Growing up in Boston, where European immigrants tended to be Catholic, especially those from Italy, Andrew Viterbi raised eyebrows every time he responded to questions about his cultural heritage.
"All the way through high school and college, I would be asked, 'How can you be an Italian and a Jew?'" the father of cell phone technology recalls with a laugh. "Scholars have always known about Italy's Jews, but to the general public, it's a contradiction in terms."
In fact, the co-founder of Qualcomm, inventor of the Viterbi algorithm and one-time UCLA engineering professor can trace his Jewish roots on his father's side back to 1588. He knows his ancestors were living then in a town some 30 miles north of Rome. True, his mother's Jewish ancestors were originally from Spain, but her family arrived in northern Italy shortly after the Inquisition and has been there ever since.
And Viterbi is not alone. While the vast majority of the U.S. Jewish population trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe, an admittedly small portion of American Jews have Italian heritage. A larger portion has roots in some part of the Mediterranean.
In the interest of furthering understanding of this often-overlooked group, Viterbi, his wife, Erna, and their three children have established a $1.4 million endowment to create a program in Mediterranean Jewish studies through UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies.
Beginning next fall, the Viterbi Family Program in Mediterranean Jewish Studies will bring a distinguished scholar in some aspect of Mediterranean Jewish society, history or culture to campus for one quarter of instruction each year. The endowment will also fund quarterly lectures and seminars on Jewish communities in Italy, France, Spain, the Balkans, North Africa, Egypt or Israel.
"I am not an anomaly," Viterbi said. "Because the Mediterranean region has been at the crossroads of commerce and ideas for thousands of years, it has been the site of one of the richest and most diverse Jewish cultures in history. I want that culture to be explored and recognized."
The new program is the outgrowth of a pilot program in Italian Jewish studies started three years ago at the Center for Jewish Studies with support from the Viterbi Family Foundation. The program also builds on a burgeoning trend in history to look beyond traditional political boundaries in order to understand transnational commercial and intellectual connections between different groups of people.
"This approach is especially suited to the study of the Jews, given the wide-ranging familial, religious and economic ties that they developed in the Middle East and Europe from antiquity to the present," said David N. Myers, UCLA professor of history and director of the center. "We are very grateful for the Viterbi family's remarkable generosity that will enable us to see these connections in much richer detail."
The commitment is especially remarkable given the experiences of Viterbi's father and mother.
Victims of the fascist persecution that pushed Italy's Jewish population out of high-profile positions in the days leading up to World War II, the Viterbis fled the Lombardy town of Bergamo, northeast of Milan, where they had been living since 1905, following the passage of a series of racial laws in Mussolini's Italy in 1938.
"My father was the head of the department of ophthalmology in the main hospital," Viterbi recalled. "In 1938, he simply was let go, literally, under the new law promulgated by the Fascist regime."
Faced with the unlikely prospect of supporting his wife and 4-year-old son by caring for the only patients that new law allowed him to treat — the city's small Jewish population — Achille Viterbi secured U.S. visas by mining contacts on both sides of the Atlantic.
After immigrating to the U.S., the family lived first in New York but settled in Boston, where Viterbi's father started a new ophthalmology practice. To augment the family income, Viterbi's mother took a job as a seamstress. She had never held a job before.
"For the subsequent two decades, which were my formative years, I strove to erase my Italian past and take on the new identity of an American Jew," Viterbi recalled in a 2006 speech at UCLA. "I recognized only my parents' bitter experience of the recent past and not their sweet memories of an earlier Italy of culture, beauty and tolerance."
Viterbi said his feelings softened considerably after meeting and marrying Erna Finci, a descendent of the head rabbi of Bosnia. Finci was living in Sarajevo when the Germans invaded in 1941. Along with her family, she fled to a part of what today is Croatia that was under the control of the Italian — not German — military. When the Fincis were eventually interned as Jews, they were not sent to a concentration camp but to a small Italian village.
"The people in the village couldn't have been more helpful to them," Viterbi said. "The whole village hid them out. Ultimately, the family was able to escape to Switzerland, and it was a harrowing experience. But all along the way, there were Italians who helped them and protected them from the Germans. Hearing her experiences really changed my mind about Italians in World War II."
It also didn't hurt that Viterbi is related to arguably the most famous Italian Jewish writer of all time. The late chemist, poet, memoirist, short-story writer and novelist Primo Levi, who is best known for his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, was the husband of Viterbi's first cousin. The author of "Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening" cast a considerable shadow over the family, Viterbi recalls.
"As early as 1947, when he wrote his first book about his experiences at Auschwitz, he sent it to us in Boston, and my father read all of it to me," Viterbi said. "Reading his books strengthened my understanding of my heritage."
Still, Viterbi is best known as a man of science. Having received a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, Viterbi joined UCLA's faculty in 1963. Four years later, he developed his path-breaking Viterbi algorithm, which helped make cellular phones possible by eliminating signal interference. As an entrepreneur, he co-founded Linkabit in the 1960s and cell phone giant Qualcomm in San Diego in 1985.
In 2003, Viterbi and his wife made headlines by donating $52 million to his alma mater. With a $500,000 donation from some of Viterbi's colleagues, USC subsequently established a museum at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering devoted to the couple's lives and to Viterbi's technological achievements.
Viterbi is one of four finalists for the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize, the world's richest technology award. Given every other year by a Finnish organization, the Millennium Prize recognizes "technological innovation that significantly improves the quality of human life, today and in the future."
He is being recognized for his algorithm, which today is used in billions of cell phones, as well as in magnetic recording devices, most satellite television receivers, a variety of cable systems, voice recognition programs and even DNA sequence analysis. The purse is $1.5 million, and the winner will be announced June 11.
Meanwhile, the gift to UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies, which is the Viterbi family's largest gift ever in the humanities, reveals another side to the philanthropist.
"He is perfectly fluent with the scholarship that deals with the Italian Jewish experience," Myers said. "He follows this subject just about as closely as any scholar I know."
For Viterbi, who attended the legendary humanities-based Boston Latin School, the reason is obvious.
"George Santayana, the noted philosopher who was an alumnus of my high school, once said that the people who have forgotten their history are doomed to relive it," Viterbi said. "I am interested in Jewish history everywhere and throughout the ages for that very reason. I don't want us to have to relive that history."
The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, since its establishment in 1994, has developed an international reputation for its study of Jewish culture, history and literature. Its programs include specialized series in Sephardic studies, Holocaust studies and modern Jewish culture. With diverse and distinguished faculty, visiting scholars and a renowned library collection, the center is one of the largest homes to academic scholarship and public education in Jewish studies in North America. Each year, some 70 courses in Jewish studies are offered. In addition, the center offers nearly 50 public lectures, seminars and conferences each year in a variety of fields in Jewish studies.