Enrico Ricciardi (1925 - 2001)

he rescued the Jews by providing them with forged documents

Enrico Ricciardi in Treviso

Enrico Ricciardi in Treviso (courtesy of Filippo Ricciardi)

Testimony of his son, Filippo Ricciardi - Locarno, 6 April 2013

I would like to tell you the story of my father, Enrico Ricciardi (1925-2011). Summarizing his life in a few lines is a difficult task, even if I just were to suggest to get his measure from a few traits. A philantropist, a thoughtful husband and an attentive father, great worker, fond of music, director of severald different choral ensembles, composer, and esteemed manager of a small marketing and advertising firm in the Milan of the Sixties and Eighties. He made up some of the ideas of the slogans that are still most uptodate nowadays.

Dad was born in Mersin, in Turkey, as son to Edmondo, a man of Italian descent born in Rhodes, and Madeleine Sultan, born into a Lebanese family of Christian faith. He was still a child when his family moved to Rhodes, an island within the Italian possession of Dodecanese. My Granddad was an appreciated and esteemed bank officer, another character who would deserve a chapter on his own.

My father started to attend the school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (the Lasallian Brothers) and received an ecumenical education. In his family he could enjoy some tranquillità; he had five siblings, their feelings were sound, and the island, in the years between 1930 and 1938, was a little heaven on earth. The very ancient Jewish Community of Rhodes lived together peacefully with the Catholics, the Orthodox Greeks, and the Muslim community in a kind of a true ecumenism. A world steeped in supportiveness, respect and brotherly love emerged from the tales of my father and other pieces of testimony. Every community was invited to the parties of each religious group. My father’s family regularly attended masses and the family parties to mark the most important Jewish, Orthodox and Muslim celebrations and viceversa, and this cames so natural as hardly understandable is todat, when this is similar to a utopia. At school, without distinctions, my father had Jewish, Orthodox and Muslim classmates. The education programmes provided that every communities was respected! In such a fertile world, encouraged by sound education of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, my father spent (so he said) “the best years in my life”.

Sun-kissed Rhodes, an island rich at history and arts, at a certain point it sinks down the dark abyss of war! This is certainly not the place to retrace all war events that affect this island; I will only say that, at a certain point, things began worsening dramatically. In the meanwhile the elder brother of my father’s, Antonio Ricciardi, born in 1919, (still alive!) had to leave because he was a military officer, and would face adventurous events, saving his neck many times quite astonishingly.

Then 8 September 1943 arrive. From then on, first slowly, then more and more quickly, events came to a head. The Brothers of Christian Schools spur, maybe before others, that the catastrophe is approaching, but the population is not aware, yet of what is to happen. In those times the Command of the Carabinieri on the island was run by Captain Carlo Pellegrino (1896-1990) who was also the Chief of police.

From the end of 1943 and the beginning of the following year, the Nazis began deporting the Italian soldiers into the prison camps, and here another little known story was written. As much as 14,000 Italian soldiers perished during the sea journeys, as they were torpedoed by the British, who were though unaware that those hulks were crammed with soldier inmates. Yet the Germans relied on the fact that the Britons wold precisely target ships in that area.

The Brothers of the Christia Schools, run in those years by Father Angelino Guiot (1884-1963), counted the boys in the age of conscription who risked being deported, among whom there was my father Enrico. In a hurry, with the mediation of Brother Angelino, many of them were enlisted in the Carabinieri with tasks of Military Police. Essentially, since they had been enlisted with the task of en forcing the law, the Germans could not deport them. In the meanwhile, taking advantage of a harsh naval blockade imposed by the Allies, Rhodes experienced the worst period in its recent history: famine! People really starved and the deaths were countless, often they hid not to miss the meagre ration assigned to each family. Dad used to tell me that at night, my Granddad Edmondo came closed to the gates of the military area and Dad handed to him his daily ration to take home, offering him his own ration I have seen many times the pictures of my Granddad and father as they were unrecognizable, emaciated and with lifeless eyes.

My Dad then was tranferred to the passport office of the Police station. The situation was worsening in the meanwhile. We are in the first weeks of January 1944. News about the fate of the European Jews had started spreading, albeit tone down, also on the island. Some people wanted to flee secretly before it was too late, but the majority of the Jewish community of Rhodes, although someone had started telling what was happening far from the island, still felt safe, also because of the reassurements of Major Gen. Ulrich Kleemann (a personal friend of Adolf Hitler’s) who had arrived on the island in June 1943, who was a moderate in comparison with his successor.. From now on the story is recollected thanks to the pieces of testimony and what was found later on the Web. because unfortunately the people involved are not there anymore to deliver their accounts.

Actually, my father could dispose of a good number of stubs of Italian ID cards. At the beginning, without really thinking of it and without warning his superiors, he started writing names, surnames and birthdates, changing the original ones of his dear Jewish friends and their relatives. He told me at night they organized boat trips for those poor people, who carrying a few belongings and above all holding their forged ID cards, headed for Turkey or for some non occupied island. The thing gained momentum because the Captain – and Chief of the Police - Carlo Pellegrino one day called my father in his office and told him: “Carabiniere Ricciardi, I know what you are doing, I know nothing but God knows!”. I know that Brother Angelino Guiot, and also Captain Pellegrino were involved in the issue of forged IDs. It is also likely that the same faked ID “descriptions” were offered to many people at the same time in these “targeted escapes”. Clearly, if they had been caught by the Germans they would be tried before the martial court and shot.. My father told me that he still remembered the faces of the fugitives very well.. These departures were periodical, papers were forged and the escapes were planned for the least dangerous times. Some dozens people managed to flee, my father did not remember the precise number.

The situation on the island worsened even more with the arrival of Gen. Wagener in September 1944. He would prove to be a torturer, both for the Italian soldiers who had surrendered (and had been interned in three separate camps on the island) and for the Jewish population.

Wagener gave literal application to the provisions of the third reich about the annihilation of the Jewish race. On the dreadful 3 September 1944 also the Jewish boys of the Lasallian schools were amassed and loaded on the steamboats. Prayers by Brother Angelino Guiot, who asked Wagener and the other officers to take him instead of his pupils, were to no avail. Guiot spoke fluently German and his gesture was vain, even more because Wagener pointed his gun against him!

This was the tragic end of the centennial history of Rhodes Sephardic Jews: 1800 deportatees, out of which only some dozens would survive the camps and some other dozen had escaped before the disaster.

One evening of some years ago my father, with tears in his eyes, told me about those events, as he thought he was near close to death. Crying, he told me he could never come to terms with the whole of the people he had not managed to rescue. What could a 19-year old guy have done more than he, Captain Pellegrino (then forced to flee from the Germans because they saw especially in him a figure of person who had rescued the Jews and the Italian soldiers) and the Lasallian brothers had done to hide those poor people and help them run away?

My father also told me that I had to keep the story secret until he was alive. I kept the promise, and on the day of his death, 19 September 2011, a river in spate lite rally swept me off my feet.

In the Church, in the small village in the province of Varese where he lived with my mother and my brother, there was a long queue of people that formed a crowd outside. For all his life, my father had done good, even only with a gentle word, the work in the parish, teaching everybody to sing! From the children of the nursery school, who called him Granddad Enrico, to us adults who used to admire him for his “humble and proud” standing as the priest said that day. I told about the most relevant events in Rhodes during the prayer because the moment had come for the people who loved him to know! Outside the Church there was a white-haired man who came to me and gave me a hug: he was the son to Captain Pellegrino who knew about the story from his father. On that day I shaked hands with thousands people, a dear colleague of my father’s told me:”What you said is no surprise to me, I knew what kind of person your father was!”.

What would remain engraved in my memory for the rest of my life was that walking through the church aisle I saw a lot of young people cry: they were the kindergarten children to whom some years later he had taught to sing. On that day they said farewell to Granddad Enrico for his last journey.

As he used to say in Greek: Jassas pediamu! (Bless you my sons!) I say to him “Jassu Dad. You will always be an example for your fairness, elegance, your such a big heart!”

And I am saying to you: SHALOM that all over the world and in any language always stands for a hope for the future!

Gariwo thanks Filippo Ricciardi for the information and pictures he gave our Editorial Staff.

Gardens that honour Enrico Ricciardi

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