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First Person a Camp for Soviet Jewish Refugees Lives On, but Only in People’s Memories

September 26, 2005
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This small seaside resort just outside Rome is best known for its beaches and its fourth-century Roman port, both popular tourist destinations. But for 15,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ostia will always conjure up memories of Country Club Castelfusano, a summer retreat just outside city limits that was used from 1988 to 1991 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as temporary housing for Jewish refugees on their way to new lives in America.

Some stayed for just a few weeks; others lived there for months.

Mine was one such family. I was 8 years old when my parents, older brother and myself left the Soviet Union in November 1989. Our first stop was a similar refugee camp in Austria, which processed new immigrants heading to Israel. Those who sought immigration to the United States, like my family, were sent on to Ostia to await permission from the American authorities.

We spent five months in Castelfusano waiting for our official invitation. Life in the camp for my family was a mixture of hope and apprehension. My father’s longtime dream was about to come true — at last we had left the Soviet Union and were on our way to America. But we were not there yet, and the future was a source of unceasing anxiety.

“Not knowing where we would end up, or what would happen, was truly frightening,” my father recalls today. “Who knows, maybe America would reject us and we would be sent back. These thoughts were constant and depressing.”

My father knew English and basic Italian, so he was able to get a job at a bank in Rome assisting fellow refugees who stopped by to collect their bimonthly allowances. My mother, who was ill but had postponed a kidney operation until we got to America, taught at the Jewish day school set up on the camp premises. I hung out with other kids my age and ate my first bag of potato chips; my brother earned pocket money washing car windows.

Finally we received confirmation from our sponsor in New York, and on March 27, 1990, we left Italy for the United States.

In June, I made my first visit back, to see what remained of the hopes and dreams of these thousands of Russian-speaking sojouners.

Michelangelo Cavalcanti, the manager of the Country Club Castelfusano for two decades, was my guide as I walked through the camp’s pine tree-studded grounds. He remembers when the JDC approached the club’s management and offered to rent its cabins to house Jewish refugees fleeing the collapsing Soviet Union. Castelfusano accepted, and according to Cavalcanti’s estimates, the resort’s Tourist Village housed about 1,200 Jewish refugees at any one time during the next two and a half years.

Walking past a small, one-story building with tall windows stretching almost to the roof, Cavalcanti says it used to be the JDC’s office. “We still call this place ‘the American Joint,’ ” he says.

It wasn’t the first time Castelfusano was used to house refugees. In 1983 and ’84, the site was commissioned by the Italian Interior Ministry to shelter Polish refugees seeking asylum in Italy, and in 1992, 400 Somalian refugees were kept there on an emergency basis.

But Cavalcanti says the Jewish refugees were different. They “behaved like guests and we treated them like guests,” he says, adding that there was no violence or other disturbances during their tenure.

Luigi Pizzali, who was hired to perform occasional repairs on the camp’s cabins 15 years ago, remembers that many of the Jewish refugees seemed reluctant to interact with strangers. But those he got to know, he regarded as “quite nice and educated.” Some invited him to play cards or dominoes.

For Pizzali and many other locals, this was their first contact with Jews or Jewish culture. There was a rabbi sent in to run a Jewish day school and introduce the Russian-speaking Jews to Jewish ritual practice, and Pizzali recalls watching him lay tefillin with a group of refugees. Pizzali was convinced it was a form of baptism. Some camp residents, catching a glimpse of the closely shaved head that the rabbi’s wife kept covered in public for religious reasons, referred to her as “cucuzza pelata,” a slightly demeaning Italian phrase meaning “bald pumpkin.”

Other locals have more tangible memories of the Russian-speaking refugees who passed through more than 15 years ago: the Soviet-made goods they brought with them and left behind, flooding the Italian market with merchandise. Cameras, compasses, binoculars, watches, flashlights, cigarettes, vases, silverware, china, Oriental rugs, tablecloths and cans of beluga caviar are just some of the products that could be bought cheaply and easily on the grounds of Castelfusano during those years. Some enterprising Italians would buy the stuff as each new busload of refugees arrived, snatching goods at rock-bottom prices before the sellers became aware of their true market price.

Talking to former camp refugees living in the United States now, one gets a clear sense of the disorientation they felt at Castelfusano. Dislocated and confused, frightened by their economic dependence, confronted with a strange language and unfamiliar culture, they tried desperately to sell anything they could — novelty items, trinkets, anything that might afford them a few creature comforts.

My parents remember being advised, while they were still in the Soviet Union, to bring with them as much as possible to sell. There were stories floating around among potential emigrants that electronic goods in particular would fetch a good price abroad. My father sold two pairs of binoculars, a camera set from Kiev and a few wristwatches during our camp stay.

Since the JDC ceased operations and moved out of the camp 15 years ago, the Tourist Village has undergone numerous, albeit gradual, changes.

The cabins that once housed most of the refugees have been expanded and renovated. A new restaurant was built. The building that held the Jewish day school was converted into eight upscale hotel rooms for Catholic pilgrims expected during the last Catholic Jubilee year. The Funky Buddha disco hall and the Funky Pizza takeout restaurant were built to keep local teens busy in the evenings, Cavalcanti says.

“Business picked up” after the refugees left, he says.

Little trace remains at Castelfusano of the hundreds of pages of computer printouts listing the new arrivals. A few sheets were snatched by Pizzali, who kept them as a kind of souvenir.

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