the young Jewish refugees rescued in Nonantola in 1942-43”

You can support the project with contributions and donations.
Donations can be made by bank transfer to:

Fondazione Villa Emma

IBAN: IT94M0538766890000003031940

BPER Banca – Branch of Nonantola (MO)

Quoting the following reference:
Donation in favor of the project “Davanti a Villa Emma” – Name and Surname; in the case of companies, firms or institutes: Name and Business Name.

Supporters are a range companies, foundations, firms or individuals who choose to finance the project “Davanti a Villa Emma” and the activities connected to it.

Each supporter assists in the dissemination and enhancement of the historical heritage related to the story of the Jewish refugees of Villa Emma and their interaction and integration within the community of Nonantola. This heritage is preserved through the creation of a multifunctional memorial site, organization of conferences and training sessions, coordination of research, publication of books and other educational tools.

Supporters will have the opportunity to finance specific cultural initiatives, editorial projects or particular events for which a specific form of visibility will be agreed.

Contributions to Fondazione Villa Emma are tax deductible as donations.