Nobel medicine laureate's extraordinary tale of life during WWII

Mario Capecchi's story begins at 3 when Hitler's secret police snatch his mother before his very eyes and dispatch her to Dachau.

Mario capecchi 88 (photo credit: )
Mario capecchi 88
(photo credit: )
The tale of how Mario Capecchi, this year's Nobel medicine laureate, survived heartbreak and poverty in wartime Italy to go on to academic glory in America inspired the world in a way that resonated beyond his scientific triumphs. The story Capecchi has told repeatedly over the years in speeches and interviews begins when he is 3 and the Gestapo, Adolf Hitler's secret police, snatch his mother before his very eyes and dispatch her to Dachau concentration camp. The peasant family that takes him in abandons him and he spends four years wandering about northern Italy - a street urchin, alone and begging for food. At war's end - on the boy's ninth birthday - mother and son are reunited in the hospital ward where he is being treated for malnutrition and typhoid. They set sail for America where he flourishes, embarks on a brilliant research career - and goes on to win the Nobel Prize for medicine. But The Associated Press, which set out to chronicle his extraordinary story in greater detail, has uncovered several inconsistencies and unanswered questions, chief among them whether his mother was in Dachau, and whether he really was for a long time a homeless street child. Now, at age 70, the scientist is revisiting a past that appears to differ in significant ways from what he says he grew up believing. Some of the contradictions that have since emerged might be attributed to the tricks played on a child's memory, or to secondhand information that eventually gelled in the mind as fact. There is also no question that World War II obliterated what should have been a tranquil childhood and separated Capecchi from his mother, father and baby half-sister - a sibling of whom he learned only due to publicity following his award. And nothing appears in these inconsistencies to detract from the accomplishments of this University of Utah scientist who won the Nobel Prize, along with two Britons, for work that led to a powerful and widely used technique to manipulate genes in mice, and which advanced the understanding of a range of killer diseases. In a statement Tuesday, university President Michael K. Young noted that Capecchi indisputably "endured tremendous hardship as a child living in Italy during World War II" and that "his story is one not only of exceptional scientific achievement, but of remarkable triumph of the human spirit." He added that "Dr. Capecchi has never exploited his life story for personal gain." "Nothing in the Associated Press story detracts from the profound scientific accomplishments Dr. Capecchi has achieved in his career, or from his remarkable tenacity in the face of great personal challenges," Young said. During a lengthy interview at his home overlooking Salt Lake City, Capecchi took an almost scholarly interest in the AP's findings, poring patiently over dates and matching his recollection against the historical record. At no point did he become defensive or uncooperative. Regarding Capecchi's mother, Lucy Ramberg, experts in the period and an official at the Dachau memorial say she almost certainly could not have been in Dachau or its satellite camps, and the Gestapo was not operating in Italy in 1941 _ the year Capecchi says she was arrested. His recollection of being thrown onto the streets at age 4½ also doesn't mesh with documents on file with authorities in northern Italy. They suggest that he was in fact taken by his father to live in the city of Reggio Emilia near Bologna, contradicting his account of trudging southward as a small boy on his own. Lucy Ramberg was the daughter of a German named Walter Ramberg and American painter Lucy Dodd, who had been living in Italy. She had an affair with Luciano Capecchi which produced Mario, the future Nobelist, born on Oct. 6, 1937. The liaison did not last, and when Mario was only 16 months old, his mother - by another brief affair with a different man - gave birth to Marlene Lucy Ramberg, on Feb. 8, 1939. The central figure in the young Capecchi's story is his mother, whom he described in 1996 as "a beautiful woman with a passion for language and a flair for the dramatic." In a speech he gave that year, titled "The Making of a Scientist," he recalled in vivid detail her purported arrest by the Gestapo for anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist activity and her incarceration at Dachau. He repeated the details in an interview with the AP and other news outlets after he won the Nobel Prize. But the Dachau Memorial says that while the end of the war was a chaotic period, the Germans kept records at Dachau until April 28, 1945, one day before the Americans liberated it, and there is no record of Lucy Ramberg. The director of the Dachau Memorial, Barbara Distel, said women weren't imprisoned at Dachau until September 1943 - more than two years after Capecchi says his mother was arrested. She also said only Jewish women from eastern Europe were held in Dachau's satellite camps. All this makes it "highly improbable" Lucy Ramberg was at Dachau or its auxiliary camps, she said. The International Tracing Service for war victims in Bad Arolsen, Germany, has a card that summarizes the record of Lucy Ramberg (Luzia Ramberg). It says that in 1939 she was living in Renon, a town comprised of several villages perched above Bolzano, in the Italian South Tyrol, that she was later detained or made a prisoner in Perugia, in central Italy, and that she probably was deported to Germany. "I do remember - I remember the Gestapo coming to the Wolfsgruben chalet," Capecchi told AP in the interview, conducted days after his Nobel Prize was announced. "It's sort of like a photograph. I can tell you how many people were in the room, which ones were in uniform and which ones weren't. Just boom. It's there." Pressed to explain how he could be certain he was just 3½ at the time and remember it so clearly, he stood by his account. When shown the AP's findings, he said, "I would swear differently." But later he became less certain about Dachau. He acknowledged that the information about Dachau - which he had previously presented as fact - had been passed on "secondhand " by his uncle, the famous physicist Edward Ramberg, who was in the US during the war and trying to locate his sister. "He said it was in Munich. In Munich itself, there's Dachau, which is the main camp, and then there's actually a few satellite camps there also. I don't know whether my uncle specifically knew it was Dachau or whether it was one of those satellite camps within a few miles (several kilometers) of each other," Capecchi said. He later conceded that the information he received from his uncle was not solid. "He was pretty sure she was in Munich. I mean, he tried very hard during the war to figure out where she was. He spent a fair amount of money trying to locate her during the war." Edith Raim, an expert on Dachau's satellite camps at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, said that if Lucy Ramberg had been at one of these camps, she would have shown up on either the ITS or the Dachau records. Town records in Renon, updated to remove his mother from the registry in 1946 after officials were unable to locate her for six years, indicate she had gone abroad to Germany. There is no elaboration. In a brief statement Tuesday, Capecchi said: "What I have said and written is my most accurate recollection of my early childhood. My recollections are based on my own memory and that of my uncle, who also was a scientist and was prone to understatement, and the memories of my mother, who purposely provided few details because she wanted to forget that period." The same records also hold clues to the circumstances under which Capecchi left South Tyrol. He says his solitary life of wandering began when Lucy Ramberg's money dried up and the peasant family threw him out. "For reasons that have never been clear to me, my mother's money ran out after one year and at age 4½, I set off on my own. I headed south, sometimes living in the streets, sometimes joining gangs of other homeless children, sometimes living in orphanages and most of the time being hungry," Capecchi said in his 1996 speech. The period lasted four years, he said. However, Renon town clerk Klaus Ramoser says Capecchi's name was stricken from the town records on July 17, 1942, with a note that he was moving to Reggio Emilia, 165 miles (266 kilometers) south. He shows up on the records of Reggio Emilia the very next day: July 18, 1942. Also, those records have him registered at the same address as his father, making it likely that his father himself came to get the boy. What happened to him once he got to Reggio Emilia is unclear. In a 1999 interview with Scientific American, Capecchi said he lived with his father at times during this time, but that his father would kick him out periodically. "He was a very loose soul," Capecchi said in the interview. He told The Associated Press that he lived with him for short periods of time: "I would guess, I remember three times each for a duration of about at most a week." In between those stays there indeed may have been the window for a young boy to have wandered about on his own. He has spoken of briefly joining a Fascist youth army, begging food, always staying on the move. The university president's statement said Capecchi "has always acknowledged spending a few weeks with his father, but that he also did wander the streets for most of the time after his mother was taken away." His father, like his mother, also emerges as a figure of mystery. The Renon registry in 1937 lists him as a telegraph operator. Capecchi says he was a pilot in the Africa campaign, and he was quoted in an Italian newspaper the day after he won the Nobel Prize as saying he believed he went missing in action. However, he told the AP in a telephone interview from Rome a day after won the Nobel that his father had survived the war, but contracted malaria, suggesting he was sent home from North Africa. He said the last time he saw him was after the war, when his father relinquished custody so he could emigrate. The Italian Defense Ministry has so far been unable to locate Luciano Capecchi's wartime records. Capecchi says his last year before being reunited with his mother was spent hospitalized in Reggio Emilia with typhoid and malnutrition. It was there that his mother found him on his ninth birthday, in 1946, he recalls. Reggio Emilia hospital officials have searched for records on Capecchi, so far without result, looking under both his first name Mario and middle name Renato, and also under Ramberg, his mother's surname. They also take into consideration that his name may have been given incorrectly, due to his young age, or if very sickly, he may have been listed as a foundling. "He would have been hospitalized at the Santa Maria Nuova, it was the main hospital. But without a piece of paper, I cannot confirm it," said spokeswoman Irene Marcello. South Tyrol state historian Gerard Steinacher says Capecchi's description of events pertaining to his mother's detention don't easily match the historical record, but he said he may never have been given the full story as it was quite common for those traumatized in the war to avoid talking about their experiences. "As a historian, and trying to fit the story into the general history, the way he told it - the story doesn't fit," Steinacher said. It is possible that the German government could have sought the mother's arrest for political reasons, given that Italian authorities in the South Tyrol were complying with such demands as early as 1939, handing over German nationals at the border, Steinacher said. Raim said if she wound up in Gestapo custody, she would have likely been put in one of its jails, of which there were several in Munich, rather than a concentration camp. Capecchi said that when growing up in Pennsylvania, he asked his mother about her wartime experiences. He said she once told him how she would pretend she was cooking a meal for herself and eating it. "But she did not want to go into details." He said that while he was at college she married and moved to Tucson, Arizona. Her probate file says she broke her hip in June 1987 and that "for a period of 5 years, she has suffered physical and mental disabilities such that she is unable to care for herself or her financial or personal affairs." Other records show she died in October 1987, aged 82. Her husband, Victor Szymanski, died two years later, aged 69. Capecchi had previously described his mother as glamorous and free-spirited. But in the AP interview he said her wartime experiences broke her. When they were reunited, he said, she was so physically changed he did not recognize her. She had withdrawn into herself and refused to talk about the years in which they had been apart, he said. "She lived a lot of her remaining life in an imaginary world," he said.