The Trunk of an Italian-Jewish Couple
translation by Mirta Roncagalli
This trunk is part of the exhibit For all the men of the world (Para todos los hombres del mundo) at the Museo de la Inmigración in Buenos Aires, a title drawn from the preamble to the Argentine Constitution.
According to the curators of this exhibit, it is not a very common object; travelling with trunks was unique to the first-class section of the steamship. This object represents the story of a couple who did not leave their homeland seeking economic opportunity but rather a new life free from violence and persecution.
This trunk arrived in Argentina with a young Jewish Italian couple that fled the Italian racial laws issued in 1938. Like many others, the owners of this trunk faced a series of the anti-Semitic policies created by Mussolini’s Fascist regime. The daughter of this couple, Adriana Lowenthal, donated the trunk to the museum.
Even if Argentine legislation did not recognize the couple as “immigrants” since they were travelling as first class passengers, it is clear that they migrated looking for a new life in Buenos Aires.
Elena Pirani and Mario Lowenthal (the owners of the trunk) were married in 1937 in Italy. However, when Mussolini’s regime passed racial laws the following year, they went into exile, first to Paris. Later, on August 29th, 1939, the young couple set sail, along with Mario’s whole family, from the French port of Cherbourg aboard the steamship Alcántara and headed for Buenos Aires.
This trunk contains many compartments, and it carried a variety of items. It contained hangers, probably used for those clothes that, in this privileged section of the ship, were worn during balls, dinners or special events that took place during the crossing. In this sense, the trunk helped maintain shared rules of sociability.
This object depicts the differences among classes that structured transatlantic steamers. Such distinctions between first-, second- and third-class travelers marked different spaces and comforts that passengers were able to access on the ship. Those boundaries between the three classes would anticipate the place that travelers would take once they arrived in Argentina, and the very fact that Lowenthals were not categorized as “immigrants” by Argentine authorities was also part of that hierarchy.
Despite all those differences, this story and especially this trunk, invite us to imagine how important objects were for migrants, and how people chose, stored, and carried them. The story of Mario, Elena and their trunk is one among many, when the paths of people, objects and migration intertwined.
Despite their functionality and their symbolic value of social status, objects were also of great affective value. Like this trunk, the many objects that were transported from one side of the Atlantic to the other, represented, for the owners, the bond between the present and the past. Photos, diaries, toys for children and other objects changed in meaning when they migrated along with their owners. They would become memories, they brought comfort, and they accompanied migrants in the long process of integration and adaptation in Argentine society.