For prewar Salonika student, the diploma’s in the mail

Seeing her diploma and 1940 report card aroused fond and difficult memories for Toronto resident Sara Tivoli Cohen (Hanna Canzio).

Seeing her diploma and 1940 report card aroused fond and difficult memories for Toronto resident Sara Tivoli Cohen (Hanna Canzio).

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost relatives and friends.

BALTIMORE (JTA) – Sara Tivoli Cohen has thought occasionally over the years about the junior high and high school in Greece that she attended, not realizing she had yet to receive her diploma from the Umberto No. 1 Italian School in Salonika.

Now the 84-year-old Toronto resident is checking the mail awaiting its arrival.

Suri Greenberg, the daughter of the late Toronto couple who had adopted Cohen’s orphaned sister Esther, found Sara Tivoli on a list of 157 Jewish students who had never been awarded their diplomas because of World War II. The list accompanied a recent “Seeking Kin” column on the Salonika school.

Cohen has seen the the digital version of the diploma provided by “Seeking Kin.” Now she looks forward to the original’s arrival.

The envelope will include her report card for the 1939-40 term, when she was a precocious 11-year-old who had skipped two grades. With 10 being the highest score, Tivoli received 8s in culture, math, Greek and French; 7 in design and in Italian; and 6 in physical education.

The marks, Cohen says, “are terrible.”

“I thought they would have been much better!” joked the great-grandmother of five, who said she would consistently finish third in her class — and to achieve that, “you had to have been good.”

Cohen could not attend the Jan. 25 ceremony in which relatives of 10 Umberto students on the list – Susanna Barzilai, Leone Benmayor, Allegra Benusiglio, Rachele Ezratti, Salomone Maissa, Alberto Massoth, Samuele Mordoh, Ester Nahmias, Bice Pipano and Nissim Tazartes – spoke about accepting the long-delayed diplomas.

Antonio Crescenzi, who works in the building that had housed the school, had initiated the search for their rightful owners after finding boxes of documents there. Twenty-six of the students on his list were killed at Auschwitz, he said, citing figures provided by Salonika’s Jewish community office.

Determining each person’s fate carries “a specific weight” and helps maintain “the memory of the victims of the Shoah and of the historical events that led to this tragedy,” Crescenzi said in an email.

“The most moving moment of the graduation ceremony was … when I was calling the students’ names in alphabetical order, just like then, and everyone in the room responded ‘present.’ ”

It was, Crescenzi said, “as if those students had returned to school for one day.”

He added that he was delighted to know that Cohen has been found and is living.

Cohen only learned of the list containing her name after the Jan. 25 rite, but says holding the original papers will transport her back to her youth, when she and siblings Mordechai (nicknamed Marco), Samuel, Dora and Esther lived with their parents, Isaaco and Hanna, in Salonika. Their three-bedroom home in a neighborhood known as Area 151, then filled with World War I army barracks on the site of an old Jewish ghetto, featured a large garden with a fish pond along with the apricot and fig trees typical of Salonika yards.

“There were lots of roses. My father loved roses,” Cohen said of Isaaco, who worked as a pharmacist in the Jewish communal clinic.

Isaaco and Hanna were immigrants from Livorno, Italy, and their children were registered as born there, too, although Cohen says she and her siblings were Salonika natives.

In fact, the family’s roots proved a liability in 1940, when Italy attacked Greece from neighboring Albania. (Umberto closed abruptly on the day of the attack, never to reopen.) Isaaco, Marco and Samuel were imprisoned as enemy residents. The women of the family subsisted with relatives’ help and in 1943 relocated to Athens.

With the Nazi occupation of Greece, Cohen’s brothers, parents and grandparents were deported to Auschwitz; only Samuel survived. Sara and Dora hid with Christian families and survived, as did Esther, who had escaped deportation because she was hospitalized when the Germans entered Athens.

After the war, a nearly 17-year-old Cohen reached prestate Israel on a ship that evaded the British blockade. Dora and Samuel soon joined her there. Esther was cared for in Athens by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, then at 15 moved to Canada, where she was adopted by Israel and Molly Edell of Toronto. The three siblings eventually joined Esther in Canada.

On visits to Salonika in 1972 and 1987, Cohen and her late husband, Abraham, stopped at the Umberto building but did not enter. She retains fond memories of school friends and of such teachers as the Fischietti brothers, who taught music and horticulture. She recently tracked down a classmate, Rosetta Modiano Miller, now living in Florida.

Confronting her Salonika youth since the column’s publication has been difficult.

“I’ve been having lots of bad dreams the last few nights because of the article – dreams of running and hiding from the Germans,” Cohen said. “I wake up sweating and crying. Maybe it’s brought up all these memories. But it will pass.

“When I remember the school, I remember all the friends, activities and fun we had. I wonder about all those people – the classmates and teachers – and what happened to them.”

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you know the whereabouts of any others whose names appeared on the Salonika list or their relatives. If you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends, please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.)

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