Fig. 1 Elena Raffalovich Comparetti (1842-1918)
Retreived from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elena_Raffalovich
Fig. 2, Don Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967)
Retrieved from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorenzo_Milani
Fig. 3 Domenico Comparetti (1835-1927)
Retrieved from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domenico_Comparetti/
Fig. 4 Marie Raffalovich
Retrieved from http://www.claude-bernard.co.uk/
From Odessa to Florence: Elena Comparetti Raffalovich. A Jewish Russian Woman in Nineteenth-Century Italy
by Asher Salah
In the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, Italy held a strong appeal for Russian travelers. Several of these Russian émigrés were women of Jewish lineage, who had come with their families or were sent abroad on their own in order to complete their education at one of the newborn kingdom’s prestigious universities. Elena Raffalovich (Odessa 1842 – Florence 1918) is one of the earliest and most intriguing examples of this phenomenon. While her intellectual trajectory, as a pioneer in children’s education and an advocate of women’s rights, is representative of that of many other Russian Jewish women living in Italy at that time, it also challenges a number of historiographic commonplaces about Jewish women and their emancipation process in nineteenth-century Europe. Moreover, through the archives of different prominent members of the Raffalovich dynasty, it is possible to follow its vicissitudes over at least five generations, completing our knowledge of Elena’s biography and reassessing the importance of her intellectual contribution to Italian culture.
- Elena Raffalovich’s Life
- Elena Raffalovich’s Family
In the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, Italy held a strong appeal for Russian bourgeois, exiled dissidents and ailing intellectuals, who were attracted by the mildness of the Italian climate, by its historical sites and by its liberal political regime.1 Italy’s artistic cities and summer resorts were, therefore, included in the itinerary of many Russians’ Grand Tours.2 Among those Russians who sojourned in Italy for longer or shorter periods of time were many Jews born in Odessa, or its former residents,3 such as Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940)4 and Isaac Babel (1894–1940).5 Several of these Jewish Odessites eventually settled in Italy, taking an active part in its political and literary life, as did Alexander Pekelis (1902–1946),6 a professor of jurisprudence at the universities of Florence and Rome, and Leone Ginzburg (1909–1944), one of the most prominent anti-Fascist activists and heroes of the Italian Resistance.7
The presence of a significant Russian colony in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy is a widely known fact. However, very little has been written about the travelers themselves, their motivations for (permanent or temporary) migration, and the effect of their political and intellectual activity on contemporary Italian culture. A lack of relevant statistical data makes it difficult to paint an accurate picture of the social, religious, ethnic, and gender characteristics of the Russian diaspora in the Italian Peninsula.
Noteworthy in any case is that several of these Russian émigrés were women of Jewish lineage, who had come with their families or were sent abroad on their own in order to complete their education at one of the newborn kingdom’s prestigious universities. Elena Raffalovich (Odessa 1842 – Florence 1918) is one of the earliest and most intriguing examples of this phenomenon [Fig. 1]. While her intellectual trajectory is representative of that of many other Russian Jewish women living in Italy at that time, it also challenges a number of historiographic commonplaces about Jewish women and their emancipation process in nineteenth-century Europe.
The past two decades have witnessed a considerable amount of scholarship devoted to Italian Jewish women,8 but their stories are still largely absent from the master narratives of the Italian Jewish past.
With the exception of an important congress held in Lucca in 2005,9 the only attempt at an overall appraisal of Jewish women’s emancipation is the 2003 volume by Monica Miniati, probing the bourgeois discourse concerning gender roles found in the pages of the main Italian Jewish journals of the time, rather than on the lived experiences of contemporary Jewish women.10
Actually, although rabbinical homiletics and the official stances of the Jewish community in Italy as well as elsewhere in Europe present considerable similarities, defending a substantially chauvinistic and traditional vision of women’s place in the world,11 female social practices are much more diverse than they appear at first sight. Moreover, while it is certainly true that in the period with which we are concerned “the overwhelming majority of Jewish women were housewives or future housewives,”12 Raffalovich represents a different group of women, whose influence and spheres of action have been overlooked by a nationally oriented historiography seeking to depict collective patterns of behavior, rather than minority or marginal clusters.
The intellectual biography of Elena Raffalovich is also interesting in light of the history of the Jewish family in nineteenth-century Europe. As suggested by Tullia Catalan, it would be valuable “to reach a comparative synthesis, which examines the economic and social strategies among port-Jews during the nineteenth century, focusing on the presence of a dense network of business and family ties, from Odessa and the main commercial and intellectual centers of Western Europe.”13 The voluminious information available on the different scions of the Raffalovich dynasty14 who attained positions of high social prestige and left significant traces of their accomplishments in the European cultural scene, allows us to view Elena in a diachronic and transnational perspective throughout ‘the long nineteenth century.’ Too, we will attempt to understand how a Jewish family such as the Raffalovichs reshaped its identities in the course of its wanderings between the Czarist Empire and the West.15
Elena was the third daughter of Leon (Lev Anisimovic) and Rosette Lowensohn, born in Odessa on May 22, 1842 after Marie (1833-1921) and Nadine (1836-1911). Other than the strong attachment of the young Elena to her father, who appears as a mentor and indefatigable supporter of Elena,16 little is known about her earlier years in Russia. In 1861, Elena’s parents left Odessa with their entire family and settled in Western Europe, dividing their time between France and Italy.17 It is not clear whether this move was made in order to avoid anti-Semitic pressures to convert, or as a consequence of the economic decline of this port city. With the beginning of the railroad boom of the 1860s and 1870s, the export line linking the major grain-producing regions of Russia with the western and southwestern borders of the Empire undermined the city’s importance in international trade.
The Raffalovichs may have chosen Italy as a destination because of familial ties to the Morpurgos of Triest. Too, Odessa was in many ways a culturally Italian city, as much as it was under the spell of French models and fashions.18 While the Raffalovichs never severed their commercial ties with Odessa, and travelled widely throughout Europe, Elena linked her destiny to her country of adoption, leaving the traces of her deeds in the annals of Italian history.
Nowadays, Elena Raffalovich is remembered more for her illustrious descendants than for her own merits. Her name appears in short footnotes in the introductions of the many biographies of Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967), an outstanding figure of radical-left Tuscan Catholicism,19 priest, educator and founder of the Barbiana School for the poor and underprivileged20 [Fig. 2].
In order to highlight the spiritual dimension of Don Lorenzo Milani’s intellectual journey, those of his biographers with an apologetic bent linger on his double conversion: the first, his estrangement from his well-off bourgeois family and association with the Communist party, and the second with his discovery of the Gospel, which drove him turn his back on his secular Jewish background. His mother, Alice Weiss (Trieste 1895- Florence 1978) belonged to a prominent Jewish family of Trieste: her cousin was Edoardo Weiss (1889-1948), one of the first pupils of Sigmund Freud and founder of the Italian Association of Psychoanalysis.21 Milani also had Jewish forebears on his paternal side: his great-grandmother was none other than Elena Raffalovich.
The second figure in connection with whom the name of Elena Raffalovich is usually mentioned is her husband, Domenico Comparetti (1835—1927), one of the nineteenth century’s chief classical scholars of Italy. Comparetti’s Vergil in the Middle Ages is still considered a masterpiece of erudition and positivistic scholarship.22 [Fig. 3]
In the winter of 1862, Elena and Domenico met at the Pisan home of Baron Theodor (Anastasios) Tossizza (1795-1870).23 They married in Genoa on the 13th of August 1863. One child resulted from this marriage, Laura (1864-1913), who in 1884 married a former student of her father’s, the archeologist Luigi Adriano Milani (1854-1914).24 Elena and Domenico separated ten years later. Her independent lifestyle and continuous traveling were apparently incompatible with raising her daughter, who was left in the custody of her father and later put in a college. This is how Domenico describes the reasons for the separation:
Affetta da malinconie isteriche [...] chiese ed ottenne dal marito la facoltà di vivere da se libera ed a modo suo, senza dimora fissa. Ciò avveniva nell’aprile del 1872.
[suffering from hysterical melancholy, she asked and received from her husband the right to live by herself, free and independent, with no fixed abode. This occurred in April 1872].25
It seems that the separation was decided upon after an attempted suicide by Elena, who could barely tolerate living under the shadow of her loving but patronizing husband.26 Nevertheless, they did not divorce. The Italian civil code did not offer this possibility at the time,27 and the only option was to resort to an ecclesiastical forum, a move that would have proved expensive and difficult. Although Domenico’s repeated attempts to convince her to return home were unsuccessful, this did not prevent him from closely following and supporting his wife’s projects,28 maintaining with her father, whose intelligence and liberal views on marriage he admired, a stout friendship till the end of his life.29Comparetti’s copious correspondence is an invaluable source for reconstructing Raffalovich’s personality30 and his admiration for his wife’s achievements is attested by the memorial he wrote shortly after her death.31
The sole context in which Raffalovich appears on her own merits is in the history of education in post-Risorgimento Italy. Upon separating from her husband in January 1872, Elena left Pisa for Florence, where she became acquainted with Baroness Bertha von Marenholtz-Bülow (1810-1893),32 an adept of Fredrich Froebel who was committed to the dissemination of his teachings across Europe. “Froebelism” highlighted the spiritual autonomy of the child and stressed the importance of creative games. The approach had an epochal impact on nineteenth- and twentieth-century teachers, making the kindergarten, a word coined by Froebel, an almost-universal educational institution.33
In Florence, Raffalovich collaborated with Marta Berduschek, a Jewess from Berlin and a friend of the baroness, to found a kindergarten that succeeded only in registering some children belonging to the foreign colony of the city. Despite the open support of Emilia Peruzzi, one the most influential philanthropists in Tuscany,34 Elena’s initiative was quashed by the opposition of more conservative local elites. Her earlier efforts in March 1872 to persuade the council that oversaw kindergartens in Pisa to adopt Froebelian methods encountered the same opposition in a Catholic milieu, and did not produce any results.35
These rough beginnings did not prevent Elena, while in Venice in 1872, from contacting Adolfo Pick (1829-1894), another important figure in Italian Froebelism.36
Her goal was to evaluate different options of supporting schools inspired by Froebel’s pedagogical method. Two years later, after visiting different kindergartens in Munich, Stuttgart, Gotha, Dresden and Leipzig37 and obtaining the official support of the municipal council on March 15th 1873,38 Raffalovich launched in Venice her own Froebelian kindergarten, with Marie Ringler as its head teacher.39
While Froebel’s intention had never been to spearhead a women’s liberation movement and to campaign for Jewish emancipation, it is notable that most of his first followers in Europe were women or Jews, if not both.40
Italy in this respect was no exception.41 The main proponents of Froebelian educational goals in the second half of the nineteenth century were Jewish, such as the aforementioned Adolfo Pick and Adele Levi, the physicians Cesare Musatti,42 Moisé Raffaello Levi, Giacinto Namias and Rabbi Vittorio Castiglioni.43
Jewish women not only laid the foundation for the first Froebelian schools in the peninsula,44 they also constituted a substantial segment of the children’s writers45 and educational activists in Italy.46
Interestingly, most of these Jewish women were in fact foreigners who had come to Italy for different reasons. Besides Raffalovich, the Anglo-German, Julia Salis Schwabe (Bremen 1819 – Naples 1896) deserves special mention. Salis Schwabe founded the Froebelian institute “Vittorio Emanuele II” in Naples47 and Elena was acquainted with her.48 In later decades, the American-born Baroness Alice Hallgarten Franchetti (New York 1874- Leysin 1911)49 was involved in the field of education, as were Sarina Levi Nathan and her daughter-in-law Virginia Mieli Nathan (Siena 1846 – Roma 1924), 50 both of whom were related to England.
Elena was by no means the first of Froebel’s disciples in Italy.51 By 1868, Laura Veruda Goretti (1822-1902) had already introduced some Froebelian-inspired changes into the curriculum of the San Marziale preschool in Venice, and the Raffalovich kindergarten was preceded by similar institutions established in 1869 in Venice by Adele Levi Della Vida52 and the aforementioned Adolfo Pick,53 and in Milan by Vincenzo de Castro (1808 Pirano d’Istria-1886 Milan) in 1871.54 Nonetheless, hers was by far the most successful, growing from an initial 63 children to 167 in 1894.55 The kindergarten benefited from a perpetual endowment of 4000 lire per year, a considerable amount for the time, and is still extant, though not in its original setting.56 Annexed to the kindergarten was a special training school for teachers, which until 1881 was under the direction of Pick. Her kindergarten, ‘il più splendido istituto infantile della penisola [the most impressive children’s institute in the Peninsula]’ in the words of the Venetian lawyer Giambattista Ruffini,57 thus became a model for other preschools that spread throughout Italy in the forthcoming years.
Much has been written on the obstacles Raffalovich encountered in imposing her views in the provincial and chauvinist context of Italian institutions.58 Her vision of a fully secular school was thwarted in Venice, as in Pisa and Florence, by a clerical provincial council that excluded her from any form of supervision over the school that she had founded.59 Nevertheless, even after a failed attempt of the authorities to change the name of the institution and efface any reference to her contribution, Elena continued to follow and support the activities of the children.60
Raffalovich’s approach to Froebelism was far from orthodox. In 1872, she wrote that “il n’est pas dans ma nature de me passioner pour un systeme, fut-il le meilleur [it is not in my nature to become enamoured of any system, even the best].”61 In comparison to other schools inspired by the Froebelian method, Raffalovich’s differed insofar it was free of charge and open to children of every faith and social stratum. Jewish and Catholic, female and male children shared the same spaces and participated in common activities.62 Elena did not approve of the greater care male children received in the mixed schools she had the opportunity to see in France in 1872,63 where she regularly went to visit with her sister Marie.64 Countering the widely diffused bourgeois conception of public schools as institutions for the poor, to be supported by wealthy donors whose children studied elsewhere, Raffalovich believed, as she writes in one of her letters, that “les classes aisées ont encore plus besoin que le peuple d’une reforme dans l’éducation [the commoners are less in need of educational reform than the upper classes].”65 Elena acknowledged that her eclectic approach to educational problems was inspired by her own democratic and liberal agenda, and was dictated by direct experiences more than by a strict ideological stance.
Besides education, Raffalovich was also involved in social projects for the improvement of the working class condition. After the catastrophic floods of 1882, together with Stefania Omboni she ran a popular soup kitchen in Padua, later to become a non-profit corporation.66 Also in Padua, according to the testimony of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who corresponded with Elena in 1887 and whom she met in London on June 30, 1883, she had in mind to establish a coeducational nursing school in Padua and planned to translate into Italian relevant English textbooks.67
Raffalovich’s pedagogical ideals and philanthropic activity were tightly interwoven. In fact, she was more highly valued by her contemporaries for the economic means at her disposal than for her specific program of pedagogic renewal.68 It would be nevertheless reductive to consider her philanthropic activity as a simple instrument in order to ensure “the reverential reception of the existent social order,” 69 according to the usual interpretation of philanthropy of the time, both Jewish and Christian.70 For Elena, engagement in charity was first and foremost a way to escape from the oppressive context of parental sociability and to locate her own independence.
Her freedom was purchased at the price of great loneliness. The bitterness and isolation that characterized her last years, suffering from degenerative paralysis, are attested by her niece Elisa, the last of the four children of Laura, Albano, Giorgio and Piero, who described her as “fredda e silenziosa [cold and silent],” assisted only by a chaperone.71 Her husband recalled that at her death on November 29, 1918, none of the numerous prizes she had been awarded for her efforts on behalf of youth and the poor were found in her possession. It seems as though she had decided to jettison her past.72
We have seen Elena Raffalovich as mother, spouse, pedagogue and philanthropist. It may now be possible to say something about her ideological commitments and her relationship to Judaism. Of her political credo everything points to a strong inclination toward a radical form of liberalism, not differing in this from her siblings Marie and Nadine, both associated with the republican and democratic milieux in France, sympathizers of the national causes of Europe.73 Elena, in her youthful letters to Domenico Comparetti, manifests her support of Polish independence vindications, lamenting the scarce interest of her fiancé in similar questions of international politics. She is reputed to have translated from Russian the memories of the Decembrist Nikolai Basargin (1799-1861), although I was not able to find any exemplar of this translation.74 Her affinity to the ideals of revolutionary nationalism can be found also among other members of her close family, such as Sophie (Odessa 1860 - Paris 1960), Marie and Hermann Raffalovich’s daughter, who married in 1890 the Irish nationalist politician, William O’Brien (1852-1928),75 and George, a sympathizer of the Ukranian independence movement.76
Surprisingly, there is only scant information about Raffalovich’s links with other members of the Russian diaspora in Italy. Nevertheless, there is evidence that she was acquainted with Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) in Italy at the end of the forties, whose family she assisted after his death.77 Elena had an epistolary releationship with Countess Elizabeth Dehler-Sheremetyeva,78 wife of the famous European composer and pianist Theodore Dehler (1814-1856), whom she probably met during one of her many visits to Florence. This city was the home of a vibrant Russian community, hosting personalities such as Bakunin (1814-1876) who arrived in Italy in 1864 and Lev Mechnikov (1828-1888), one of the eleven Jews and of the many Russians who took part in the Mille expedition and a famous geographer and sociologist, but an acquaintance with such figures would be only conjecture.79
Elena was a life-long promoter of women’s emancipation, believing that this process would be triggered not by the upper classes, to which she belonged, but precisely by those whose conditions of life she tried to improve. She wrote:
Je crois que l’émancipation des femmes viendra la d’où on l’attend le moins, c’est à dire des femmes du peuple… Moins inermes et plus énergiques que les femmes de la bourgeoisie elles iront plus droit au but sans se soucier des préjugés. En un mot je crois que la cause de femmes est intimement liée à celle de la démocratie et qu’elles triompheront ensemble. Laissons les classes riches pourrir dans leur corruption et attendons le progrès d’où il peut venir
[I believe that the emancipation of the woman will come from where we are not expecting it, that is to say from the women of lower classes. Less defenceless and more energetic than bourgeois women, they will go straight to the goal without consideration for prejudices. In short, I believe that the women’s cause is intimately related to the one of democracy, and that they will overcome together. Let the rich rot in their corruption and let us wait for progress from where it may come].”80
This anti-bourgeois stance and almost revolutionarily progressive interpretation of the fight for civil rights in contemporary liberal democracies is deeply rooted in Elena’s materialist and utilitarian approach to social phenomena. She admits as much in a letter to Pick from Gotha, dated July 4, 1872:
Vous allez me trouver bien positiviste, peut être même entachée d’utilitarisme ou de matérialisme, mais que voulez-vous ? Je suis ainsi
[you will certainly consider me excessively positivistic, perhaps also stained by utilitarianism or materialism, but what do want? I am like that].
The reference to positivism is interesting, as its roots may lie in a meeting at her sister’s house in Paris with the French physiologist Claude Bernard, a herald of the experimental method. Elena apparently shared the agnosticism of this intellectual milieu, in which historian Pasquale Villari (1826-1917), another of Elena’s acquaintances, was a key figure and advocate.
Thus, while Raffalovich’s “Jewishness” is taken for granted by those who have dealt with her story, Elena’s relationship to this aspect of her identity is far from straightforward. Religious practice was not particularly strong in her family of origin. Her acquaintances in the Jewish milieu were occasional and purely casual (such as the one with the mathematician David Besso at her father’s home during a reception, or the choice to establish her Froebelian kindergarten on a property owned by the Jewish Vivante family in Cannaregio81). She spent the bulk of her time in non-Jewish surroundings, making the acquaintance of a wide circle of Gentiles. Her marriage to a Catholic man was accepted by her father with no opposition whatsoever, and even with apparent satisfaction. On the contrary, according to the testimony of Domenico, it was the Comparetti family who disliked his marriage with a Jewess, while Leon would continue to financially sustain his son-in-law even after his separation from Elena. Marriage to Domenico meant conversion to Catholicism, even if not out of religious conviction, since in Italy civil marriage was enforced by law only in 1865 through the “codice Pisanelli.” At her death, she asked to be cremated,82 and she had her ashes buried in the English cemetery in Florence, a burial place chosen not only by Protestants of different denominations but also by many non-Catholic minorities belonging to the large group of those who in those years in the Hapsburg area defined themselves as konfessionslos.83 Thus, Elena seemed to harbor no positive religious sentiments, and the correspondence from Leon to Domenico leaves no doubt about her anti-clerical if not anti-religious ideals.84
Against the tide of the proliferating school texts that tried to combine civic education with religious values,85 so typical of the Italian Christian and Jewish reality of the second half of the nineteenth century, Elena declared her aversion to any form of catechism.86 For Elena, religious education should be restricted to the private sphere of the family. Concerned about pressures to provide some kind of religious teaching in her establishment, she accepted only the possibility of sending “une ou deux fois par semaine chez un prêtre ceux qui le désirent, selon leur convictions personnelles [once or twice a week to a priest those who desire to do so, according to their personal conviction].”87 Her personal faith was akin to a universalistic form of deism captured in her exclamation “non capisco come possono affollare chiese e sinagoghe, quando si puo avere come tempio l’universo interno [I cannot understand how it is possible to seek overcrowded synagogues and churches, when we can have the entire universe as a temple].”88
In this respect, there is a substantial convergence between the ideals defended by Elena and those of Protestant women of similar social extraction, active in Italy in education and social aid in the second half of nineteenth century. Besides Giulia Salis, born Jewish but converted to the Unitarian English Church, the Swiss Matilde Calandrini should be mentioned, with her kindergartens in Tuscany, and the American Emily Gould (1822-1875) who in 1871 founded in Rome the Italo-American schools for poor children and orphans.89 Also in other Catholic countries, Protestant and Jewish women were the vanguard in introducing Froebelian methods and secular curricula. Examples include Emilie Mallet and Octavie Masson in France and Fanny Guillaume Wohlwill in Belgium.90 Until the end of the nineteenth century, that 25% of secondary schools principals in France were Protestant was due to the opposition of the Catholic Church regarding female higher education.91
At this point, we may hazard the opinion that although our heroine's pedagogical sensibilities and philanthropic drive were shared by many women of her social stratum, autonomy of action and radical reasoning mark her as distinct from her Italian contemporaries. Nevertheless, in order to understand her life course we must contextualize her biographical trajectory against the backdrop of her family’s history.
Throuh the archives of different prominent members of the Raffalovich dynasty, it is possible to follow its vicissitudes over at least five generations.92 The family originated in Dubno in Podolia. That Raffalovich ancestors were Iberian conversos escaping the Inquisition who found refuge in Sweden and then came to Russia in the path of Charles XII,93 is a tale caught in legend relying only on the presence of a swallow flying over the seas in the family arms.
According to a tradition bequeathed by the Hassidic branch of the family, the first to bear this surname was Moshe Parnes, son of Rafael, ship builder for the Russian army, when in 1783 during a visit of Catherine the Great, the empress would have bestowed upon him his patronymic Raffalovich, replacing the surname Parnes that was used till then.94 Of Moshe’s sons, Kalman and Solomon (1790-1846) expanded to Nikolayev and Mogilev, whereas after the foundation of the port city of Odessa in 1794 Abraham (1783-1857) settled there as a banker and grain trader. Although most of these first-generation Raffalovichs had some degree of familiarity with the Russian language and culture, something quite unusual among the Jews of the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the century, only the branch established in Odessa became rapidly estranged from traditional ways of life. Those living in smaller localities of the interior, such as Bogopol, remained attached to the Lubavitch Hassidic movement till the beginning of the twentieth century.
In 1837 Abraham Raffalovich founded with his sons the Trading House “Fedor Raffalovich and Co” and was awarded by Tzar Alexander II hereditary honorary citizenship for his services to the Crown by Supreme Decree on 24 May, 1857. He was considered to be Odessa’s wealthiest Jewish member of the Russian merchant guild.95 In 1811 he married his first-degree cousin Olga Lowensohn (1792-1872), daughter of Leon and Lea Segal, who begot him thirteen children. Three of these children died in their infancy and one, Mark (1820-1842), perished in his early twenties while swimming in the Dniestr. Olga was related to the famous maskil Isaac Baer Levinsohn (1788-1860) and belonged to an illustrious line of rabbis.96 Her sister Bella Lowensohn was the wife of Charles Joachim Ephrussi (1792 Odessa-1864 Vienna).97
It is noteworthy that five of their six surviving sons married women related to the mother’s family, the Lowensohns, members of the narrow circle of the big merchants of Odessa. This is in line with the well-known endogamic practice among the Jewish mercantile elite, in Russia and elsewhere, intended to preserve intact the family endowment.98 Leon, Elena’s father, married Rosette Lowensohn (1807-1895 Parigi), Theodor (also Fedor) married Ljuba Lowensohn, Anissim (Onesime) (1822-1883 Odessa) in 1844 married Nadine Lowensohn (1827-1891 Frankfurt),99 David (1824-1877 Vienna) after his first marriage to Emilia Morpurgo from Trieste, who died in Odessa in 1848 shortly after the wedding,100 in 1855 married Therese Lowensohn (1840-1912 Odessa). In one case this endogamy even violates the civil law’s prohibition in most European countries forbidding the marriage of an uncle and his niece, but permitted and in some instances even encouraged in the Jewish tradition.101 Hermann Raffalovich married Marie, who was his brother Leon’s daughter and the sister of Elena Raffalovich in a set apparently dominated by a strong matriarchy.102 [Fig. 4]
This is how their daughter Sophie describes their match:
Elle [Marie] s’était mariée très jeune. Elle avait été fiancée quand elle était dans les bras de sa mère, qui l’amena toute petite a la mère de mon père. Celle-ci était une redoutable matrone, petite mais d’une volonté de fer, et quand elle vit le délicieux bébé elle s’écria : voilà la femme de Grisha, son plus jeune fils qui avait quatre ans
[Marie got married very young. She got engaged to my father when she was still in the hands of her mother, who brought her still very small to my father’s mother. The latter was an impressive matron, tiny but with an iron will. When she saw the sweet baby she exclamaid: here is the wife of Grish, her youngest son, who was four].
With the exception of the aforementioned Maria, Abraham’s daughters benefited from greater freedom in their choice of partner, on condition, however, that the men were of the same economic status. While in Imperial Germany, according to Marion Kaplan, Jewish women “experienced the effects of secularization from their primary position in the home… clinging to religion longer, because they did not acquire either the advanced scientific education or the substitute secular power of men whose worldviews gradually rejected all or parts of spiritual thinking,”103 women in the Raffalovich family and apparently in the Jewish financial aristocracy of the time in general anticipated the assimilatory trends, such as intermarriage, of their male counterparts of the same social class.104 This does not mean that men were not exposed to a strong acculturation to the surrounding gentile culture, but only that on them rested the responsibility of keeping intact the assets of the family enterprises. Consequently, their freedom to find a partner outside the inner circle of close relatives was more limited.
Of Abraham’s three daughters, Maria (1819-1858) married in 1841 in Mohilev Dr. Moritz Askenasy (1811-1887), member of the Imperial Council of Odessa and later moved to Dresden, while her sister Anne (Chalina) (1830-1851) married in 1848 Heinrich Toeplitz (1822 Warsaw-1891 Wroclaw), director of the railroad of Southern Russia and founder of the Polish Handlowy Bank105. Although both men were wealthy Jews, they did not belong to the circle of close relatives.
We perceive another consistent signs of the disintegration of familial solidarity in the wedding of another of Abraham’s daughters, Elena (1835 –Vevey after 1921) who married a Christian German aristocrat, Baron August Von Wolf (1828-1888) thus embracing Catholicism. To find the earliest examples of total estrangement from Judaism among male representatives of the family, we have to look to those who did not seek a commercial career. Arthur (Odessa 1816- St. Petersburg 1851), perhaps the most famous among the sons of Abraham Raffalovich, is taken by Steven Zipperstein as the model of assimilatory desire that begins to gain a foothold among prosperous Jews of his generation:
In a conspicuous, though probably quite small, segment of the city’s Jewish youth who came to view European culture as their primary affiliation, eschewing the Jewish scene (an even, according to local maskilim, Jewish instituition designed along modern lines) in favor of the non-Jewish cultural arena.106
After attending the Richelieu Lyceum, the most prestigious school in Odessa, Arthur studied medicine in Prague, Berlin and Tartu, graduating in obstetrics and surgery and becoming a leading physician in Odessa on tuberculosis and plagues. Between 1846 and 1849 he traveled extensively in North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East. In 1838 Arthur converted to Russian orthodoxy and changed his name to Artemi Alexievich, 107 the first of the many conversions in the following years, when as for many Jews in Western Europe, social and geographical mobility had eroded the fundaments of traditional Jewish practice.108 By 1848 also Theodor, Abraham’s first-born, with his wife Ljuba had converted to Russian Orthodoxy. In this faith will be raised their seven sons, who will continue to steer the destinies of the Raffalovich bank consortium till its bankruptcy in 1891. Of Theodor’s daughters, Maria will convert to Catholicism in order to marry the Italian count Frangipane of Udine.109
These first conversions and the geographical dispersion of the Raffalovich family, whose traces can be found in the main European capitals from the second half of the nineteenth century on, did not appreciably affect the Raffalovich and Lowensohn the coherence of their familial structure. This is true in spite of the perceptible degrading of Jewish practice already found among Elena’s aunts and uncles.
It is only in Elena’s generation, the second after Abraham’s migration to Odessa at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that the familial solidarity is completely dismantled. With it disappears every residual attachment to Judaism. Not only their cultural interests appear to be directed mainly to extra-community activities, but many members of Elena’s generation and almost all of the following one intermarry, generally adopting the faith of the partner.
The matrimonial strategies of the second generation after Abraham Raffalovich seem to have been dictated by social ascent and intellectual ambition in a non-Jewish milieu. Of the three daughters of Leon Raffalovich and Rosette Lowensohn besides Elena, who married the Catholic scholar Domenico Comparetti, Nadine (1836-1911) married in 1857 the count Victor Chaptal Chanteloup (1821-1901), accepted baptism and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.110 Only Marie will remain Jewish, but only out of respect for her mother and husband.111 Her daughter Sophie wrote:
Elle resta juive. Elle ne voulut pas se séparer de son mari comme sa mère ne voulut pas cesser d’être juive pour ne pas faire de chagrin a la mère qu’elle avait tant aimée et qu’elle sentait tout près d’elle après que la mort les eut séparées
[She remained Jewish. She did not want to separate from her husband as her mother did not want to cease being Jewish in order not to grief the mother she loved so much and she felt so close to even after death had separated them].112
Marie published vehement articles in the French journal Le Temps criticizing the rise of the anti-Semitic movement within Russian society during the late 1870s, but they were an expression of her liberal political views rather than of confessional solidarity.113 Hence, according to her daughter, Marie was not opposed to the conversion of her children, quite the contrary:
Elle avait approuvé quand je m’étais faite catholique et, plus tard, quand mon frère André devint catholique, elle s’intéressa vivement a sa vie nouvelle, et prit sa part de joie lorsque son grand ami et frère d’adoption John Gray devint prêtre. Elle aimait entendre mon mari parler de sa foi.
[She approved when I became Catholic and, later, when my brother André also embraced Catholicism, she was extremely interested in his new life and was happy when his great friend and adoptive brother John Gray became a priest. She loved to hear my husband speak about his faith].114
In the following generation, adopting Christianity was no longer a mere formality (what Heine called the “entrance ticket to the world”) but had become the natural option to relieve the spiritual restlessness of the most intellectually ambitious members of the family. Of the three sons of Marie, Elena’s sister, Marc-André115 and Sophie, in the nineties convert to Catholicism out of deep conviction.116 Nadine’s first-born, Emmanuel-Anatole Chaptal de Chanteloup (1861-1943),117 after a successful diplomatic career, took holy orders, was elected as auxiliary bishop of Paris and was active in the service of working class foreigners in France, following a vocation in many aspects not dissimilar to that chosen by his second-degree cousin don Lorenzo Milani. Another of Nadine’s daughters, Leonie (1873-), also deeply involved in a Catholic version of social apostolate, became one of the most important nurses in France in the first half of the twentieth century, founding a clinic for nurses and fighting tuberculosis.118
Among the fourth-generation descendants of Abraham Raffalovich at the end of the First World War only Arthur Raffalovich (1853 - Paris 1921) married to Ida Wertheimer from Frankfurt,119 remained faithful to his Jewish origins, becoming one of the main experts in Russian economics and counselor to the Czarist embassies in Paris and London.120 He was the only member of the family who held a strongly conservative view of world politics, and objected to the revolutionary movements that began to threaten the stability of the Russian Empire. Furthermore, Arthur represents the last case of endogamic practice that had characterized the earlier generations of the Raffalovichs. His two daughters, Alexandra (Ada) (1885-1963) and Maria, will marry two Raffalovich brothers, Nicolai121 and Sergei (1873-1944),122 sons of Leon and nephews of Anissim Raffalovich. Nevertheless, with him ends the epoch of the great splendor of the Raffalovichs. His son Vladimir123 died in 1921 of typhus fever in the Bolshevic prisons of Petersburg at age thirty-five. In his memoirs of his wife's family, Comparetti writes of the dramatic end and the exhaustion of their dynasty “Rimangono colà [in Unione Sovietica] trattenute la moglie e l’unica figlia Irene [his wife and only child, Irene, remain there, in the Soviet Union].”124
It can be said, then, that over four generations a progressive process of assimilation took place in the Raffalovich family. Abraham was faithful to his ancestral religion; while the next generation was not, it remained at least nominally Jewish; the next two generations witnessed a complete integration into the surrounding gentile society both through intermarriage and conversion. The intellectual and not only financial excellence of most of the representatives of the family over the arch of almost a century attests its acceptance into the gentile dominant elites and local aristocracies.
Elena Raffalovich’s story seems to have been shaped by the fantasy of a novelist rather than by history itself. Indeed, it bears bearing striking resemblance to the literary characters Vera Pavlovna in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, 125 and Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.126 It also anticipates similar and more famous episodes in the life of Sibilla Aleramo127 and the separation of Amalia Rosselli and Margherita Grassini Sarfatti from their husbands.128
Thus, one might ask if it is best to simply clarify the singularity of Elena’s story, or rather to see in her position an example of deeper structures of gender and class identities. Choosing the second, one might refer to Hannah Arendt’s term “exception Jews,” those whose wealth allowed them to be “exceptions from the common destiny of the Jewish people,” as well as “Jews of education,” who felt themselves exempted from “Jewishness” by virtue of having become “exceptional human beings” in their education.129 The latter perspective is certainly more interesting, but more importantly, the case of Elena Raffalovich is emblematic of a larger phenomenon that enfolds within it a whole generation of Jewish women, mostly from Odessa, radically oriented in politics and often married to non-Jewish protagonists of the cultural and political scene in Italy.
Raffalovich’s life story sharply overlaps with that of other Russian Jewish women such as the revolutionaries and political activists Anna Kuliscioff (born Anna Moiseyeva Rosenstein 1857-1925,130 Julia Schucht (1894-1980) (Antonio Gramsci’s wife) and her sister Tatiana,131 Angelica Balabanoff (1878-1965),132 the painter Antonietta Raphaël (1895-1975),133 Ernestina Paper, born Puritz Manasse in Odessa, the first woman to be awarded a university degree in Italy in 1877, graduating in medicine in Florence,134 Maria Fischmann, the first women to obtain a degree in surgery in Italy in 1893 135 and many others such as the earlier-mentioned Ginzburgs and the Pekelis. Although these are women who arrived in Italy after Elena Raffalovich, driven to emigration in a period of fresh outbreak of anti-Semitic persecutions in the Czarist Empire and who came either to complete their studies or as refugees – Elena came for neither reason - it is noteworthy that their biographies reveal a common ambition of intellectual promotion, through culture and art, a desire to totally disassociate themselves from their Jewish heritage and a propensity to engage in a form of political and social activism characterized by radicalism and progressivism.
Although Elena did not follow a formal educational path, her vast cultural interests and her striving to be at the forefront of social and political debates characterize a whole generation of women fighting to gain access to university education. In Italy this right was granted in1875. However, since female students until 1883 were prevented in Italy from receiving a high school education, most Italian women were until the late eighties unable to benefit from the right to higher education.136
Women with foreign high school degrees were thus at a greater advantage than local ones, and this partly explains why, between 1877 and 1900, among the 224 women college graduates in Italy, many were not natives of Italy. Still, it is striking that the foreigners were predominantly Jewish and among the Jewish women 80% were Russian-born students, mainly from Odessa.137 This situation is not unique to Italy, but can be traced in other national contexts as well. Although fewer than 14% of Russian Jews lived in the new Russian territories in the seventies, its four southern provinces furnished 45% of the Jewish students in Russian medical schools.138 In 1906 more than 62% of the 1,920 Russian students studying in Switzerland (the majority of whom were Jewish) were women.139 At the University of Paris in 1900-1910, Russian and Romanian women, most of them Jewish, accounted for more the one-third of all female students and about two-thirds of those who were foreign-born.140
This was due to a several concomitant factors, first and foremost the fact that women were not allowed into Russian universities, where a numerus clausus policy against Jews and many other non Russian ethnic groups was enforced. This occurred in a context wherein it was not unusual for Jewish women of bourgeois background to obtain a high-school degree.141 Moreover, there were many courses of academic level given by university professors for female students.142 This was particularly true in the international trade port-city of Odessa, undoubtedly the home to the most secular Jewish community in the Russian Empire, a sort of “anti-shtetl” in Eastern Europe.143 Female higher educations was favored by a good part of Russian intelligentsia of the time, nihilists in primis,144 but since legislation barred Jewish women access to local universities, they sought better opportunities of self-fulfillment in Europe’s most prestigious Athenea.
The methodological interest in the biographies of Russian Jewish women in Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century lies precisely in their tripartite marginality: as women, as Jews and as foreigners.145 Paradoxically, if to leave the autocratic and anti-Semitic Russian empire and emigrate to Italy, where since 1848 full civil rights had been accorded to Jews, amounted to an improvement of political status, conversely as women, life in Italy exposed them to the prejudices of a bourgeois society much less open to what was considered to be deviant behavior. What Iris Parush has called the “benefits of marginality,”146 that is, the greater degree of freedom enjoyed by discriminated groups in certain historical circumstances – as for instance a greater access to general education among high-status Jewish women in nineteenth-century Russia – were in Italy significantly reduced. While in Russia the rapid industrialization in the nineteenth century was not matched with political and social modernization, in Italy the opposite occurred.
One example will epitomize the disappointment of the many women who believed that their emigration to Western Europe would increase their social autonomy: Elena’s anger in the face of the affectionate nicknames penned by Domenico to her. “Gattina [kitten],” for instance, connoted in Elena’s eyes the petit bourgeois and patronization, and she rebukes her husband for not being able to express his love “properly.” So too does Anna Kuliscioff chide her lover, the socialist leader Andrea Costa. Both Costa and Comparetti, despite their principled anticlericalism, obliged their companions to undergo Church weddings, thus forcing them to convert in order to spare the Catholic sentiments of their respective families.147
The condition of Russian Jewish women in Italy must be read against the backdrop of what is known about women in other parts of Europe. The story of Elena Raffalovich, the first of a long series of Russian Jewish immigrants in Italy in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, introduces us to a statistically small but culturally large reality of women belonging to the haute bourgoisie. Unlike middle-class women, whose behavioural patterns are well known from the seminal work of Marion Kaplan, these women are characterized by strong economic and intellectual independence. Indeed, Elena lived alone after her separation from Comparetti, and even left the care of their then-infant daughter to her husband. In her own estimation, she preferred to live “comme l’oiseau sur la branche [as a bird on the branch]” rather than be confined at home, even with the people she loved.148
A second important distinction is the Eastern Europe-Central Europe divide. As rightly noted by Paula Hyman:
As opposed to women originating from Eastern Europe, in Central Europe the experience of civil emancipation, economic integration and a high degree of acculturation enabled Jews to situate themselves securely in the bourgeoisie. Jewish women increasingly participated in philanthropic activities and organizations, which not only gave them a voice in the public sphere without challenging gender norms, but also helped them develop close friendships and ties with non-Jewish women who supported similar causes.149
Raffalovich’s case, however, further complicates these disparities. A Russian who operated in Western Europe, Elena modeled an alternative version of feminist activism, one that was at variance with the traditional gender-role cleavage then current in Western bourgois.150 This appears also in the matrimonial strategies of the Raffalovich family. While for middle class Jews in Central and Western Europe, Marion Kaplan is certainly right when she affirms that “before the 20th century Jewish and non-Jewish marriages had, with few exceptions, been arranged,”151 Elena’s marriage furnishes proof against these notions. She was one of the first, but by far not the only woman to intermarry. In fact, virtually all of the marriages of the women in the Raffalovich family, in and after Elena’s generation, and of other Jewish women from Odessa mentioned in this study, were love marriages often established despite and against their family’s will. While it is true that in Italy this occurred on a relatively less frequent basis, the aforementioned Erminia Fuà Fusinato, also a social activist and married in 1856 to the poet Arnaldo Fusinato, might be kept in mind.
It is clear then that Paula Hyman’s conclusions for Germany cannot be transposed unconditionally to Russian women living in Italy or elsewhere in Europe:
There is some suggestion that among those Jews who attained wealth and became part of a small upper bourgeois stratum, women were much more reluctant than men to jettison Jewish practice and identity.152
The Raffalovich story reveals a different attitude of Italian Jewish women, generally more conservative, than those of Eastern Europe who in increasing numbers were coming to the peninsula.153 Raffalovich was not the only woman of her class who was obliged to rethink herself, her role, the relationship between women and society and the place of women in the new national states, without recourse to a strong female model, at least symbolically, of the “citizen mother,”154 to whom were attached most of the women of petit bourgeois extraction, both Christian and Jewish.
From this vantage point, Elena’s incessant travel may be viewed as a kind of female quest for new spaces of emancipation and liberty. Against this backdrop her restlessness can be compared to that of Flora Randegger, a Triestine woman with a Jewish deeply religious background, who traveled twice from Triest to Jerusalem, where she hoped to teach Italian and to establish a school for Jewish girls, thereby securing independence of profession and income.155 But while Randegger sought a stronger Jewish life than the one constituted within the four walls of her family, Raffalovich leveraged her freedom of movement to rid herself of this very same Judaism. It seems that Jewish women could choose complete emancipation, typically resulting in total estrangement from Judaism, like Raffalovich, or subordination within traditional family structures that permitted autonomy of action only in philanthropic enterprises, like Randegger.
And so we come to the last point that is usually made in relation with the process of women’s emancipation in the nineteenth century, namely, that the public sphere of action for women before the twentieth century can be ascribed only to what Marion Kaplan calls “social feminism,” that is, a means for liberating women from an exclusive preoccupation with the home. Social work became the path of least resistance for Jewish women intent upon access to the public sphere. Social feminism is an admixture of social work and feminism, moderate and motherly. Raffalovich was precisely at odds with the fact that in Italy at the turn of the century, education had not yet been dissociated from philanthropic preoccupations. She was furious, for instance, that the Venetian authorities referred to her school as an “asilo” (shelter) and not a “giardino d’infanzia” a proper Italian translation of the Froebelian term “kindergarten.”156 In fact, Raffalovich’s charitable activity bears no confessional character whatsoever.
Elena never sought out solidarity networks, either on a confessional or on a gender-oriented basis. She acted alone, benefitting from her considerable family resources, and collaborated indiscriminately with men and women who shared her ideals. Raffalovich was spared the caution and self-denial of Jewish women seeking to become bourgeois, a quest of many contemporary German Jewish women, according to Kaplan. What Michael Stanislawski has termed the “twin process of Russification and enbourgeoisement”157 had taken place for many prominent Jewish families in Odessa much earlier that in Western Europe, confronted there with a “modernity without emancipation.”158 Elena could allow herself to be more critical of her own bourgeois upbringing than other Jewish women, who were fighting for social recognition.
While for many of her contemporaries the progressive but winding path towards women’s emancipation did not necessarily entail the relinquishing of Judaism in toto, in Elena’s family, as in many others of Russian émigrés to Europe, the assimilation process was much quicker and more linear. Thus, Elena’s intellectual and familial biography uncovers an Italian way to women’s emancipation composed at least of two streams, one of indigenous Jewish women and the other of foreign immigrants. The reciprocity of the two remains to be studied in their multifarious contexts. What is certain is that Elena Raffalovich, a cosmopolitan at home in every European capital but anchored to a permanent condition of exile and errance, personifies the “foreigner in her own home” 159 described by Annarita Buttafuoco in her seminal paper on women’s emancipation in Italy from the late eighteenth century to the Fascist period. It is because of women like Raffalovich, who belonged to what Virginia Woolf would have later called a “society of outsiders,”160 bearers of modernity albeit an accented one, that in Italy it was possible at the turn of the century to spotlight political and juridical aspects of women’s emancipation, rather than confining the focus to arenas of cultural and social welfare, anticipating the “feminism without borders”161 that will be characteristic of the twentieth century fights for women’s rights.
Asher Salah is Senior Lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has been a fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011-2012 and in 2014-2015. His scholarship deals mainly with Jewish literature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italy. His publications include a translation into Italian and an analysis of Samuele Romanelli’s Masa‘ Be‘arav (2006), La République des Lettres: Rabbins, médecins et écrivains juifs en Italie au XVIIIè (2007) and L’epistolario di Marco Mortara: un rabbino italiano tra riforma e ortodossia (2012).
Luc, ‘‘Salle d’asile contre jardin d’enfants: les vicissitudes de la methode Frobel en France (1855–1887)’’ in Pedagogica Historica 29/2 (1993): 433–450.
How to quote this article:
Asher Salah, "From Odessa to Florence: Elena Comparetti Raffalovich. A Jewish Russian Woman in Nineteenth-Century Italy", in Portrait of Italian Jewish Life (1800s-1930s), eds. Tullia Catalan, Cristiana Facchini, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.8 November 2015