It was a couple of years ago that I traced descendants of Ernest Wilton Schiff living in Italy. Public records showed me that his daughter Esmé had married and had three children, and fortunately one of those three daughters had married in England which gave me these relations' surname. A search on the internet brought up a request for information from a Julian Pio concerning his mother's work at Bletchley during the Second World War, and I was able to contact him. He kindly replied, and put me in touch with his older sister Rosalynd in Florence, whom he saw as the family historian, and over the past two years she and I have corresponded and become friends. I considered her as family, and she very kindly reciprocated, and we had great fun with our messages, culminating in her kind invitation to visit her in Florence and stay with her. Precisely a week ago I did just that, and I had a most wonderful experience meeting her and members of her family.
My involvement in this story goes back really to three years before my birth, to my mother's arrival in England in June 1946 to marry my father, recently demobbed from the British army. My mother is a Schiff, and Rosalynd's maternal grandmother was also a Schiff. Before my mother arrived in England her father, Giulio Cesare Schiff, wrote letters of introduction for her to a couple of addresses in England of some Schiff relations. One letter was returned, and one was never answered. I still have the letter he wrote to my mother explaining this to her. Over forty years ago I attempted to trace these elusive relations, using telephone directories to write to and phone various people in London with the surname Schiff, but none were able to help me. I only knew that my great great grandfather was Friedrich Schiff, that he had a half brother Wilhelm whose two unmarried daughters died in Trieste about fifty years ago, and that Friedrich and Wilhelm's father, Samson Schiff, was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Milan.
All this changed suddenly two years ago when Dr Ruth Nattermann wrote to me from Florence where she was researching the life of a Paolina Schiff, and, having seen what I had placed on the internet, wondered if I had any information about her. I knew absolutely nothing, but the leads she gave me opened up a whole new world, a window on the past, with all my mother's relations suddenly clearly visible. Fresh and determined internet searches revealed huge amounts of information, in archives, newspapers, public records and personal accounts. These also showed the simple reason why my mother and her father had failed to make contact with their lost relations. Not only was there in one case a change of surname, there was also the loss of two sons, Schiff cousins, in the First World War, the deaths of all the male members of the family bearing the Schiff surname, but also the disruption of World War Two, the curious coincidence of the return to Italy of members of the family, and also the natural passing of time.
Last Monday evening, after a tediously long and delayed train journey from Trieste to Florence taking six hours, I was met at Santa Maria Novella by my wonderfully generous and welcoming fifth cousin Rosalynd Pio. We returned to her home, the garden flat of a beautiful villa in a wooded part of Florence, a home full of the relics of the past and of the present, walls covered in books, family portraits and photographs, treasures from grandparents and great grandparents. Soon after we had dinner, together with her brother Julian, my first contact with the family, and his wife Anna. I enjoyed their company, and getting to know them.
I spent Tuesday in the company of a seventeenth century English oak bible box that Rosalynd placed on the table for me. It contained family papers, that I sorted for her. The main piles were a handful of old letters related to her grandmother Esmé Cooke, née Schiff, whom I knew of only through some literary work she had done with her aunt Violet Schiff; a pile of uninteresting legal correspondence and papers concerning the complex will of Sir Ernest Schiff and his legacy to his niece Esmé; and the letters and other papers of Esmé's daughter Rosemary, detailing her successful career as a young woman practised in singing, dancing and acting, acquainted with such luminaries as Sir John Gielgud and Ivor Novello. Also in the box were typewritten works by Esmé Cooke, usually written under her pen name of Ruth Stone, some of which had been published - and paid for - by various newspapers, but some appeared to be novels that never made the press. Glancing over these items gave me a totally new perspective on Esmé, as an intelligent, confident, capable and talented person, who was able to override preconceptions and prejudices. I wish I had known her. There were also a few interesting items concerning Esmé's mother's family, the Borlases, of New Zealand, but originally of Penzance in Cornwall.
One short story was in the vein of her uncle Sydney's romans à clef in his 'A True Story'. It is a remarkable account of a family conference between the children of Charles Schiff and the children of Alfred Schiff, beautifully observed by Esmé who attended this tense meeting, concerning the legacies left by Sir Ernest Schiff to his sisters in Germany and their heir and descendant Richard Nöhring. I knew already the facts of the case, and more, but this short story superbly brought to life the real life tensions between the two branches of the family. Having read the various editions of 'A True Story', I was aware that Sydney Schiff must have caused offence to some of his relations, as is the likely effect of any autobiographical writing, but Esmé perceptively described this and other issues and put them in context.
Related to this was a tantalising and fascinating find: corrections and addenda to a history of the Schiff family evidently produced in the 1980s by one of Charles Schiff's descendants. I do not know where there are now copies of this history but of course I would dearly like to see it.
On the Wednesday as a thank you to Rosalynd I started using my well practised skills as an archivist to attempt to sort out a very large metal trunk she pulled out from under her bed, where it had rested undisturbed for decades. Painted white, it was a former arms case dated 1943. It contained the correspondence of her parents, Gioia Cooke and Oscar Pio, from 1943 to 1947. There was a vast quantity of letters, and the box was in some disorder, so I carefully lifted out the letters and started to sort them into date order, a huge task in the limited time I had available. I already knew the outline of their story, from the correspondence I had studied in the Tate Archive in London, some of which I had transcribed and shared with Rosalynd a couple of months ago. Now I worked fast, sorting into years, using postmarks where possible, occasionally having to unfold the letter to find a date, and sometimes failing to find a date. Some years I sorted completely into date order, but the early years from 1943 to 1945 are massive, as they sometimes wrote more than once a day, and certainly daily, and that is a task I need to complete.
I had a break on Wednesday. I had had a break already on Tuesday too, when Rosalynd kindly donned her official guide's hat and took me to San Miniato al Monte and opened closed doors for me as she knows absolutely everybody and has irresistible powers of persuasion. I was extremely happy with the fresco of St Benedict flinging himself naked into a bed of nettles. The break on Wednesday morning was a visit to churches, certainly Santa Maria Novella and I think another - yes, Santa Maria Maggiore. My problematic neck spoiled some of my pleasure, and I gave Rosalynd a hard time with my unintended naughtiness and interruptions, but I think she'd be pleased how much I have retained. I am also reminded how little time I actually had to sort out her family archive, as Wednesday lunchtime I had the treat of meeting Dr Ruth Nattermann for lunch, in a break from her work in the Florentine Archives researching the early history of Italian feminism, the work that had led her to Paolina Schiff, my great great great aunt, and to me. That was a very special hour, when we were able to share, and I was able to thank her. I have met many very special people who have helped me to make live again these remarkable people from the past who also just happen to be my relations. After lunch I walked back to Rosalynd's and spent the next seven hours working intensively on sorting the letters, finally eating our supper at almost 9pm. I was lucky that Rosalynd was a generous cook.
Thursday last week was also my last day in Florence, a chance to glance through family photograph albums, and see people I knew of by name. Then Rosalynd's sister Camilla, and her husband Fabio, arrived, together with their guest Sybille Haynes, a renowned Etruscologist, and we were swept off to lunch at Il Bargello, a restaurant in the Piazza della Signoria. Rosalynd did her wonderful trick of outrageously driving through the complex medieval streets of Florence, to actually park in the piazza next to the restaurant. I have never visited the piazza, I have never stood before David or Neptune or any of the other statues and marvelled, which I now did, hopefully not too much like a contadino. Getting to know Camilla and Fabio was wonderful, sharing stories from the past, as we also enjoyed Sybille's company and conversation. They were so welcoming, inviting me to see them in Lucca, and hopefully this year when they come to Bristol for a nephew's graduation. I felt honoured to be taken into their confidence and welcomed by them, and hope to meet them soon.
That afternoon I returned for a couple of hours to Rosalynd's. Was it then that I chatted to her brother Christopher in Milan? But at 5pm I had to leave to get to the station for the long journey back to Trieste, arriving just before midnight, and with the climb up the hill to San Giusto. Friday I spent collapsed, and Saturday too, but now I can look back on a remarkable few days in Florence where I met remarkable people from a shared remarkable family.