Story of Italian Catholics who hid Jews plays out in Ross Valley

Some plays need time to gestate. For Alameda writer Mercedes Cohen, it took her a while to complete “Giovanni is Here.” About 34 years.

Set in wartime Rome, “Giovanni is Here” tells the tale of a pregnant Jewish dressmaker hidden in the home of a Catholic family willing to risk everything to do the right thing. It recalls a part of Holocaust history not commonly known: Many Italians protected their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis.

Mercedes Cohen

The play makes its debut April 18 for a six-show run at Ross Valley Players in Ross. It’s part of the theater’s ongoing RAW (Ross Alternative Works) series of new plays by Bay Area playwrights.

For a play that takes place in close quarters — a living room — a lot goes on. The title comes from a coded term used to alert Jews and others that a German raid was imminent. Staying out of their way is Angelo Romano, his crotchety mother, Anna, and his conflicted daughter, Maria, all of whom make the brave decision to hide Belle Levi, the young Jewish dressmaker.

It’s not always one big happy family.

“We all get cabin fever sometimes,” Cohen says. “Imagine being trapped for so long, even when people are relatively nice. What I wanted to emphasize is the heroism of the people who saved this young woman. We look back and know what happens next. They didn’t know.”

As dangerous a world as Belle and the Romano family inhabit, inside the home a semblance of normal life goes on. That includes joking, laughing, selling Belle’s handmade dresses and, occasionally, squabbling. Hiding is especially hard on Belle, whose husband is somewhere north fighting with the partisans.

Cohen got the idea for the play while vacationing in Rome in 1980. She entered a clothing shop near the site of the old Jewish ghetto, and when she asked the Jewish shopkeeper her life story, the woman described being hidden by a Catholic family from late 1943 until liberation the following year. “This idea of being hidden fascinated me,” Cohen recalls.

She did extensive research on Italian Jewry, the role of the Catholic Church and its tacit complicity with Hitler, and how Italians sought to save the nation’s Jews (some 7,500 perished in the Holocaust, a relatively small number).

Cohen was all set to write her play. Then, life happened.

A native of Southern California, Cohen earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern California, worked as an English teacher in El Monte for many years, and wrote a play that was performed in L.A. She and her husband, Michael, have two grown sons.

The couple moved to Alameda a few years ago (she is a Jew by choice, having converted after marrying). They belong to Oakland’s Temple Sinai.

Cohen says one reason she and her husband moved to the Bay Area is because of the vibrant theater scene. She submitted her play to Ross Valley Players; Michael Cohen, a theater arts professional, will direct the production.

Cohen says she is thrilled with the cast, which curiously has Jews playing Catholics and Catholics playing Jews in the key roles.

“They are advising each other,” she notes.

Cohen hopes her play will have an afterlife following the RAW run. Meanwhile it’s all hands on deck at Ross Valley Players, where even the playwright has to chip in to help the production shine.

“I’m helping with the costumes,” she says. “And I’m making cookies.”

“Giovanni is Here” runs April 18-27 at Ross Valley Players, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. $15. or (415) 456-9555

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at