How one Italian kept a Jewish woman hidden in her attic during the war — and took the secret to the grave

The Madonnini family's story has only just come to light


It has been 80 years since Italy introduced laws allowing the authorities to systematically discriminate against Jews, but many Italians are only just discovering the story of how the Holocaust played out in their home towns.

In Pandino, on the Lombardy plains near Milan, the Madonnini family has spoken for the first time about how their great-grandmother hid a young Milanese Jewish woman during the Second World War.

The family had rented rooms in their house to Alberto Cohen and his relatives until the autumn of 1943, when he was arrested outside a tobacconist just after buying a packet of cigarettes.

Cohen was forced to reveal his family’s location and was deported, along with his parents, to Bergen Belsen.

But Ernestina Madonnini, who had seen the police approaching their home, quickly hid Cohen’s sister Eugenia in the attic. 

At considerable risk, the Madonninis organised false papers for Eugenia and cared for her until the war ended. Ernestina took the secret to her grave when she died in 2012, even though the two women remained in contact.

The story was recently discovered by the local history society. Pandino’s mayor, Maria Luise Polig, said it had an important educational role as Italy confronts rising antisemitism and racial attacks.

“If we do not record stories like this we will forget everything as the generations pass,” she said. “When we forget, that is when we make mistakes.

The mayor, who trained as a teacher, is organising an exhibition next January that will commemorate the story on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Eugenia Cohen’s son Nir Donath met two of Ernestina’s children, Caterina and Antonella, earlier this month in the vast 14th-century Castello Visconteo that serves as the town council’s headquarters. Next year’s exhibition will be held in its beautifully frescoed rooms.

Mr Donath read a text message from one of Eugenia’s daughters, Navia, who now lives in Israel. She sent her love “to the Madonnini family, thanks to whom we are in this world.”

The Milanese historian Marco Cavallarin, who was in Pandino for the meeting, was surprised that the family kept their story secret for so long: “I have heard of those who hid Jews refusing to tell their stories in Eastern Europe, but never here in Italy.”

Yet, after the war ended, Italy was a deeply divided society and not everyone would have regarded the Madonninis’ bravery in a positive light.

Eugenia, then aged 23, spent time caring for some of the 800 child Holocaust survivors, who were looked after in a children’s home in the mountain village of Selvino, 70km from Milan.

The children spoke Yiddish, Polish, Romanian and Hungarian and although Eugenia could not speak anything but Italian, Mr Donath said, his mother “spoke to them in kisses, in hugs and in love.”

The home was run by Jewish soldiers from Palestine who had fought in the British army and Eugenia fell in love with one of them, Reuvan Donath. Like most Jews in Italy at the time, she had never been a Zionist, but changed her name to Noga — Hebrew for Venus — and the couple were married. She passed away in Israel last year.

Nir Donath said his late mother believed it was fate: “She had visited a clairvoyant when she was 16 years old, who told her that she would meet a Jew from far away across the sea with whom she would fall in love. It was written in the stars.”

And there was another happy ending to this  Holocaust story: just before Eugenia, now Noga, left for Palestine, her parents and her brother returned to Milan. They had survived the death camps.

Rosie Whitehouse is researching the experiences of Holocaust survivors

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive