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(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
At a recent ceremony at the residence of Italian Ambassador Sandro de Bernadin, Claudia Amati was appointed a cavaliere, a form of knighthood given by the Italian government to recognize contributions to society. Watched by hundreds of guests who had gathered for Italy's national day, Claudia received her citation.
The honor was given because of her role as chairwoman of Irgun Olei Italia, the association of Italian immigrants in which she has been active for about 13 years.
Together with her husband Mario, she made aliya in 1964 and today the couple is retired and lives in Ra'anana. They look back on some hard times, both here and in Italy, when Claudia was a small child during the Holocaust and was saved by being hidden in a convent.
LIFE BEFORE ALIYA
During the war, Claudia's mother managed to hide her and her brother in a convent in Livorno. Being a blue-eyed blonde, she was able to hide her Jewish identity and worked as a maid. The father tried to fight with the partisans but was captured and died in Auschwitz. Claudia is sure her wartime experience was a factor in deciding to make aliya. Last year, on a return visit, she visited the convent for the first time and saw a plaque placed there to commemorate the Jewish children who were saved.
She and Mario were unconventional even as students, and Claudia gave birth to their first child while she was still living at home with her parents and he with his. They only decided to get married five years later just before they came to Israel. She had studied political science; he is an engineer.
Their first visit here, early in 1964, was meant as a pilot tour to scout out the possibilities of a job for Mario, but they found most potential employers to be discouraging and several tried to persuade them to go back to Italy and return with good English and working experience. Undeterred they came anyway, with their five-year-old son, fitting in a quick marriage ceremony in the Florence synagogue on the way.
Mario went on ahead, taking a student flight and arriving alone at Lod. Claudia took a boat with Yonatan, leaving Genoa and arriving in Haifa six days later. She was already pregnant with their second child and her memories of the journey are not idyllic.
Mario had already registered at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, but when Claudia arrived they all moved to the Ben-Yehuda family ulpan nearby. Mario studied Hebrew as he had already found a job in the security establishment, but Claudia was busy with her son and sick with her second pregnancy and never had time to study.
Soon after arrival, Claudia went into early labor and somehow managed to find a working phone to call an ambulance. She gave birth in Hadera's Hillel Yaffe Hospital, while Mario stayed behind to baby-sit Yonatan. Michaela their daughter was born and Claudia nursed her.
"Then suddenly the milk dried up and there were two major problems," recalls Claudia. "I had to start giving her cow's milk as you couldn't buy formula. And as we had no refrigerator, only an ice box, the milk became sour every Saturday night. The iceman, who drove a horse and cart, wouldn't deliver on Shabbat." Now she looks back and smiles but one can imagine the heartache of not being able to feed one's child.
"She began solid food very early," she remembers.
The other problem was that she became pregnant almost immediately with her third child.
"But thinking back it was a nice time, for all that," she says.
They got a Jewish Agency loan and settled into their apartment in Herzliya. Unlike today's immigrants, no one had a phone.
"If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to go down four flights of stairs to the street and find a phone booth and more often than not it wasn't working," Claudia recalls.
On the other hand, the building they lived in was full of friends. Half were new immigrants and half veteran Israelis.
"On the second floor there was a family with a girl the same age as Michaela. And every day the lady on the first floor waited until she heard Mario drive off (we had managed to buy a tax-free car) and she came up to stay with me. That's how I speak Hebrew," smiles Claudia. "And we are still great friends today."
"I decided that taking care of my three children would be my job," says Claudia (who later gave birth to another child, making four in all). "There were day-care places but they were expensive. Sometimes Mario would take us to the beach in the car and we would come back by bus. I'd brought a sewing machine with me and made clothes for all of us. We listened to the radio all the time, had friends over in the evening, and we were very happy even if we had some financial problems.
"I missed being able to get good coffee and cheese that we had in Italy. And the only fruit was oranges, sometimes small apples and pears. Who ever dreamed of cherries and peaches like today?
"The worst was the pasta - it was like glue. When our parents came over they brought pasta and Parmesan cheese. I didn't buy a new pair of shoes until I'd been in the country for seven years and I had no alternative."
"I remember the time leading up to the Six Day War as especially difficult," Claudia says. "The atmosphere for two or three weeks before was very worrying. You began to hear about people being called up and you didn't know what was going to happen.
"We also didn't get a phone until 1973 and that was an added hardship."
LIFE SINCE ALIYA
They spent two years in Los Angeles so Mario could gain his Ph.D. and came back just in time for the Yom Kippur War. Claudia had studied interior design in the US and decided she had had enough of being a full-time wife and mother. She answered an ad in a newspaper and began working for Danish Interiors, becoming assistant to Tamara Tollman, who had started the business. For the next 10 years she managed several of the up-market design stores, culminating in a stint as manageress of the Kikar Medina branch.
Another trip abroad in 1986 meant the end of that career. Returning to Israel, by now over 50, Claudia couldn't get a job. That's when her activities on behalf of Italian immigrants began. The organization existed but no one was doing anything about it.
"We are a community of about 1,500 families and roughly 20 new immigrants arrive from Italy every year," she says. "The moment a new immigrant arrives I contact him or her and try to help with the bureaucratic procedures or in any other way.
"We have four official get-togethers. On Independence Day we have a picnic; on Pessah we organize a Seder in a kibbutz for three days of celebrations. On Holocaust Remembrance Day we read out the names of all the Holocaust victims in our synagogues in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan. And on October 16, the first day all the Italian Jews were rounded up and deported, we have a ceremony at Yad Vashem. Most of the Italians here know each other and you could say we are like one big family."
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"Now I would say that it's a wonderful place to raise children and I'm very happy that all my children married other Jews. I visit old friends who stayed in Italy and all their children have married out."
ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS
"Decide to stay whatever happens and don't look for an easy life or a lot of money. At the end of the day, we feel we are as comfortably off as we would have been if we'd stayed in Italy."
To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org