Scholarship to Lorenzo de'Medici Institute honors native of Florence

Image: Student and professor
Yael Eliasoph, left, a lecturer in modern languages and literatures at Fairfield University, shows junior Melissa Thopsey a book handed down to her by her mother that was printed in 1740 and contains selected readings from the Torah. A scholarship for a semester of study in Florence has been named in memory of Prof. Eliasoph's mother, Liliana Pacifici, a native of Florence, who fled to the hills of Tuscany to escape the Nazis in 1943. Melissa is the first recipient of the scholarship.

A young Jewish woman who fled to the hills of Tuscany to hide from the Nazis, following the collapse of the Italian monarchy in 1943, is being remembered with the naming of a scholarship in her memory. The Liliana Pacifici Art History Scholarship, established by the Lorenzo de'Medici Institute in Florence, will be awarded annually to a Fairfield University student and has been awarded for the first time to Melissa Thopsey of Trumbull, Conn., a junior at Fairfield University, who will study there this spring.

Liliana Pacifici, the mother of Yael Eliasoph, an instructor in Italian language in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Fairfield, and mother-in-law to Dr. Philip Eliasoph, professor of Art History in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, was born in Florence in 1922. She moved in 1934 to the Umbrian town of Perugia with her family, including her father, Aldo Pacifici, who was the local rabbi and a decorated Italian soldier from the First World War.

Four years later the "Pact of Steel" German-Italy agreements sealed the ominous alliance between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism began to spread. A series of harsh racial laws followed that impacted Italy's 40,000 Jewish citizens. When in 1938 all Jews were denied public education, Liliana was expelled from her school and forced to take private educational lessons.

After the collapse of the Italian monarchy in September, 1943, and the imposition of military law under the Third Reich, Liliana and her family, threatened by their possible deportation to Auschwitz where over 7,000 Italian Jews would die, fled into the hills of Tuscany. They found an area near La Verna (close to the hermitage where St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata wounds while meditating in 1224) and a Christian friend of the family was able to obtain false identity papers for the Pacifici family, allowing them to pose as farmers in a small hilltop village. While there she learned that her fiancé had been executed by the Gestapo because he was a Jewish partisan fighter.

With the arrival of the British Eighth Army in the summer of 1944 and her family's liberation, Liliana met future husband, Alessandro Gertner, a sergeant in a volunteer unit called "His Majesty's Jewish Brigade," under General Montgomery.

The young couple emigrated to Israel after World War II and lived and traveled between Florence, Genoa, and Naples during the 1940s and up to 1968, when Liliana moved to New York and eventually Connecticut. She passed away in 1975.

The Liliana Pacifici scholarship will cover the $4,800 program cost for tuition at the Lorenzo De'Medici-Art Institute of Florence, where Melissa Thopsey plans to study painting and furniture restoration. She says her interest in the subject was peaked by a course she took in Museum and Gallery Curating with Dr. Philip Eliasoph.

Melissa said she had always thought in terms of teaching, but her courses at Fairfield had opened up a much wider world for the application of a degree in art history.

"I am excited and honored to receive this scholarship," said Melissa, who had no idea of the history behind the award when she applied for it. She has never been to Europe and says the scholarship provides her with "a very big life-changing opportunity."

Meanwhile, the Eliasophs are delighted to see Yael's mother honored in this way. "She would be so proud," said Yael, "to know that her name is connected with a program that will enrich young minds with the vast cultural heritage of artworks and monuments in her native city of Florence, the 'cradle of the Renaissance.'"

The Eliasophs played a key role in establishing Fairfield University's Florence campus at the Lorenzo De'Medici Art Institute in 1994, which is offered through University College's Study Abroad Office. Dr. Philip Eliasoph continues to serve as academic director of the Florence program, which attracts over 200 students each year, including many undergraduates from other universities, including the University of Michigan, Boston College, Villanova University, Carnegie Mellon and Indiana University. Fairfield also runs study abroad programs in Ireland and Australia.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647,

Posted on January 7, 2004

Vol. 36, No. 142

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