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A Livornese family of spanish origins: (De) Soria


I have been quite fortunate that my paternal grandfather Gastone Soria was a good photographer. He has left my family many pictures that he used to take, especially at the time when my father and my uncle were young children. A whole collection of these and even older pictures of the family have been kept to this day in the family "archives", together with other documents (letters, drawings, songs, caricatures, postcards). I always loved to look at these mementos of family history, and genealogical trees had an important place in the collection. These had been assembled and drawn by Gastone, but initiated by my paternal great-grandfather Carlo Soria.

Carlo Soria was from a wealthy family of bankers in Livorno (Leghorn), a then thriving harbor on the coast of Tuscany, where Jews had settled since the late 16th century. In a book of 1848, "The history of the jews of Spain and Portugal", E. H. Lindo gives a synthetic description of the city's history: "Leghorn had [...] been founded by the Medici; its situation promised to render it an important commercial place. A quarter was assigned to the Spanish and Portuguese emigrants; they were received more as colonists, than as tolerated foreigners. It was in reality a Jewish colony, which has prospered and lasted longer than any of their establishments in the south of Europe; for it is yet in the most flourishing and solid condition (Note: this was 1848 !; nowadays the situation has dramatically declined).

Whether misfortunes had rendered the exiles prudent, or that the colonists, admitted by the Medici, were naturally the friends of order and justice, and provided with means for maintaining a rising establishment, it is certain they proceeded with great wisdom in the foundation of their colony, which secured them the favor of the grand duke. They formed a constitution where theocracy does not govern; a proof that it was merchants, and not rabbis, that founded the Jewish community at Leghorn.

The exiles modelled their government on the Italian republics; they placed it in an aristocratical body, a senate of sixty persons, who elected from themselves an administration of five members, part of which were chosen every six months; but they were only elected on the approval of the grand duke, to whom a list of candidates was submitted. This senate judged the suits of the community, and could even inflict corporal punishment, and banish culprits from Leghorn.

The Spanish language is yet preserved in congregational matters, and even in their daily transactions; the Mosaic worship is performed with great splendour. The community possesses a considerable income, which, together with some imposts, serves to support the synagogue, schools, and hospital. Medicine and surgery are studied and practised as formerly by many Israelites, both merchants and rabbis. The former, by their commercial speculations, especially vith Africa, have made immense fortunes [....] They are likewise bankers and brokers. The invasion of the French during the revolution, placed them on an equality with other citizens, since which, the senate no longer exercises judicial power except in religious matters, and has been reduced to forty."

Indeed, after Napoleon's times the Jews had enjoyed progressively larger influence on society all over Italy, including access to careers and influential positions. However, in Livorno even in the pre-Napoleonic era they had fared much better than those in other parts of the world. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany had never failed to recognize the great economic advantages deriving from the Jewish Nation, as it was called in those days, in their major harbor and trade center. Thus, a secluded Ghetto never existed in Livorno: the Jewish Nation co-existed peacefully side by side with the locals and with other foreign Nations (Armenians, Greeks, Dutch, British, etc.) that were engaged in trade activities with the Mediterranean, the Orient, Northern Europe and even more remote locations.

Carlo Soria and his older brother Dario had followed in their father's, Raffaello Soria, and in their grandfather's tradition of managing a prosperous currency exchange business. However, at the end of the nineteenth century Dario Soria went bankrupt, paid all his debts, and committed suicide. The family, a large one including other brothers engaged in the family's business activities, went scattered to other cities like Genova, Rome, and even Tunis. Carlo Soria went to Naples. There, he opened the first public office and shop in town for machine typing, "The Empire". He and his wife Amelia Vitta, who came from a wealthy family in Florence, always kept close ties with the rest of the family and of the jewish clan in Livorno and Florence. Amelia kept a booklet where she annotated the most important dates and events in her life; at the end of the booklet, several genealogical trees depicted relationships among families and individuals not only in Livorno but with the rest of Italy as well.

My father and my paternal grandmother were always keen to tell me lots of stories about family history, relationships, the family's vicissitudes during the war, etc. Thus, I can safely claim that family history fascinated and interested me since I was quite young. It is only recently, however, that this interest has taken a more organized and continuous form.

The occasion for a serious attempt at compiling family history data came from the Bar Mitzwa of my younger son Daniel in 1993. I printed and fotocopied a collection of documents that I had assembled and edited on my word processor, including family trees dating back many generations. At the family party, I distributed the booklet to relatives and friends. Needless to say, there was great interest and the small compilation was the highlight of the party. Since then, I have kept including more and more documents to the original booklet: articles from historical publications, recollections, poetry, testaments, etc., such that it has now grown remarkably in size.

Going back to genealogy, all the trees kept in my family started with my Livornese 3great-grandfather Beniamino Soria, who had two sons, Roberto and Raffaello, and many daughters. The names and relationships of all descendants of the two sons were reported quite accurately in the trees. Today, of all the descendants of this very large family only 3 boys carrying the Soria family name are left: Max Soria, who lives in the U.S., descends from Roberto; and my own sons, Alex and Daniel, descend from Raffaello.

What was sort of strange to me from the very beginning was that very little was recorded in the family pertaining to this earliest ancestor. He was Carlo Soria's grandfather, after all; yet, no other information had been recorded in the genealogical trees drawn by his grandson other than his name. Carlo Soria did not seem to remember even his grandmother's name, not even mentioning her in an otherwise extensive genealogical tree.

In the early eighties I had a lucky break in my quest for tracing earlier traces of the family when I met Guido Lopez, also of Livornese origin and a well known writer of italian and jewish-italian history. His father was a famous playwriter and theater critic, Sabatino Lopez. His mother, Sisa Tabet, was related the Sorias, and she had written detailed accounts of everyday life and traditions of Livornese jews. I once visited his apartment in Milano, full of books and documents of great interest, and my eye was caught by an article in a journal devoted to italian history, the "Rivista Italiana di Studi Napoleonici". In this article, J.P. Filippini described the vicissitudes of the Livornese Jews under Napoleonic rule. Included in the article was a list of jewish heads of family from the 1809 Census. And,...there he was! Biniamin Soria.....de Aron! For the first time I could have a glimpse at some family history preceding the extensive records of the 19th century, and going backwards well into the 18th century. This is because the birthdate of Biniamin Soria could be deduced as 1749, since he had been recorded as being 60 in the 1809 Census. He had 6 daughters and 2 sons, and was a "mezzano di cambio", a currency exchange broker. All this information fitted nicely with what I knew about him at that time. Biniamin's name appeared again in an appendix to the article, where the proceedings of a "Nedabà" for the refugees from a pogrom in Algiers had been recorded, also in 1809. He didn't give much to the Nedabà, must have been hard to make a decent living with all these daughters ... In addition, in these years the Continental Blockade enforced by the British against Napoleon had devastating effects on Livornese commerce, industry and trading activities.

After this "discovery" of mine, a few years passed. And then, at the end of 1992, on the monthly bulletin of the Jewish Community in Milano I read that a book had been published on the history of the Jews in Livorno during the 17th century. The book, written in italian, is entitled "The Hebrew Nation in Livorno and Pisa 1591-1700". It was written by Renzo Toaff, a Livornese M.D. who went to Israel as a promising young doctor during the Fascist persecutions in 1938 Italy. After a distinguished medical career, he retired from medicine to devote his entire time to his lifelong passion: the history of the Jewish Communities in Tuscany, especially Livorno and Pisa. He is the brother of Rav Elio Toaff, the Rabbi who has had the historical privilege of being the first to welcome a Pope in his synagogue in Rome a few years ago. Their father was Rabbi of Livorno, and also a distinguished historian, during the difficult pre- and post-world war II years.

Let me say at this point that my own professional interests had never been in a humanistic field, since I am a biomedical scientist. So at first I was totally unaware that the book by Renzo Toaff had been preceded by many other publications on the subject, by him and by other authors, all documenting extensively the history of the Jews in Tuscany and Livorno in particular. With great surprise and fascination, I could read in this book that a whole family of De Sorias had been among the wealthiest merchants of Sephardic origin in Livorno in the 17th century. One of them, Mordohai De Soria, even had his own private "Yeshibà", of which a famous rabbi had been affiliated, Jacob Sasportas. Mordohai, his brother Jacob De Soria, and their nephew Abram had access to the highest offices of the Nation. They were elected on repeated occasions "Massari" of the Hebrew Nation of Livorno, i.e. Parnassim or Members of the Senate, as E.H. Lindo had called them in his 1848 book. Many Hasqamoth (rulings) had been promulgated by Mordohai and by Jacob De Soria during their tenure as Parnassim and were reported in Toaff's book. Other members of the De Soria family were also mentioned in the book: were they all my ancestors? How could I find out?

It turned out to be surprisingly easy. Many archives of the jewish comunities in Italy were destroyed during the war, and those of Livorno were no exception. Luckily however, many precious items from these archives have been preserved to this day and some have even been restored recently. So, when I visited the offices of the jewish community in Livorno and asked the secretary, Gabriele Bedarida, to consult the archives, my request was readily fulfilled. He allowed me to look at the Records of Births (Registri delle Nascite) of the Hebrew Nation from 1668 to 1740, and other records of birth names and dates up to 1860, when municipal anagraphic records were established in unified Italy. I meticolously transcribed all the names and dates of all the Sorias and De Sorias that I could find. It was a memorable day, on my 47th birthday - no present could ever have been better than this one. The records were kept in Portuguese, the official language (with Spanish) of the Jewish Nations not only in Livorno but also in Amsterdam and Hamburg. For instance, one of the records I was interested would read: "A Abram de Aron e Raquel de Soria lhe naceu um filho que chamarao Aron Haim a di vernes 15 de março 1726".

Back home, I tried to make a connection between the 17th century Parnassim and my ancestor Beniamin de Aron Soria, based on the information gathered in Livorno. This has proven itself exceedingly difficult due to the existence of 4 different Aron Sorias in Livorno during these years ! However, with further research on other documents it should not be impossible to come to a correct attribution and link to the earlier members of the family. For instance, records of Ketuboth kept in the Archives with names and dates of marriage since the 17th century; notary archives, etc. Enough to keep one busy for years! Anyway, in the meantime I could confirm the exact birth date of Beniamin and the names and birth dates of all his children, including Reuben/Roberto and Raphael/Raffaello Soria - the 19th century bankers.

One interesting historical aspect of my genealogical research has been documenting the transition, at the turn of the 18th century, from the strong Sephardic traditions of the family to acquiring Italian customs and first names. All my genealogical trees kept at home were in italian, and my 19th century ancestors all had italian first names. Yet, Beniamino was born Biniamin Haim de Aron, and his numerous children had been recorded at the turn of the 18th century as Aron, Moise, Jacob Raphael, Joseph Haim, Ester, Rosa, Raquel, Reuben, Berahà, Mazaltob, Isaque Haim Samuel, and Raffael. However, those who survived became in everyday life Esterina, Rosina, Rachelina, Roberto, Benedetta, Fortunata, and Raffaello: this is how they were recorded in the genealogical trees of my great-grandfather. Thus, with the advent of Napoleon and emancipation the time had come for my ancestors to become linguistically as well as economically integrated in the emerging nationalistic identity as Italians of jewish faith. Another transition, the dropping of the "De" from the Soria family name had taken place much earlier, maybe even 100 years beforehand.

My visits at the Livorno Archives did not end here, though. During a visit to Israel, I went to the library of the "Umberto Nahon" Museum, located in the building of the italian synagogue on Rehov Hillel, in Jerusalem. There Luisa Franchetti Naor, the Director of the Center for the Study of Italian Jewry, gave me a very important piece of information in my quest for historical family documents: the location of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish Communities, in the basement of the Sprinzak Building at the Givat Ram Campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So I went there and talked to Dr. Renato Spiegel, who showed me how to access their catalog of microfilmed documents from the archives of many many jewish communities worldwide. Even with the very limited time at my disposal, I was able to browse through 17th-century documents microfilmed in Livorno, and I found a most important document for my own research project: the testament of Jacob De Soria, one of the two Parnassim brothers, dated 1689. Therefore, I could consult the original back in Livorno! I went to Livorno during Easter vacation with the entire family, sat down and dictated the entire testament in a handheld tape recorder for later typing - in the family history booklet that I was preparing for my son's Bar Mitzwa. While I was dictating, a name suddenly appeared in Jacob De Soria's will: he had left some money to one of his nephews who lived in Smirne, named Daniel De Soria. Three centuries later, for the first time in all of my family's genealogy, another Daniel Soria was standing next to me while I was dictating: my son, for whose Bar Mitzwa I was doing this. To my knowledge, these are the only two (De) Sorias to be named Daniel in 10 generations.

I have illustrated how, by way of Jerusalem, I could find documents kept in Livorno, in order to stress a sore point concerning access to historical sources for scholars and dilettantes like me: in the Livorno archives I would have never been able to find my ancestor's will, because the microfilmed copies of this and all other documents from that city have been catalogued only in Jerusalem. It is quite sad that such valuable records of our historical past are not kept within highly specialized archival facilities, like a national library, for scholarly study and better preservation. I believe that it would be a Mitzwa to raise funds to apply information technology to such treasures, with scanners, CD ROMs, Internet availability, etc. Maybe all those interested in family studies could campaign with scholars and fund raisers to gather support for these initiatives. With the world resembling more and more a global shtetl, it would be truly great if people living anywhere on the globe could access and search for their family roots online!


Marco R. Soria

Milano, Italy

November, 1994


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