“If I have a message for young people today, it would be this,” says Dr. Lucia Servadio Bedarida. “Have faith in life – life is stronger than death. Indeed, the Jewish religion emphasizes life.”
Servadio knows what she is talking about.
Earlier this month, the petite, white-haired great-grandmother turned 100.
Though Servadio now lives in New York state, she chose to celebrate her centenary July 17 in the Italian port of Ancona, the city on the Adriatic where she was born.
Some 150 friends and family from Italy, France, Morocco, the United States, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere around the world joined her for a ceremony in Ancona’s baroque synagogue, where Servadio prayed as a child.
“I’ve always lived life to the full, despite all the difficulties,” Servadio said on the eve of her birthday.
Indeed, she still travels frequently – and usually on her own. Just three years ago she spent her 97th birthday hang gliding in the Alps.
“I’ve had a very rich, very interesting life,” she said. “I’m glad to have lived it – and glad to have accomplished the things that I did.”
Servadio’s life in fact reads like a history book.
She was born July 17, 1900, into a middle-class Ancona family. Ancona is one of Italy’s oldest and historically most important Jewish cities. In the 19th century, about 1,900 Jews and several synagogues lived there. Today, the Jewish community numbers only about 100.
Servadio’s father was a businessman and, like most Italian Jews, her parents and grandparents had strong Italian and Jewish identities.
Servadio’s father was named “Cavour” in honor of Camillo Cavour, a leader of the Italian independence movement in the mid-19th century that brought Italian Jews freedom and civil rights. Her father’s sister was named “Italia” in honor of the independent Italian state.
Servadio herself and her four younger brothers were all given first names based on the word “luce” or “light,” to symbolize her family’s commitment to justice and freedom.
“My family was immersed in Italian culture,” Servadio said. “We grew up here in Ancona with no problems. We had friends of all religions, and our parents sent my brothers and me to public school.”
The family moved to Rome after World War I, partly so that Servadio could continue her studies.
“I wanted to go to university,” she said, “and at that time there was no university in Ancona.”
Not only did she get an undergraduate degree in 1922, but she went on to become a medical doctor – a rare achievement at the time for a woman.
Servadio married another doctor, who became the director of a hospital in the small town of Vasto in Italy’s Abruzzi region. It is here that the family found itself when Italy’s fascist regime imposed harsh anti-Semitic laws in 1938.
“We were the only Jewish family in the town,” Servadio recalled. “We were very well integrated and had many wonderful friends who helped.”
The family’s maid, for example, defied the laws that forbade Christians from working for Jews.
Still alive, the maid was one of the guests invited to Servadio’s birthday celebration.
In 1939, the family left Italy, carrying only a few possessions.
They ended up in Tangier, Morocco, where Servadio would live – and work as a doctor – until 1981.
During the war, family members back in Italy braved persecution and fought in the Italian Resistance.
“One of my mother’s brothers was given refuge in the Vatican,” Servadio said.
But her mother, then 64, and her 89-year-old grandmother, were deported to their deaths.
“They were taken to Fossoli camp in Italy, and then to Auschwitz,” she said. “Two old ladies. We have a note written from my mother to a friend, but that’s all.”
Servadio’s three daughters went to the United States after the war to study, and they became U.S. citizens. But Servadio and her husband stayed on in Tangier, carrying on a successful medical practice. She continued working on her own after her husband died in 1965.
“I specialized in gynecology and infant care,” Servadio said. “The Arab women trusted me, a woman doctor. They called me grandma. I tried to help people, to give my patients more than just medicine – I gave them my time, part of myself.”
Servadio said she had no problems living as a Jew in Morocco, even at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War. When the war broke out, she was visiting her brother in Brazil, but returned to Tangier with no problem.
There, she worked under cover to help Jews who wanted to make aliyah to Israel.
In 1981, Servadio retired and moved to the United States. When not traveling, she now lives with a daughter in Cornwall, N.Y. Her other daughters live in Yonkers, N.Y., and Gainesville, Fla.