In honor of the resilience and courage of amazing women on the Key, we are pleased to present a glimpse into the life of Luisa Brightman, as the first in a series of profile features celebrating Women’s History Month.
At 95 years old Luisa Julia Aghib Brightman can share stories of survival as a young Jewish girl growing up in Italy during World War II with an astounding clarity about historic political nuances, as well as meticulous recollection on the family and social life of Milan’s upper middle class in the late 1930’s…if she so chooses.
For forty years this diminutive independent force of nature (who enjoys the simple pleasures of life in her Key Biscayne winter condo-since 1965, like arranging flowers and playing bridge with friends) declined to discuss her family’s escape from the Nazi’s. The life altering experience was too painful.
But she finally gave in to the persistent cajoling of an old friend who insisted her stories should be recorded for posterity. As a result Luisa Brightman was interviewed for over three hours by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Oral History Collection documentarians in 2015.
“You become fearless,” said Brightman during the Holocaust Museum interview as she describes the surreality of watching B-52 planes dropping bombs outside her family’s downtown Milan five story apartment.
The Aghib’s were multi-generational Italian Jews originally from Libya who she said were quite assimilated in the predominately Catholic community. Judaism was more of a tradition then a religion but one the family, mother and artist Olga, father and businessman Enrico, and two sets of twins; Luisa, her sister Carla, and brothers Julio and John, refused to renounce.
Once the bombings began and after being kicked out of their respective work and school, the family fled to their country home, an hour’s drive from Milan.
Brightman said part of being fearless meant almost making a game out of their new normal in order to cope. When she and her father walked back to Milan to check on their home without knowing if it was still standing, they played a guessing game.
“We lived on a wide avenue with trees and streets going east and west. In between the homes and trees were green lawns and playgrounds,” said Brightman.
“There was no transportation and we had to walk for miles. You could see the sun shining on the grass and pavement where the houses once stood. We started walking at number 100 and our house was seven. ‘Do you think it will be standing? Yes it will. No I don’t think so. Yes…’ My father and I played this game until we arrived. Number five and nine were still standing, but ours was not.”
Brightman has a detached analytical perspective and philosophically regards all life experience as a game of chance. She is grateful for her happy accidents along the way and the near centenarian calls these her “miracle years.”
“In life there is always something in your favor and something that is against you. It depends how serious is the thing that is against you because otherwise you are not here to tell the story.”
She said they were not lucky to have lost their home yet they were lucky to have survived the bombings and war. Once relatives were disappeared and their prospects further dimmed, the family escaped to Switzerland. Although separated for some time they ultimately reunited.
After the war she got a job as secretary for NATO’s Commanding General of the Airforce for Southern Europe in Florence before her war veteran brother, having immigrated to the US, arranged for her passage to New York in 1955.
She met her future husband, attorney Benjamin Brightman shortly thereafter and enjoyed a life in high society; playing golf and bridge at the country club, traveling, and wintering in Key Biscayne. She is a fiercely independent and private person who refuses to get a computer and considers her cellphone “stupid.”
“They keep changing the system and driving me crazy,” said Brightman. “I refuse to adjust to have the telephone as my living companion maybe because I remember when the telephone was first introduced. I remember it very vividly the first time we had a telephone in the house in Italy.”
Brightman is optimistic about human progress and believes we are better off as a species and that we do learn from history.
“Without any doubt we improve, we do live better and we do progress. You will always have the bad apple just like in the animal world. We can preach about it, we can try to change it but it is never going to be one hundred percent.”
She supports gun control as a means to curb violence around the world. She is fearful the modern phenomena of immigrant children separated from parents when crossing the border into America will become like the lost orphan children she helped take care of after the war.
“That was the first time I saw human beings that were like little animals, no one knew how they survived (the holocaust), many of them spoke languages we didn’t know. They couldn’t understand that we were trying to help them and they kept running away.”
“Coming to the present what we are doing with immigrant children is despicable absolutely despicable…and they will carry the stigma all of their lives there is no doubt. We are not building good people and I don’t blame the parents either for trying to improve their lives.”
Although a self-described agnostic Brightman is still in awe of the universe and the curiosity of the human race to reach out and explore the intangible.
“I think it’s a terrific honor that the human race can go so far we can…we are still explorers. I can’t believe that this is a single event. There must be millions of worlds out there. It doesn’t make sense mathematically that there would not be so…that is one thing I haven’t figured out yet…the cosmos.