She was the daughter of a grocer; he was the son of a silver merchant. They lived two blocks away from one another for years, but only met at a dance party in the city center of Rome when he came back from the army one day and she happened to like dancing. She wanted to keep studying literature and arts and he was ready to settle down and build a family of his own. He convinced her with a box of the most delicious chocolate on a bench in the Italian capital, she said yes.
“I was so overwhelmed with feeling we were able to do whatever we wished I was barely conscious that day was my wedding day. The war had forced me to hide for over nine months, now I could have my own hand-made wedding dress, walk to the altar and get married,” she said. “We were two impulsive young rascals, but we were free!”
Her name is Paola Toscano, she is 85 years old and she is my grandmother. On September 29, 1943 she hid inside the private home of a baker with her own family to escape the Nazi. She was 13 years old. They lived in hiding until June 5, 1944. His name was Bruno Valabrega, he was 87 when he passed away three years ago. He was my grandfather. His parents were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 16, 1943 and never came back to Rome. He was an orphan when he met my grandmother. They married on November 4, 1951 at the Tempio Maggiore (Great Syn-agogue) in Rome, Italy six years after the Americans freed the Italian capital from the Germans.
Their wedding was a dream wedding after a terrible past had been finally left behind. My grandparents had no idea who the Rabbi who married them that cold, autumn day would have become. His name was Rabbi Elio Toaff and that wedding was the first of many he celebrated af-ter having been elected Chief Rabbi of Rome.
“Nobody knew him at the time. He was so young and he had big shoes to fill,” said my grandmother. “We all got to know him better with the years. He surprised us all.”
Toaff was a third generation Rabbi born on April 30, 1915 in Livorno, Tuscany. He was 36 years old when he joined the Rabbinate of Rome after having escape a Nazi execution himself and having been the Chief Rabbi of Venice until then.
He was full of energy and focused on practical things. All he wanted to do is put the com-munity of Rome back on its feet. Of the 1,067 Jews deported on October 16, 1943, less than 40 re-turned. The community was dismantled and fearful. The shadow of the Nazi had left everyone al-ienated and unable to trust anyone. Toaff was there to be a spiritual and political guide.
“If we want to rebuild this community, we must start with the school,” said Toaff to his dear friend and neighbour Davide Limentani when he asked for help rebuilding the Jewish gan.
Toaff knew through teachings children, he would have been able to reach out to the trust and interests of their families. So little by little, one by one, everyone would have come back to synagogue abandoning fears and reconnecting with their Jewish roots and hopefully find their way back into the rest of society.
“He was a grandpa to us all,” said an adult man standing by the entrance to the synagogue the day of Toaff’s funeral, April 20, 2015. “You could ask him advice for everything, anytime you needed. He was there for us back when we had no direction and no idea on where to go. He lead us out of our Egypt.”
To really understand who Toaff really was one just needed to look around in front of Tem-pio Maggiore Monday morning when the body of the Rabbi was laid for a last goodbye. There was a whole world that attended the commemoration of his life. Not only Jews or members of the Jewish communities around the world, such as, Chief Rabbis of Belgium, Paris and Russia, but poli-ticians, members of the Vatican and even tourists who heard the news on the radio or read about it on the local papers and have just known the former Chief Rabbi from the words of others.
He would always hide a cheerful smile underneath his scars, white beard. No matter what day he was having, he never missed an occasion to be sarcastic and tell a joke. He had one for eve-ryone, even for himself.
“Life has to catch me alive,” said Toaff last year to Limentani when asked how did he feel. “It is his humans side I will miss the most, not the one of spiritual guidance, but the one of a friend for every situation. I will miss knowing he is no longer behind the door in front of my house.”
This was how we remember Rabbi Elio Toaff, former Chief Rabbi of Rome, Italy for half a century who would be blowing 100 candles today.