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The "Villa delle Palme" school in Recco, the school of German Jewish refugees students in the 1930s

Aggiornamento: 13 mar 2020

All started with an occasional reading. One day browsing on the web, Mapy and Angelo from Recco found an article describing a place in Recco where a School was founded in 1934 by the German-Jewish professor Hans Weil, who had escaped in the late 1933 from Frankfurt due to racial discrimination. The School was called “Die Schule am Mittelmeer” (The School of the Mediterranean) and, with big surprise, the location was their Villa Palme.

The mission of the School was to provide a safe place for children of the German-Jewish community running away from their home land because of the Nazis, but it was also the opportunity for Prof. Hans Weil to put his innovative educational theories in place. Mapy and Angelo were attracted to the story and decided to start some investigations on it.

The article ended by saying that the Villa was destroyed by the war. They knew that this was not true, since they were actually living there!.

Mapy wrote to the journalist of the mistake and received back the name of Sandro Pellegrini, a local historian that was very helpful for the subsequent investigations.

An upsetting aspect of the story of the School in Recco was that Mapy and Angelo could find only confused oral reports without real description of activities, people etc.. . Therefore, Sandro provided them with the contact of Constance “Connie “ Weil, Prof. Weil’s daughter , who was still alive and living in US. They thought this could be an important step forward in their investigations. At the time of the School, Connie was a little child (5 years old), but she could still have some memories of those days.

Her father was a professor at the University of Frankfurt and Max Weber had also been among his teachers. Then in 1933 he was forced to leave teaching, and he found himself suddenly unemployed, with his wife, an artist, about to give birth to his second daughter, called Costance. At that point he pursued an ideal that seems almost a mirage: to found in Italy, in Recco, one of the most beautiful villas of the time, a boarding school to help Jewish German children. Unlike the model of the progressive school where Hans himself had spent part of his studies as a child and which allowed students freedom in the management of the study, the Mediterranean School organized the days of the young students according to precise rhythms. For Weil, the limits were the best way to give balance and stability to the children, who would thus give their best to learning.

As the historian Sandro Pellegrini recalls in his book "Fragments of History", the alarm clock was just before 7 am, then the children dedicated the morning to lessons. At 13.00 there was a break for lunch; the afternoon was mainly dedicated to sport: swimming, walking, gymnastics, botany, photography, acting, painting.

Among the names of the boys we find several Rosenthal, Goldschmidt.

The availability of mutual help and cooperation was one of the main objectives of the school, referring to the Tzedaka, a teaching of the Torah that tries to make the goods-sharing in the world more equitable.A school at the forefront which did not give grades or diplomas but pursued an educational model based on the theory of social humanism, which affirms the ontological centrality of the human person and makes it the ultimate goal of every action, together with the availability of mutual help and to cooperation.

Large attention was also given to manual work as good way to educate to perseverance and self-reliance, as well as to periodical discussions on political/historical topics so to develop curiosity, and to learning foreign languages to move better in the whole world.

These educational settings contributed to the cultural growth of numerous German Jewish children, in a liberal environment and their placement in the community of Recco, with a true spirit of integration and protection of children's rights.

In 1937, the German General Consulate in Genoa ordered the School closed. Connie still remembered the frenetic activities in those days to find a proper and safe place for the kids, including a secret ski trip of her father with the students. Although there are no clear details of this trip, all findings seem to indicate that, as a last act of love for his students, Prof- Weil took his students on a highly dangerous ski trip through the Alps towards freedom in Switzerland. Probably, once crossed the border, students were given to somebody else, in charge of bringing them to their final destination: several Jewish families around the world.

A few months later, in 1938, the Weil family had to leave Italy and after an adventurous trip (the members of the family had to travel separately) they finally reunited again in New York City. Senta Weil, Hans's wife, got on board the Liner Vulcania, together with her children Anselmo and Constance, reaching New York. Hans will join them only a year later. Since then, the whole family had a difficult time, and the years spent in Recco in Villa Palma remain the happiest memory of the Weils. In the US, however, Hans Weil never regained his prestigious role in the society as a teacher, the family had economical troubles and he was forced to use his photographic skills for living. Nonetheless, Hans Weill maintained his dignity and years later he denied the Frankfurt University’s offer of a compensation chair for his lost career due to the Nazis.

Connie was back in Recco for the first time in 2005. She could not find the Villa. Too many changes had occurred because of World War II. Recco had been almost entirely destroyed by the relentless bombing and the postwar re-construction had taken over much of the old town’s plantings. Villa Palme surprisingly survived but was surrounded by new buildings and was no longer easily visible. Therefore, when in early 2010 Mapy called Connie in the US and invited her at Villa Palme, she enthusiastically accepted, and a few months later she was back in “her” Villa, 72 years after her last time. In those years Villa Palme was a School, but for Connie was also her first house. Constance words in this occasion were “for me today visiting this villa is an unspeakable feeling. I remembered it as a magical place, a safe place, but I knew that children's memory magnified and deformed places over time. Returning home is a great joy, a dream come true. "

A key decision to move on Mapy and Angelo’ s investigations on the Villa was to ask the support of the American Jewish community and very important was also the enthusiastic contribution of their long lasting friend Dr Kenneth “Ken” Jacobson. Ken established the contact with the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and when he started telling about Villa Palme’s story to Judith Cohen manager in the Museum, she interrupted him by saying that she remembered something by the name of Hans Weil. In the basement of the Museum, in fact, they found a forgotten trunk that had been donated 20 years before by Nina Weil, later identified by Connie as her brother’s wife. After many discussions, the trunk was opened and an impressive amount of photos and documents on the School activities were found. The destiny of this material was really remarkable. It had been generated in the 1930’ in Recco, then had travelled to the US and stayed there for about 50 years. Then, in 1995, it had been collected and stored in the basement of a museum and forgotten for 20 additional years, waiting to go back to Recco in 2010, thanks to the endless effort of two curious Italians living in the Villa. Connie’s help was essential to understand the trunk content and the story started to take a shape. The couple learned how incredibly advanced was the School for that time: indeed some key principles of the School are advanced even today).

Connie Weil Rauch suddenly died of stroke on the 23rd November 2015, at the age of 82, near Albany, New York State, assisted by her beloved daughters Katie and Emily. On the August 3, 2016, her ashes returned - as expressed by Connie herself - to Recco, to rest in the Polanesi cemetery. Since her first time back to the villa she wanted to visit Recco every year, loving it so much that she asked to be brought back right to that shore of the sea that she had never forgotten.

During these last years of their life she received the honor of citizenship by the mayor of Recco, in order to create important links between the Weil Rauch family and Recco town; a way not to forget how tragic those years were, but also as an example of dignity and freedom to be handed down to our young generations

A few months before her death, Connie was in Recco for vacation and met some students of a local school. From these conversations and further to the brilliant intuition of Carla Debarbieri, a local school teacher, the idea of a documentary movie on the Mediterranean School was launched, and with today’s students playing the old ones.

Mapy and Angelo promised to Connie to spend their efforts to spread out the Weil’s story as much as possible and to continue even when she was dead. Thus, the idea of a documentary film was enthusiastically received.The documentary "The Mediterranean School", directed by Adel Oberto and produced by the Istituto Comprensivo Bogliasco-Pieve-Sori was eventually realized in 2017. Much of the funds needed to make the film were raised through crowdfunding.

However, Mapy and Angelo also believe that there is such an amount of material that it could be enough for a real movie. It would be really great if this happened, and certainly both Connie and her father Hans Weil would be happy.

Interesting would also be to get some more testimonies from the students of that time, if still alive, as the one given in 2008 by Emilio Razeto, councilor to the town of Recco, whose mother worked in those days as a cook at the school .

Here is the video:

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