Yesterday, I was looking at my family tree which stretches back to 1615, the year my (great great great etc grandfather) Abraham Gomes Silvera was born to parents who had arrived from the Iberian peninsula to the enlightened Medici city of Livorno. They were on the run from the murderous zealots of the Inquisition, seeking safe haven. Later, my family moved to Aleppo and lived there for many centuries before scattering across the globe in the late 19th century. Extraordinarily, 412 years later, I find myself making the opposite journey back to Portugal, as I apply for nationality under their new laws allowing for the return of expelled Jews (and which will enable me to remain a European citizen).
On one of the branches of this hand drawn and faded family tree, which was created by a cousin that I never met – Solomon Silvera, a dentist turned genealogist from New Jersey – I noticed a family member who’s branch was suddenly cut short. I researched online and discovered that Lelio, his wife Bahia and daughter Violetta all died in the Holocaust in 1943 – a shock to me as I never knew of any family members who had died in the death camps. I found their photos last night on an Italian Shoah site - Lelio moved from Aleppo to Milan, where Violetta was raised. He looks warm, and kind and very much a Silvera in his heavy, generous features – I know those eye bags a mile off! His daughter, Violetta – but also known as Lola – is a beautiful young woman whose eyes shine with spirit and intelligence. There she is with her mother, promenading beside palm trees in the sunshine; in a smart spring coat that I’d happily wear today. And here is her father, looking into the camera with wisdom but also an unmistakable spark of good-natured humour.
How on earth could they have imagined what was to come?
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. How unbelievable it must have been when they were arrested at Porto Ceresio, Varese. Forced to board trains, headed to Auschwitz.
I remember them as I watch events unfold. Looking at their pictures, their everyday life in pictures, I think that I must not forget how quickly the unthinkable can become a kind of strange new normal. How it can so easily feel like somebody else’s job to challenge, to oppose what is unjust when you are not the one directly impacted (yet).
I am heartened to see so many fighting, organising, resisting together. It’s time to step up my game.