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Cesare Sacerdoti

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Interview number:


Dr Bea Lewkowicz

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Cesare Sacerdoti was born in 1938 in Florence. His father, Simone Sacerdoti was a chazzan/rabbi (and cellist) who worked for the Jewish community of Florence (as did his maternal uncle, Fernado Belgrado) under the Chief Rabbi Natan Cassuto. Cesare remembers vividly going to synagogue with his father and uncle, enjoying the services.

He recalls vaguely the anti-Jewish measures, which forbade Jews to go to the seaside or public parks, but remembers the armistice celebrations in September 1943. Towards the end of September, the employees of the community were paid three months salary in advance and were told to go into hiding. When the synagogue was raided on the 6 November 1943, Cesare and his family went into hiding. Cesare recalls that before leaving the house, the father removed a paper amulet (given to the parents on the occasion of their wedding). The father hid in the Convitto Ecclesastico di San Leonardo. Cesare, his brother, and his mother hid in the Convent in Via dei Seragli. Madre Maria Tribbioli gave them shelter and did not tell the other nuns that they were Jews.  Cesare and his brother went to kindergarten and to the school of the convent.  On the 27th of November Cesare’s father picked his mother, brother and himself up to change hiding places, as a nearby convent had been raided the night before and many Jews had been arrested. As they crossed the Ponte alla Carraia, his father spotted a group of Italian fascists (Banda Carità) who recognized him. He cycled away to distract them. Cesare’mother was desperate and wanted to jump into the river with her children. In that moment Gina Frilli, a friend of the mother and member of the underground recognized her and took her to her home. His father was captured by the fascists and later taken to the SS headquarter, from where he managed to escape. He made contact with the secretary of the cardinal, Monsignore Meneghello, who together with Don Giulio Facibeni made arrangements for Cesare and his brother to be taken to Montecatini to the Orphanage of the Madonnina del Grappa. His parents instructed him, to say the Schema in his head, not to show himself naked (because of the circumcision) and to take care of his brother. Cesare recalls the human warmth of the nuns but the cold the and the hunger in the orphanage. He also recalls the carob tree which was the only ‘sweet’ treat in his time in the orphanage. A chaplain of the German army used to visit the orphanage and bring some food (see photograph on the website). His mother came to visit once and Cesare hardly recognized her because she had make up on and had dyed her hair. During his time at the orphanage he made friends with a boy called Elio, who he later discovered was another Jewish boy. 

In September 1944, a military lorry came to the orphanage to collect them on behalf of their parents. These were soldiers from the Palestine Brigade Water Company of the British Army.  After being reunited with his parents, Cesare had to spend a lot of time in hospital for the treatment of head sores probably due to malnutrition. His father was called to help rebuilding the Jewish community in Viareggio and his mother ran a kosher boarding house. His father later taught music at a state school. Cesare graduated from the from the Nautical College and joined the merchant navy for a short time. Then he worked in the clothing industry, for Alitalia and for M&S in London after he moved here for his wife. He had met her in Florence where she studied Italian and Art history. She inspired him to start a career in publishing which let to taking over the Karnac bookshop on the Finchley Road, which specialised in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. These are topics which have always fascinated Cesare. He was instrumental in having the people who helped his family survive recognized as Righteous among the nations in Yad Vashem: Monsignore Meneghello [2015] and Madre Maria Agnese Tribbioli [Mother Superior at he the Florence Convent, 2009] and Monsignore Giulio Facibeni [founder of orphanage for war orphans, e.g. orphanage Madonnina del Grappa, recognized in 1996]. Cesare wanted to talk to his four children about his past without “the painful parts” and transmit an Italian- Jewish identity. Today Cesare feels home in England, Israel and Italy.



Key Words:

Italy. Florence. Hidden Child. Help from Catholic church. Karnac bookshop (psychoanalysis and psychotherapy).


Full Interview


[Going on holiday] very near Forte dei Marmi. And…and we went there. And we had been there one day, I have a photograph with my mother written the dates at the back, or, with my mother and my brother and I in the water, on the beach there. But that was basically only for one day, because on the evening of that day, a Carabiniere which are part of the police of course, came and said, he said, "You shouldn’t be here and you know it, because Jews are not allowed." He said, “I’m just telling you, because tomorrow morning I’ll come to send you away.” So of course we left the same night. So, as a child, there were these instances that… this change in your daily life that of course you notice and you feel something also in the air. The grownups talk about the problems.

But the core of it was the Cardinal Elia Della Costa, with his priests and nuns. And he basically, when the racial law came out, he went into the cathedral and… spoke against them, very bluntly. When Mussolini and Hitler visited Florence, he had all the windows and the ‘persiane’ [Eng. blinds], of the archbishopric closed, and no flags out. That was his order. And I learnt that the ceremony of the last March, the last 8th of March this year, 2016, the ceremony of Righteous Among the Nations of Monsignor Meneghello, that I had the [???] story repeated by the present Cardinal now, that he was – the Cardinal Elia Della Costa - was telling Monsignor Meneghello off, because he was trying to look down outside, to see what was going on in the Piazza del Duomo, with Mussolini and Hitler parading all around the place. And he said, "You must not even look! As far as we are concerned they are not here."

And so, in the morning… we see our parents for… the last time, [emotionally] …for that occasion. For a full month …And they basically tell me, he says, “Well, you look after Vittorio. You have to say the Shema only in your head. And be sure that he doesn’t say it either. Be careful, when you go to do a wee, that nobody sees you. And be careful that he’s not seen either. And be good. Obey to the sisters as if they were us.” And that’s it. And off we go. And we arrived in this place. And the… the nuns were very nice to us. I mean, from the first moment there was a sort of a - a warmth, really particular warmth.

[describing being separated from his parents while hiding in the orphanage] "It’s not fear. No. It’s not fear that I remember. It’s a- It’s a, it’s a different state. It’s a state of unhappiness. Of being …adrift, a different kind of – of feeling, like floating. You know, but not. Fear. You don’t know what fear is.

So there is a tradition in Italy, which is more …universalist if you like. I don’t like the word ‘pluralism’ because it’s been abused in the last few years. But I think the way that the western Sephardim and the Italian Jews in particular, because they go farther down, was real pluralism. You are part and parcel of the host society, of the host culture and society. Equally, you maintain your own part with full integrity. You don’t assimilate, you integrate. And that is an open way, which by the way makes the host culture and the host individual much more willing to accept you. Because there is no pretence. There is no dividing from you.

We ran away in the dark. The only thing my mother wanted to take was the photographs of the family, which was a crazy thing, because you know the weight with those photographs. My father had already organised before to have all his Jewish books–he had some valuable books, in proper big cases–to be buried somewhere, so that he could either recuperate them later or that they would be buried so it would be all right from a religious point of view. My father grabbed [an amulet] when we were going out. On this nail, he grabbed that & took it away. Something my Uncle Fernando had given my parents when they got married. It said: ‘Omnipotent. Bless us and maintain us.’ And so obviously, to take it away, has worked out!

One of the women that was taken [by fascists from a convent where she was hiding] said: 'Please tell my husband & my son that at 6 o’clock every day I’ll think of them.' And that was it.

There was a whole network of the people of good will. There was such a thing. You know, goodness came out as well. The two extremes came out. Evil & goodness.

The memories are hunger, all the time. The cold. Lots of children had blisters in their fingers. But hunger is a great healer in many respects, because when you’re hungry, all you think about is food. The only great thing in abundance was the warmth of the nuns.

Another thing, there was a carob field – a carob tree, in the grounds. And the carob was the only sweet – the only sweet food we had for all that time. To have one of the carobs was – oh! – glorious, absolutely.

The SS went to [Mother Maria Agnese's] convent and said “We heard there are Jews here.” This little woman put her crucifix to the face of the SS & said 'In this place there are only children of God. He died for you as well.' The man clicked his heels & left.

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