Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Samson Schiff 1

I don't remember when I first knew of the existence of my mother's family's patriarch. Certainly I knew of him by the time I was 21, for then I made a visit to the Jewish section of the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan and photographed his  grave. Even then I was surprised how secular a tombstone it was, totally in German, and with no religious symbols of any kind. I think that there was a vague understanding that he was the father of Friedrich, grandfather to my own grandfather, Giulio Cesare Schiff, but nothing more whatsoever was known of him, other than he had come from what is now known as Germany. My aunt Luciana, now in her 80s, obviously had an awareness of his existence, as she provided me at some stage with an official form from the cemetery which provided the year of his death. I believe there had been an advertisement in the Milan newspapers asking family members to renew their claim for graves, as is the custom in Italy, though I am surprised this should be the case with a Jewish cemetery. This was the sum total of my knowledge of Samson Schiff for thirty years, until a surprise discovery in 2001.


In 2001 I took advantage of my early retirement to fly to Trieste for a brief stay, making use of the hostel near the Imperial castle at Miramare. I do not recall why I chose Trieste, though I was aware of some connections. It was probably because Jan Morris had published her book 'Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere' that October, but in fact I travelled there a few weeks earlier alone, then returned with my children for the autumn half term break. This book conveyed to me some of the magic of Trieste, and gave me a sense of its history. In 1996 I published a small booklet for members of my family called 'My Mother's Family'. In it I had put together what I knew about her family, using information from my grandfather, from Samson Schiff's grave, from my mother's birth certificate in Gorizia provided by her cousin Ada, and from a couple of documents in the possession of my grandfather's half brother, zio Umberto, concerning one Guglielmo Schiff.


There were thus several possible reasons for my return to Trieste, but none of them very important. I think I knew my mother had lived there for a few years when very young before  her parents moved to Sicily until the Race Laws of 1938, but that appeared to be the only link we had with the city, except for Guglielmo Schiff living there for some years in the 19th century according to his daughter's account.


In 1964 when I was 15 I visited Trieste with my uncle Sergio and his family. We were camping at Lignano Sabbiadoro, and one day we drove over to Gorizia to visit my grandmother's sister, zia Maria, and her husband, zio Nin. It must have been on the same day that we drove along the coast to Trieste, and I remember seeing the romantic castle on the edge of the sea, and how we drove up the steep  road in the medieval town of Trieste to the cathedral at the hilltop. 
In 1972 I applied for a job as a teacher at a school in Trieste, but communication was difficult, as I was teaching in Okehampton at the time, and living in a remote and inadequate hut at Thorndon Cross, and somehow messages were not received and the project did not materialise.

I made another trip to Trieste in about 1975, from a holiday with my parents at the campsite at Caorle, as I was engaged in a photographic project, visiting monumental cemeteries in London, Paris, Milan, Venice and Trieste. Trieste's cemeteries were magnificent: Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox and Jewish.I spent a whole day wandering around them with my camera.

When I returned to Trieste in 2001 I explored the city more fully, and also attended the synagogue, especially the services for Sukkot. I visited the Carlo and Vera Wagner Jewish Museum in via del Monte, and had long discussions with Rabbi Haddad, the Lubavitch-ordained curator of the museum. In the municipal shop in piazza Unita' I bought a copy of the large paperback book 'Shalom Trieste' produced to accompany an exhibition that had taken place a few years previously.

It was on the flight back to London that I started to read this catalogue. Just a few pages into the book I had an experience that galvanised me: here was an article about the work of the Trieste silversmith Samson Schiff, several pages, giving some biographical details, and describing some of the silver work he had produced for the Jewish community of Trieste. I was thrilled by this discovery, Samson Schiff was from Mannheim, and he was a silversmith of considerable skill, and he had spent much of the 1850s in Trieste before moving to Milan. This encouraged me to attempt to discover more,and I assiduously searched the internet, but surprisingly I discovered little more, though through eBay I found and purchased from the United States a silver candlestick made by Samson Schiff and bearing his mark.

A return visit to Trieste allowed me to see and copy an article by Luisa Crusvar, author of the catalogue chapter, which expanded considerably on his career and work in Trieste, and leading me back to the Jewish museum in Trieste which displayed several examples of his work, all ritual silver made for the synagogues in Trieste. I discovered the book 'Jewish Itineraries...' which showed a Torah breastplate of his manufacture, and it also mentioned the Schiffs of Gradisca, which led me to visit that town, and search out the Jewish cemetery lost in the fields, surrounded by a high wall which I scaled so I could visit the grave of Friedrich Schiff, Samson's son.

In the past few months I have been motivated to discover more about Samson Schiff. After all, I gave my son Samson as his second name in his honour and memory, but what memory was there to honour? He had a name and a tomb, and little more. But now I have a slightly better picture of this man and of his achievements, and I can justly feel able to honour his memory, and be proud that he has been rescued from oblivion.

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