Soldier who cre­ated a haven from hell

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY KAREN GLASER

SOME THOUGHT he was a psy­chol­o­gist, oth­ers called him a teacher and many knew him as a soldier.

What is cer­tain is that Moshe Ze’iri had a re­mark­able — if cat­e­gory-re­sis­tant — ca­reer.

Mr Ze’iri was a mem­ber of a JewishPales­tinian unit in the Bri­tish army, which was sta­tioned in north­ern Italy im­me­di­ately af­ter the war.

In Palestine, he taught at the school near his agri­cul­tural col­lec­tive, Kvutzat Schilller, and he had also worked as a coun­sel­lor to its youth groups.

Then, when his unit was camped out­side Beng­hazi, in Libya, he helped re­build a Jewish school in the town, and when it moved to Naples he used what­ever free time he had to set up a school for refugee chil­dren there.

All of which more than qual­i­fied Mr Ze’iri to go on to run a home for child Holo­caust sur­vivors on the edge of a small vil­lage in the Ital­ian Alps.

The vil­lage is called Selvino and the of­fi­cial name of the home — a grand, multi-winged res­i­dence and for­mer re­treat for elite fas­cist youth — is Sciesopoli. But be­tween 1945 and 1948, the 800 Jewish or­phans who lived there would re­fer to it sim­ply as “the house”.

Two weeks ago, the vil­lage of Selvino marked the 70th an­niver­sary since Sciesopoli, the Shoah refuge ( the Ze’iri fam­ily ( and chil­dren wav­ing flags at the an­niver­sary of the home “the house” first opened its doors to the chil­dren. Lo­cal dig­ni­taries came, in­clud­ing the mayor of Selvino, as did groups such as the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of the Ital­ian Par­ti­sans, and the Union of Ital­ian Jewish Com­mu­ni­ties. They were ac­com­pa­nied by scores of lo­cal chil­dren singing He­brew songs and wav­ing Is­raeli flags.

“They were very pre­pared for us,” said Nitza Sarner, Mr Ze’iri’s daugh­ter.

“Us” was 12 of the “Selvino chil­dren”, as the in­hab­i­tants of the for­mer chil­dren’s home are still known. Two had come from Canada, one from Florida and the re­main­ing nine from Is­rael. Ms Sarner, who lived in the house with her par­ents from 1946 to 1948, now lives in Bri­tain. If p a s s i o n a t e Zion­ist Mr Ze’iri had had his way, they would have all flown in from Is­rael to mark the event. De­lib­er­ately iso­lated from lo­cal Ital­ian life, the house at Selvino was a minia­ture Is­rael. The aim of the house, where He­brew and Jewish history was taught daily, was not only emo­tional and phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion: it was to pre­pare the chil­dren for life in the Promised Land. Ideally, on a kib­butz.

To this end, the house was run as a chil­dren’s col­lec­tive. The young­sters elected a work com­mit­tee to or­gan­ise the ro­ta­tion of chores, an ed­i­to­rial board, which pro­duced a weekly news­pa­per, and set up cul­tural and immigration com­mit­tees.

How­ever, there was a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from kib­butz ide­ol­ogy. One per­son al­ways had the fi­nal word: Mr Ze’iri.

As well as be­ing house leader, Ms Sarner’s fa­ther was a strict dis­ci­plinar­ian. Pre­cisely be­cause the chil­dren had been through a hell where all moral or­der had col­lapsed, he be­lieved it vi­tal that they now lived ac­cord­ing to an eth­i­cal frame­work in which ev­ery­one worked for the com­mon good. A child­who­dam­aged­house prop­erty, for ex­am­ple, was pun­ished with ex­tra chores.

Although the chil­dren of­ten re­sented his dis­ci­pline, they were also, said Ms Sarner, deeply at­tached to the man they saw as their fa­ther.

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