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 e 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»

Conference program

Davanti a Villa Emma

Building a Memorial for the Young Jewish Refugees in Nonantola


June 17-18-19, 2016

Cinema Teatro Troisi
viale Rimembranze 8, Nonantola (MO)

Organized by
Fondazione Villa Emma

In cooperation with
Comune di Nonantola

Sponsored by
Assemblea Legislativa Regione Emilia-Romagna
Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena
Fondazione Mario Del Monte

Under the aegis of
Unione Comunità Ebraiche Italiane
Ordine degli Architetti Modena; Fondazione Architetti Modena
Federazione Ordini Architetti P.P.C. Emilia Romagna 


Opening ceremony and greetings

Federica Nannetti, Sindaco di Nonantola
Massimo Mezzetti, Assessore alla Cultura Regione Emilia-Romagna
Giuseppe Boschini, Assemblea Legislativa Regione Emilia-Romagna

This Conference and what has been done, so far
Fausto Ciuffi, Fondazione Villa Emma

16.30 – 19.00
First session

Alberto Cavaglion, Fondazione Villa Emma

The Jewish young refugees at Villa Emma: journeys, transits, crossroads of nations
Maria Laura Marescalchi, Researcher

Europe, Italy, Nonantola: persecution, internment, deportation (times and places)
Costantino Di Sante, Researcher

Girls and boys in the Second World Conflict: which historical coordinates for the construction
of a memorial?

Maria Bacchi, Fondazione Villa Emma
Bruno Maida, Università di Torino

Evening session

Mostafa El Ayoubi, Fondazione Villa Emma

The road to Villa Emma: other migrations, other encounters. Which solidarity?
Anna Brambilla, Associazione studi giuridici sull’immigrazione
Franco Lorenzoni, Casa Laboratorio di Cenci, Amelia (Tr)
Luigi Monti, Associazione Giunchiglia-11, Modena

Presentation of the book
L’età del transito e del conflitto
Bambini e adolescenti tra guerre e dopoguerra
(Age of transit and conflict.
Children and adolescents between wars and postwar period)
Maria Bacchi and Nella Roveri (eds.)
Il Mulino, Bologna 2016


9.30 – 13.00
Second session: workshop

Studies and research
Klaus Voigt, Fondazione Villa Emma

A memory dispositif: places, witnesses and documents
Guido Pisi, Researcher

A place for this story: structures, itineraries, a center of interpretation
Daniele Jalla, President of Icom Italia

15.30 – 19.00
Third session

Fabio Levi, Università di Torino

Jewish children in hiding during the Second World War
Nicholas Stargardt, Magdalen College Oxford University

A supportive village and stories of spared bloodshed
Anna Bravo, emerita Università di Torino

A memorial for a story of good: an oxymoron?
Stefano Levi Della Torre, Politecnico di Milano

Visitors and places. Recounting the past and the present scene
Carlo Greppi, Researcher
Guri Schwarz, Università di Pisa


9.30 – 13.00
Fourth session

Micaela Procaccia, Fondazione Villa Emma

The Righteous between victims and perpetrators: a reading starting from the narration in Israeli cinema
Asher Salah, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Memorial landscape in Emilia-Romagna
Elena Pirazzoli, Researcher

Museums and exemplary memorials
Adachiara Zevi, Architect and Art Historian

Presentation of the guidelines of the international competition announcement
Carla Di Francesco, Ministero Beni Culturali

Conclusive remarks
Stefano Vaccari, President of Fondazione Villa Emma

The reasons of this Conference

After a three-year-research project the Fondazione Villa Emma organizes an International Conference to illustrate its results and to discuss the various readings and interpretation of the story of the Jewish young refugees in Nonantola between 1942 and 1943.

In the course of time, this story has enjoyed a growing attention, marked by historical research, cultural and educational activities, photographic exhibitions, television programs. However, the theme of the construction of a place of memory, recalling this wide-ranging European story, full of implications, has never been concretely discussed.

This story strongly departs from other deportation and Shoah representations. It portrays an extremely rare positive page. An entire community of people – significantly made of children, boys and girls – who are in danger at first and then, rescued.

During the Conference, in addition to the papers and dialogues among participants, information will be given on the area that will be used for the creation of a place of memory: Prato Galli, at the gates of Nonantola, in via Mavora, right in front of Villa Emma.

As a fundamental turning point, the participants will be able to use the results of our research. Following two days of public discussion – in our intentions this is also conceived as a formative session and first stone – we will open the new season devoted to planning the future place of memory. After the Conference, a Competition Announcement with detailed participation criteria will be published.

For these reasons, in addition to our usual audience, we welcome the participation of architects, professional studies and artists. The Competition Announcement will include specific mandates expressely for the last ones. Hopefully, during the time spent in Nonantola, everyone will be able to offer suggestions and find inspiration in order to shape the place of memory we wish to create.


Scientific committee Fondazione Villa Emma
Maria Bacchi, Alberto Cavaglion, Fausto Ciuffi (direttore)
Mostafa El Ayoubi, Luigi Pedrazzi, Micaela Procaccia, Klaus Voigt

Research Group, Project Davanti a Villa Emma
Daniele Jalla, Maria Laura Marescalchi
Elena Pirazzoli, Guido Pisi, Adachiara Zevi

Coordination and organization
Fausto Ciuffi, Benedetta Donati

Certificate of attendance will be issued upon request.



An account of the conference

“We need a courageous and heretical project. As courageous and heretical as Dr. Morelli and don Beccari were in 1943”. With these words, Stefano Vaccari, President of the Fondazione Villa Emma, concluded the three day conference in Nonantola, where a competition for architects and artists was announced. Twelve years after its birth, this will provide the Fondazione Villa Emma with a seat, in the area of Prato Galli, right in front of the Villa. This place will be entrusted with the tale of the story of the young Jewish refugees saved by the people of Nonantola. The guidelines of the announcement of competition, to be published in autumn, have been illustrated by Carla di Francesco, MiBACT. That institution will follow the procedure, alongside the members of the Fondazione and with the Architectural Association.

Fausto Ciuffi, Alberto Cavaglion

Fausto Ciuffi, Alberto Cavaglion

Fausto Ciuffi, with his long-time team, has gathered a group of Italian and international scholars from different disciplinary areas, in order to add another tessera to the discussion. This has been articulated in conferences and seminaries held over the last three years.

The conference started on June 17th, in the afternoon, with an historical survey of the story of the young refugees of Villa Emma, in the wider framework of the Second World War (M. Laura Marescalchi and Costantino Di Sante). There followed a dialogue between Maria Bacchi and Bruno Maida on the coordinates one should privilege for the construction of a memorial recounting the story of boys and girls involved in the conflict. From this discussion emerged a story of European significance, to be read in the framework of ample historiographic categories, with the help of a cautious methodology to narrate the story of such a varied group of youths, in terms of their age (it included children and adolescents, ranging from 6 to 21 years old) also considering the fracture produced by the war experience on the lives of the younger ones.

Maria Laura Marescalchi

Maria Laura Marescalchi

On the next day, Nicholas Stargard readdressed this theme. His talk was accompanied by interesting movie clips and photographs of the period. Maida called attention to the situation of great uncertainty during the weeks between September 8th and November 30th, 1943. The latter is the date of the notorious Circular no. 5, that decreed the internment of all the Jews. “The extraordinary thing in the story of the young refugees of Villa Emma is that the issue of their safety was brought up quite early”. All in all, back then and later, “the greatest part of the Jews who were able to keep a minimum amount of social network, could save themselves.” This is precisely the case of the young refugees of Villa Emma who, from their arrival in Nonantola, had woven a network of relations with the local population. To confirm this, what Bacchi calls stumbling-stones in a happy-ending story, Goffredo Pacifici and the young Solomon Papo, swallowed by the Shoah, were arrested far away from Nonantola.

On June 17th there was an evening session, with the talks of Mostafa El Ayoubi, Anna Brambilla and Luigi Monti, devoted to migration and modern welcome projects. This issue has been addressed by the Fondazione from its very beginning, in the framework of a constant dialectic tension with the story of acceptance and solidarity of the past it focuses on. The evening session ended with the presentation of the book L’età del transito e del conflitto. Bambini e adolescenti tra guerre e dopoguerra, edited by Maria Bacchi and Nella Roveri and published by Il Mulino. The research focuses on the connections between the events in the lives of the Jewish children who found safety in Villa Emma, and those of the children and adolescents who land today on the Mediterranean coasts.

Costantino Di Sante

Costantino Di Sante

The second day opened with the talk by Anna Allesina, president of the Architectural Association of Modena, who collaborates to the definition of the announcement of competition. Klaus Voigt then indicated further perspectives of historical research. Voigt is the author of Villa Emma. Ragazzi ebrei in fuga. 1940-1945, an unavoidable reference work for the understanding of the story of the Villa Emma refugees. Guido Pisi offered one of the denser contributions. It was perhaps the one that best conveyed the sense of complexity that the future place for the memory should communicate. Drawing from the conceptual universe of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Pisi presented the place as a memory device, a “tangle made of different types of lines, highlighting places and people”. He suggested a representation that will enable visitors to go through the places in a conscious way, and not to contemplate a given object as traditionally happens in museums.

Anna Brambilla, Luigi Monti, Mostafa El Ayoubi

Anna Brambilla, Luigi Monti, Mostafa El Ayoubi

The testimony of the witnesses (mythos) will be a fundamental crux of that device. Pisi offered various examples, illustrating the distance between the Fascist propaganda and the words of the people from Nonantola. Their common sense, removed from propaganda, enabled them to develop empathy towards the Villa Emma refugees. This empathy was a winning feeling above the established relations of strength. During the morning session, Guido Pisi and Fausto Ciuffi, in a collaborative effort that has already produced the essay Nonantola. Un luogo a questa storia, illustrated a couple of models of representation, to be read as future inspiration.

The device, as a fundamental planning element, was later readdressed by Stefano Levi Della Torre who, together with Anna Bravo, had the task to thematize the categories of the “story of good”, where great part of the story of Villa Emma could be placed. Both stressed the danger of a temptation of good, of a well-loved by the media “sanctification” of the saviours this story could trigger. In that case, one would miss its complexity.

Maria Bacchi, Nella Roveri

Maria Bacchi, Nella Roveri

Levi Della Torre then indicated two threads of the tangle (following Deleuze’s lucky metaphor) that in his opinion the device of Villa Emma will necessarily have to entail. They are the theme of welcome that takes us to present-day Lampedusa. The other thread is Sionism, that will make us reflect on what is happening nowadays in Israel.

Daniele Jalla brought up the idea of a place presenting “resources useful to the future”. He warned against the levelling on current events. Jalla called attention to the Faro Convention (2005). Its comma 2 defines the “legacy communities” as made of “groups of people who value specific aspects of the cultural heritage, who wish to support and pass it to future generations, in the framework of a public action.” Therefore he highlighted the European need to construct a partecipated memory. Here the problem is: what is the community of reference? The local, the national, or the international one? The complexity of this story, that emerged during the conference, from the first communication, opens a reflection on this issue.

Maria Bacchi, Bruno Maida

Maria Bacchi, Bruno Maida

In our case, the device outlined by Pisi resembles a center of interpretation, “a certain type of structure that, instead of enhancing a collection of objects, values a theme (safety) and a context (Nonantola)” rather than a moment or a museum. According to Jalla, the architectural project, leading to the creation of a building, should start from the inside. It should center around the need to mediate knowledge, memories, experiences, where the audience will be the interpreter. The story should be translated into four or five chronological units focusing on a restricted number of fundamental values: the gap between the image of Fascist Italy and the reality of the people from Nonantola; the choice; the risk. All the other elements and values of the story should be transferred to optional in-depth analyses.

Ciuffi then addressed the main functional unavoidable ramifications of the new building. They are: a welcome space for groups; an expositive space recounting the story; an operative space for the offices of the Fondazione; an archival space to document the past and the segment of present we will decide to focus on. Finally, a modular space designed for visitors who want to deepen given themes. This last area will also house local associations engaged in themes coherent with the project, especially in connection to contemporary migration processes. All these aspects will be more precisely defined in the announcement of competition.

Fausto Ciuffi, Klaus Voigt

Fausto Ciuffi, Klaus Voigt

The last day was devoted to the illustration of a series of sceneries of construction of memory. The first was the paper by Asher Salah, who brought an Israeli perspective on the Shoah and on the figure of the Righteous. The title Righteous among the Nations was conferred upon recommendation of those who had been saved to two key-figures in the story of Villa Emma, don Beccari and Doctor Giuseppe Moreali. The title was established by Yad va-Shem right upon its creation, to preserve the memory of such traumatic events. At the same time, the Museum chose to dedicate a space also to the memory of the saviours. Salah highlighted various problematic aspects connected to the issue. He offered an interesting survey of Israeli cinema on the issue. He surprised the audience by revealing that out of about 800 fiction feature films produced as of 1945 he analyzed, no one features a Righteous among the Nations. This indicates that the “schindlerization” of European and American cinema of recent years, is not confirmed by in the country that created the very paradigm of the Righteous. In Israel, however, as of the 1990s there is an exponential increase in recognition.

Finally, Elena Pirazzoli and Adachiara Zevi addressed the side of architectural creations. They illustrated respectively the memorial landscape of Emilia-Romagna, where the material translation of the device – the object of the conference – will be set. They also presented a survey of museums and exemplary memorials, aiming at offering a set of references useful to those who will decide to enter the competition. A common element, marking the entity of the suggested challenge is that they are all, invariably, places or monuments recalling the tragedies that marked the Twentieth century. In our case, on the other hand, our task is to shape a story of different type, without many previous experiences.

Carlo Greppi, Fabio Levi

Carlo Greppi, Fabio Levi

In our region, from Marzabotto/Monte Sole, to Monchio, from Casa Cervi to Fossoli (the place of deportation and the real counterpart of Villa Emma), until the massacres of the 1970s, we find layers, problems of conservation, dislocations, memory conflicts, oblivion. The most clamorous one: the still open injury of the massacre at the Bologna railway station, ‘hidden’ by an improbable Shoah memorial, built very recently.

On the other hand, the Museo per la Memoria di Ustica offers the occasion to discuss on the preposition connecting the polarity of some key-terms: place of the memory, or place for the memory? The second definition seems apter to our device, as stressed by Ciuffi, who insisted on the methodological standing of the choice.

Zevi focused on the memorial landscape in Germany, discussing the accomplishments addressed to the perpetrators: pure and asettic forms often impose themselves in the representation. Distance, abstraction, void, are also the key feature of the work of the Canadian artist Robert Jan van Pelt, the Evidence Room, selected for the 2016 Biennale di Venezia. The work consists of three gas chamber fragments and recalls the artist’s experience during the process against the negationist David Irving. The work, with its rarefaction and impersonality, does not produce an immediate evidence of the horror, but offers the possibilty to visitors to approach the theme, following his or her own time and ways.

Back to us: how can we give a sense to the anonymous area of Prato Galli?

It can be transformed in a valued area, almost challenging the beautiful building of Villa Emma, or it may be kept anonymous, almost a parasite with regard to the facing building, as in the cases illustrated by the exhibition Arteinmemoria on the site that houses the ruins of the Ostia Antica synagogue. The issue then shifts to the definition of counter-monument: Horst Hoheisel and Jochen Gerz, and their trick of making absence visibile.

Micaela Procaccia, Elena Pirazzoli

Micaela Procaccia, Elena Pirazzoli

Our dilemma is: does it make sense to use absence to signify a happy ending story? A deconstructivist approach could be a third option. With regard to the whole, it privileges the fragment. In this case too we could speak of parasitism, meant as a violent graft of something new into the already existing. The most emblematic example is the Jewish Museum by Libeskind in Berlin, made of continuity and ruptures, to make visible the invisibility of the relation between Jews and Germans and Berlin. For Libeskind memory should not be added to the building, but it is part of it. Architecture is not a neutral container of History, but it tells it. History is part of the Museum. All in all, as some images from Yad va-Shem illustrate, there is not a univocal way to tell the same story. Much depends on the civic religion of a country.

Micaela Procaccia, Benedetta Donati, Adachiara Zevi

Micaela Procaccia, Benedetta Donati, Adachiara Zevi

Furthermore, the hiding places. At the most dramatic times they offered shelter to the young refugees of Villa Emma. How can we signal them? How can we network them?

Maybe something like the Stolpersteine will be able to reconstruct a map of memory, a widespread and polycentric place, representing transit and passage. An experience to be lived, as in the Eisenman memorial in Berlin. A courageous and heretical project, what Stefano Vaccari pronounced as a word of advice for the new phase of life of the Fondazione Villa Emma, just started.