Two Jewish groups — a Holocaust museum on LI and a synagogue in Naples, Italy — are backing the decades-long quest by a Nassau County man to have his family recognized in Israel for helping to hide Jews from the Nazis while he was a child in Italy.
Anthony D’Urso, 78, an Italian immigrant who in 2016 was elected as a Democrat to the state assembly from North Hempstead, had originally made the claim in the mid-1980s based on his childhood recollections and on family lore.
Those recollections had long intrigued local Jewish leaders, but D’Urso knew of no living witnesses or other independent evidence to prove his recollections.
“We hit a wall,” said the Port Washington resident said. “The people we rescued had all died. I sort of gave up.”
“But I didn’t need proof because I knew what my father did,” D’Urso said. “In a world that had gone crazy, there were still people who did the right thing.”
D’Urso’s fortunes changed recently when Michael Weinstock of Great Neck, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Brooklyn that D’Urso had befriended, tracked down a pair of diaries that told how D’Urso’s father, Giuseppe, had spirited a Jewish family he worked for into the mountains north of Naples, one step ahead of agents of the Gestapo in late 1943 or early 1944.
In November, Weinstock brought one of the diaries to the attention of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. That organization is authorized by the Israeli government to confer honorary Israeli citizenship to the “Righteous Among the Nations” — non-Jews who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis.
The honor — the film “Schindler’s List” tells the story of recipient Oskar Schindler — is a rarity among Americans.
Of the 26,513 people who have been recognized by Yad Vashem, only five are from the United States, according to a 2017 tally posted on the organization’s website. The vast majority of designees are from nations that fell under Nazi occupation, including 5,595 from the Netherlands, whose population is less than that of New York state.Jewish organization on both sides of the Atlantic are backing D’Urso’s claim.
“By all means we are very, very supportive of Tony’s efforts to get his family recognized,” said Steven Markowitz, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County.
“The story of Tony’s family ... is just a wonderful example of people who put their religious differences aside, looking at the neighnors as fellow human beings, and tried to save their lives,” Markowitz said.
D’Urso accepted the invitation of the Sinagoga di Napoli to share his account of the rescue during an address today, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the congregation there, including descendants of the fleeing Jewish family.
Roberto Avraham of that congregation said during a telephone interview that the region’s tiny remaining Jewish population is wildly enthusiastic to learn more about the rescue.
“A lot of people helped the Jews, but no one from this region was named,” Avraham said. “So it’s an honor.”
D’Urso immigrated to America in 1960 with virtually no education. He raised a family while working as a construction laborer and attending night school to learn English and to complete his undergraduate and graduate education. After retiring as an assistant New York City Housing Commissioner for construction and architecture.
According to research compiled by Weinstock, D’Urso was 5 when the Gestapo began searching for Emilo Ascarelli, a Jewish textile manufacturer in Naples who employed D’Urso’s father as a caretaker for a villa Ascarelli owned in Formia, about 20 miles up the coast from the city.
D’Urso’s father had already taken his own family into the mountains north of Naples to spare them from Allied bomber attacks on the city, and from Nazi agents said to be pressing able-bodied Italians into service as laborers.
When an order was handed down confiscating the property of the Jewish family, D’Urso’s father agreed to hide them, among a chain of alpine stables the D’Urso family used to shelter grazing livestock.
D’Urso said he served as a lookout, warning his mother of approaching strangers.
“He did it because he had a good heart,” D’Urso said of his father. “He wasn’t educated or do it because of some philosophy. He just felt he could help, so he did.”
One of the diaries was written by Tommaso Sinigallia, a Jewish relative of the textile manufacturer who hid with them in the mountains and recorded the family’s travails, mentioning D’Urso’s father by name. The diary is in the collection of Italy’s Archivio Diaristico Nazionale, an archive of diaries that was established near Florence in 1984.
“Because of its position, and because of the repeated (previous) visits by the Germans, the hut enjoyed some tranquility,” Sinigallia wrote. “The Germans walked on the multiple paths that flanked the hut, sending their “Good Day” and moving on.”
The diary also described how D’Urso’s aunt fed the fleeing Jews at one of the stable hideouts.
“Maria Civita…. worked very hard to make our stay comfortable,” Sinigallia wrote. “She succeeded when she prepared Tagliolini pasta with meat sauce for us. It was delicious and very much appreciated. For seven months we had not even seen the shadow of pasta.”
Weinstock contacted the archive last year, which used a name he provided to discover Sinigallia’s diary, which also mentioned several other D’Urso relatives.This month, Weinstock was able to obtain a second diary that mentioned the D’Urso family — and which provided the basis of an Italian literary drama describing the Jewish family’s flight — from the rabbi of the Naples synagogue.
Rabbi Robert Widom, of Temple Emanuel of Great Neck, said the story of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews threatened by extermination is one that needs to be heard by all of humanity.
“Here’s a man with vulnerable children, who leaves his own family to take a Jewish family from disaster to freedom,” said Widom, who first learned of D’Urso’s story at a 1988 interfaith breakfast, and this week said he was thrilled that D’Urso’s story has been corroborated by the diaries. “It’s a story that should be told over and over again.”