Patrizia Guarnieri

Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy.

Migrants, Exiles and Refugees Fleeing for Political and Racial Reasons

©2019-Author(s) Published by Firenze University Press
e-ISBN: 978-88-6453-872-3 | DOI: 10.36253/978-88-6453-872-3

Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy

Carla Coen Pekelis (1907-1985)

Other headings: Carla Pekelis, Carla Pekelis Seitz

Rome 5 April 1907 - New York 7 October 1985

Lives on the move

Emigrant family members

  • Alessandro Pekelis (Odessa, Russian empire 7 April 1902 – Shannon, Ireland 28 December 1946), husband: emigrated from Russia to Germany and Austria; he settled in Italy in October 1921. Here, he became a lawyer, assistente volontario at the University of Florence, and libero docente at the University of Rome. An anti-fascist and a Zionist, in 1938 he emigrated with his family to France, and, in December 1940, to the US, where he worked at the New School and the Columbia Law Schools. He died in a plane crash in Ireland, leaving his wife Carla and five children: Daniela, Simona, Rossella, Haim (16 September 1941 –) financial advisor in Los Angeles, and Alessandra «Coco» (22 August 1945 –), a writer in NY like her husband, David Dalton.  They never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Daniela Ada Miriam Pekelis Siena (Florence 1 July 1933 – Odon, Indiana 21 December 2020), firstborn daughter: emigrated with her parents to the US in December 1940, when she was five. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1954 and M.M.F.T Phillips Graduate Institute in 1996. Between 1955 and 1956, she worked in Italy, in Ivrea, as a secretary for Adriano Olivetti and later worked for the Olivetti company in the US. She worked as an Italian diction coach for many important lyrical theatres and became a psychotherapist. She never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Simona Luciana Raimonda Emanuela Pekelis, later Simona McCray (Florence 23 February 1936 –), daughter: emigrated with her family to the US in December 1940, graduated from B.A. Sarah Lawrence College in 1957. Singer and Executive VP of WQXR Radio, she lives in New York with her husband, Ken Peterson. She had two children. She never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Rossella Carla Alessandra Pekelis later Rosselle (Florence 10 July 1938 – Seattle 9 December 2019), daughter: arrived in the US when she was two. She became a lawyer and a judged and was nominated to the State of Washington Supreme Court in 1986. She married three times and had four children: three with her first husband, Robert Higgins, and one with his second, Gordon Jones. She never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Ada Ascoli Coen (Ancona, 13 October 1891 – Ancona 4 August 1967), mother: emigrated with Carla’s family to the US in 1940. While she often visited her daughter in Larchmont, NY, she returned to Italy in 1946.
  • Guido Coen (Ancona 10 September 1908 – Washington 26 October 1987), brother: lawyer, was the first to emigrate to New York in December 1938. He declared he would live with a cousin and left his wife, Elsa, and their children Luciano and Paolo in Florence. In 1948, he married Gail Gertrude Blashow Benedict. He never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Luciana Meira Coen Luciana Meira Coen (Ancona?, 4 March 1910 – Israel 1991), sister: married to Mario Aharon Ottolenghi, a fervent Zionist, she emigrated with him to Mandatory Palestine. They had three children: Micael, Miriam «Memmi», and Alisa, who stayed in Israel. She never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Mario (the Aharon) Ottolenghi (Florence 7 March 1904 – Ramat Gan, Israel 11 March 1978), brother-in-law, Luciana Coen’s husband: Zionist and economist, emigrated to Mandatory Palestine in October 1938 with his wife and two children: Michael and Miriam. They all stayed in Israel, where Alisa was later born. He never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Michael (Micael) Ottolenghi (Florence 21 November 1934 – Israel 5 December 2019), nephew, Luciana’s son: emigrated to Mandatory Palestine as a child with his parents and his sister Miriam (later Roth, 1936 – 1998). He became a chemistry professor and Dean at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He married Ruth Posener, a high school principal, and they had three children: Tirza later married Florentin (1963 - ), an investment consultant, Yiftach (1971 - 1992), and Yotham (Jerusalem 1968 - ), a chef and restaurant owner in London. He never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Maria Rosa (Miriam Reisl or Raizel) Levinson Pekelis (Grodno, Russian empire 21 January 1872 – New Rochelle, New York 5 November 1945), mother-in-law: emigrated to Italy in 1922 with her husband and, widowed, followed her son Alexander and her daughter-in-law Carla to France in 1938. Later, the family emigrated to the US in 1940, leaving Lisbon. She never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Haim Pekelis (Berdichev, Russian Empire 1870? - Florence 1929), father-in-law: fur trader, emigrated to Italy in 1922 with his wife, joining his son Alexander. In Florence, in via Tornabuoni, he established the H. Pekelis & e figli firm. Eight years later, he died due to complications after surgery.
  • Emanuele Pekelis (Odessa, Russian empire 11 January 1904 – Jasper, Walker, Alabama, USA 8 April 1979), brother-in-law: emigrated with his family to Florence in 1922, where he got his degree in medicine and started working. He was removed from the professional order after the racial laws ad emigrated to France in 1939. From there, he emigrated to New York in the same year. In the USA, he found work in different States. On 18 April 1943, he married Rosemarie Milly Lenel. He never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Rosemarie Milly Lenel Pekelis, (Mannheim, Germany 11 November 1916 – Alameda, California, USA 14 April 1981), sister-in-law: Emanuele’s wife, a cardiologist of Jewish descent, she took refuge in Switzerland, where her brother Heinz Walter Lenel lived. In 1939 she was helped by the International Student Service (ISS) to emigrate to the US and continue her studies. She married Emanuel Pekelis on 18 April 1943. In 1952 she worked at the Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, where she remained until her retirement in 1976. She also participated in humanitarian activities. The couple split in the 1950s. She never returned to Europe permanently.
  • Raimondo Pekelis (Odessa 25 July 1907 – ?), brother-in-law: emigrated to Italy. He was the only member of the family not to emigrate to the US. He was interned on the Gran Sasso and later in Ferramonti (Cosenza) in May 1942. His name is on the list of liberated people of a Displaced persons camp in Switzerland. He returned to Italy.
  • Carlo Ascoli (Ancona 1872 – Brazil ?), maternal uncle: after graduating in medicine, he emigrated to Brazil before the Racial laws and lived in Sao Paulo. He was a part of the Automovel Clube, an association founded in 1935 by a group of friends in the Santa Cecilia district to provide assistance to drivers. He married Hélène but they did not have children.
  • Clemente Giorgio Ascoli (Ancona 28 March 1884 – Argentina ?), maternal uncle: trader, married in 1916 with Luisa Colognato (Ancona 19 June 1894 – Argentina ?), emigrated with her and four children to Argentina.
  • Carlo Tagliacozzo (Rome 21 January 1904 - ?), cousin, son of Giacomo and Annarosa (Annina) Ascoli, Carla’s aunt: engineer, emigrated to Brazil with documents he obtained in Geneve between January and May 1940. In September 1941, he got a university teaching position, which was not renewed afterwards. He was the author of technical books on reinforced concrete and, in Brazil, published Concreto armado (São Paulo, 1943). He mingled in the circles of the emigrated Italian Jews and married in 1945. He returned to Rome after the war.
  • Silvana Ascoli Levi then Larri (? 9 March 1905 – Sydney 2 November 1999), cousin, daughter of Leone Ascoli, Carla’s uncle, and Marta Levi: emigrated with her husband Gastone and her three children, Marta Lia (who was eight), Fulvio Massimo (who was six), and Gianna Vilma (who was three). They reached Sydney on 26 December 1939 and soon changed their Jewish surname to Larri. She was put under surveillance as an enemy alien. She never returned to Italy permanently.
  • Gastone Levi (? 7 May 1901 – Australia 21 October 1978), acquired cousin, Silvana’s husband and son of Massimo Levi and Fanny Cammeo: emigrated with his three children and his wife on the Romolo, belonging to the Lyod Triestino, which ferried between Genoa and Australian and, six months later, was sunk by the crew to avoid being captured, since Italy was now at war. His brother Renato (1898 – 1944) was arrested on 10 October 1943 and did not survive in Auschwitz. Gastone and his family changed their surname to Larri. He never returned to Italy permanently.

Support network

  • Carlo Tagliacozzo (1904 - ?), cousin, president of the Associazione Movimento Forestieri of Ancona: took care of having a few documents certified for Alessandro (his graduation diploma and his decree of libera docenza).
  • Carlo Ascoli (1872 - ?), maternal uncle: provided Carla and her family with visas for Brazil.
  • Piero Calamandrei (1889 - 1956) professor at the University of Florence: provided the Pekelis with a copy of a newspaper article as proof of Alessandro's antifascism, as required by the American authorities to concede them the Visas to go to the USA.



Birth and education

  • Liceo Visconti

Family transfer

  • University of Florence, Faculty of Literature; 1926, conservatory of Florence, licenza normale in piano; 1928, licenza superiore; 1937 Faculty of Law
  • Student

Emigration to France


Reunited with her husband


Evacuation from Paris

  • 30 May 1940

Waiting for the Visas

  • With her family in Mende, Marseille, Perpignan, and Perthus, July-August 1940

Passage through Spain

  • Barcelona, Madrid, and Badajoz, August 1940

Stop in Portugal

  • Left on 28 December 1940

Emigration to the United States

  • Arrival in New York; radio speaker; Editorial secretary; 1949 House of Italian Handcrafts
  • Occasional job

Trip to Italy

  • Genoa, Florence, Viareggio, Ancona, and Rome
1947New York

Return to the USA


Trip to Italy

1952New York

Return to the USA and permanent job

  • 1953 member of the Italian language and literature Faculty of the Sarah Lawrence College (NY); 1967 Foreign studies coordinator and director since 1968
  • Stable employment
  • University language teacher,Untenured professor

SLC Summer Session

1985New York