Resistance Around The Table
By Sabina Magliocco
My dining room table was purchased in Paris at the end of the 1800s when my great-grandfather Giulio de Castro married my great-grandmother, Marguerite Weil. It is a solid, beautifully-crafted Second Empire-style piece made of European walnut. With both leaves attached, it can seat twelve. It is the kind of piece an upper-middle-class family would have wanted at the turn of the 20th century to demonstrate its prosperity and hospitality to guests and family members alike. It went to Port Said, Egypt, where my great-grandparents lived in a large European colonial community, including many Jewish families who had businesses on the Suez Canal. In 1939, when WWII broke out and the family had to repatriate because Egypt was a British protectorate and Italy had allied with the Axis, it went back with them to Italy, to a house in Rome on Via Aldega. During the war, it served as headquarters when the family hid and sheltered Jews and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation.
I always imagine the family seated around it after the children had been sent to bed, talking about the political situation and planning their next move. It was a tricky time for the de Castros. De Castro is a name found among Sephardic Jews, though its form “di Castro” is more common. When Mussolini cast his lot with Hitler in 1937, anti-Semitic laws were put into effect in Italy. While not as severe as those in Germany, they effectively made life difficult for Italian Jewish families, subjecting them to more government intrusion and barring them from serving in public office as well as certain professional posts. The whiff of suspicion hovered around the de Castros, especially because Giulio’s wife Marguerite Weil (or Margot, as she was called) was very clearly Jewish. Upon returning to Italy, my great-grandfather paid for a jerry-rigged genealogy that found a 17th century ancestor who had joined the priesthood, exonerating the family from persecution. Nonetheless, they were never entirely free from suspicion; my great-uncle Vittorio, who had gone to university wanting to become a history professor, was prevented from doing so because of the Jewish associations of his name and lineage.
Giulio de Castro was originally from Genoa, the youngest son of a republican family whose father so admired democracy that he named his oldest son, Giulio’s brother, Lincoln, after the American president. Lincoln became a doctor; he had a long career in North Africa treating typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases, as they were then called back then. He became one of the founding members of the Italian Anthropological Association. But Giulio had no head for school. Before his eighteenth birthday, he shipped out on a freighter to India where he found work in Bombay (Mumbai) sweeping floors in a bank. Eventually, he worked his way up and made enough money to invest in various enterprises, winding up in Port Said, where he opened a ship’s chandlery on the Suez Canal. The war had a devastating effect on the business. The family was well off enough that for a time, their wealth allowed them to survive by buying food and other necessities on the black market. But according to family legend, one day, Giulio came home and threw a large sack of rice on that dining table. “This is the last of the money,” he said to his sons and son-in-law. “Get busy.” I don’t know exactly how my great-uncles and my grandfather made money during the war, but they must have found a number of ways to do so.
My great-grandfather Giulio was exempt because of his age, but my great-uncle Guido and my grandfather were called into the Italian armed forces to fight for the Axis. Like many Italians, they felt distaste for Italy’s alliance with Hitler, and when the Nazis eventually invaded Italy in September of 1943, they and many of their friends refused to serve in the Fuhrer’s army and deserted. Desertion was a crime punishable by death; if the Nazis identified them, they could execute them on sight. So they sought refuge in the house on Via Aldega. There, my great-grandparents also sheltered Jewish friends, both old ones from Port Said, and new ones, like Riccardo Del Giudice, my great-grandfather’s business associate. The house came to be very crowded, and I imagine this large group of people depending on whatever incomes could be scraped together was also hungry and cold much of the time. The Nazi occupation lasted nine months; during that time, no supplies could reach the city from anywhere, so even if there had been money to spend, there would not have been any food or fuel to buy. During this period, my mother and her young cousins were sent to a Catholic convent, as the family knew that if the Nazis came, they would kill everyone they found, children included. The youngest members had to be saved so the family line could continue.
The men who were stuck inside the apartment spent their days sitting around the table playing bridge. They had an agreement with the doorman: the plan was that if a Nazi jeep was sighted on the street, he would ring a buzzer that would sound in the apartment. The men would dash down the back service stairs to the basement, where a false wall behind a pantry led to a secret passageway in which they could hide. Of course, their cards would be left scattered around the table, so if the Nazis had ever actually entered the apartment, the evidence of their presence would have been hard to miss.
I asked my mother if she remembered any other stories about her family’s resistance plans around that dining table. At first, she scoffed at the idea that her family was doing any kind of resistance. “Resistance was what the partigiani (partisans) did,” she said, referring to the Italian faction that waged a guerilla war against Hitler’s troops. “They were all family and friends; we were helping them.” Perhaps other, more hostile acts were planned around the table, but because she was a teenager, my mother was not privy to them. In part, she was not told for her own protection; too, when the resistance was at its height, she was boarding at the convent. But as I mulled over her words, it struck me that Resistance can also be found in acts of kindness, in sheltering the vulnerable, in reaching out to people we know in hospitality and generosity, even when our own resources are thin. Those acts of resistance go further, save more lives, than guns and bombs.
Resistance takes place in the heart of our homes, around a dining table. Resistance was organized around my dining table, and it will be again. Resistance starts here.
Sabina Magliocco is a witch, professor of anthropology, author of numerous books and articles, including Neopagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole and Witching Culture, and descended from a long line of adventurers and revolutionaries.