Teaneck resident Charles Roman has quite a story. Born in Austria in 19’7, he and his mother tried several times to leave that country after it allied itself with Nazi Germany, unleashing a wave of anti-Semitism. Turned away by one country after another, the Romans found some comfort and even kindness in only one place, the Alpine village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie.
Roman’s wartime experience crossing the Alps, together with some 1,000 Jews and a handful of Italian partisans, has been told before, chronicled by historian Alberto Cavaglion in a book titled "Nella Notte Stranieri" ("During the Strangers’ Night") and reported in this and other newspapers. And the moving photographs taken during the trek by his mother, Marianne, have been displayed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Now, another account of this story can be found in "Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martin-Vesubie and Their Flight through France and Italy" (Yale University Press, ‘007), by historian Susan Zuccotti. Using both historical documents and the testimonies of survivors, Zuccotti tells the story of nine Central and Eastern European Jewish families displaced to France just before or during the first year of World War II. Roman’s "odyssey" as an 11-year-old child from hostile Vichy France to the peaceful Alpine village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie to northern Italy, after a harrowing trek on foot over the mountains is among the stories told in the book. In fact, one of his mother’s photographs provides the book’s front cover.
Roman, who was in Vienna on Kristallnacht November 9, 1938 told The Jewish Standard that his relationship with Zuccotti began in 1998, when she lectured in Tenafly about her book "Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy," which won the ‘000 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish-Christian Relations. He had heard her speak years before in Queens, N.Y., he said, and was eager to hear her again.
This time, however, he brought with him a collection of photographs taken by his mother during the long trek to Italy. He showed them to the author, who was clearly interested.
"He began to attend more of her lectures," said Inge Roman, Charles’ wife. "Then in July ‘003 Susan called and asked if we could meet. She arrived with a legal pad and took down his testimony," she said, noting that Zuccotti also asked for information about three other refugees who had made the Alps crossing.
"When she had all our stories, she went to Italy and Israel" to confirm the facts, said Inge Roman. "All the stories were the same."
On Sept. 8, ‘003 the 60th anniversary of the Italian armistice with the Allies Zuccotti attended a reunion in Saint-Martin-Vesubie of the Jews who had lived there during the war. In her book, she credits Charles Roman, and the other survivors in the New York metropolitan area to whom he introduced her, with inspiring her to attend.
Said Zuccotti in her preface, "As I talked with these people and gazed on the mountain tract that they had followed in their flight for life, I realized that theirs was an exceptional story. It involved not only a few months of respite in Saint-Martin-Vesubie but a broad range of experiences as Jewish refugees in France and Italy. I resolved to tell that story."
Roman, who has returned to Italy on several occasions, noted that he and his wife took their grandchildren there in August, traveling from Nice to Cuneo to Rome.
On Nov. 8, he will speak about his experiences as a refugee and how he came to be featured in Zuccotti’s book at a Kristallnacht commemoration at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. The event, beginning at 7:45 p.m., will include a candle-lighting ceremony.