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Our values

Two roses for Lorenzo and Onorina

Loft Goethe Institute ­ Lyon, 2 May 2012

Speech given in Italian and French by Paolo A. Valenti during the evening sponsored by the

Club Media Italie with the support of the Consulate General of Italy in Lyon, in memory of two

great Italians who lived in Lyon in the twentieth century: Onorina Santilli and Lorenzo Tomatis.

Will we still sense the dream expressed in these stones?

I thank the Consul General of Italy Laura Bottà, the Italian Cultural Institute in Lyon and its

Director Ms. Loredana Lorenzo Tomatis Santilli and families, the Meme Santilli Association and

all those present here today.

The dead are invisible but not absent.

Lorenzo Tomatis and Onorina Santilli are always before my eyes.

Lorenzo Tomatis was born in 1929 in Sassoferrato in the Ancona region. Onorina Secinaro Santilli

was born in Abruzzo in 1919. Lorenzo Tomatis completed his medical studies in Turin in 1953.

Tomatis soon understood that research in Italy was his dream, and so went to the United States

where a brilliant career awaited him.

Onorina Santilli arrived in Lyon in 1947 and realized that a true family is not closed in on itself; so

she opened the doors of her house to people in need of help or wishing to discuss their problems,

including youth people in distress.

Lorenzo Tomatis opened wide the doors of America through love of humanity. America offered

him the chance to start the battle against the disease of the century. The Santilli family opened the

doors of their house for love of humanity. So, as you can imagine, we are in presence of two

people, two Italians, who throughout their lives were motivated by the noblest ideals.

They left their home but they found others. Seeing the distress the poverty of others moved them to

act under the banner of altruism, social justice, devotion for the good of humanity. My idea is that

these two people have made a living doing the best that life had offered them, while accepting a

destiny as immigrants.

Some of you know something of Onorina Santilli, who died in 2011. Others know something of

Lorenzo Tomatis, who passed away in 2007.

I had never experienced deaths that can be reborn. And I think tonight we have the rare privilege of

seeing their disappearance become a date, a place where one can be reborn. Besides the symbol of

the evening is the rose, that is to say, pure beauty.

Onorina built a house for others.

The stages of the work Ms Santilli carried out in the 60s and 70s are truly incredible. Mr. Santilli,

husband of Onorina, died in 1961 at the age of 47 years. Nothing changed in the life of this

woman, mother of five children, continuing to show incredible dedication to her children’s

problems, she always welcomed them home. She becomes the heir of what her husband had been

working on.

In the 70s, Ms Santilli moved into an apartment of 360 m2 on 4 rue Sala, here in the 2nd district

with three of her children and those entrusted to her by the DASS (then the Directorate of Health

and Social Affairs).

I think of the streets you walked down to get here tonight, the same streets that guide families in

distress to the aid provided by the Association Meme Santilli. Not far away is the town hall of

Lyon, where, in the late 60s, Tomatis worked to launch IARC, the International Agency for

Research on Cancer, an international foundation stone in the fight against cancer.

Will we still sense the dream, expressed in these stones? What legacy is left Renzo and Memé?

The Santilli house on Sala street was called LA CASA, which means “Welcome Center for the non

Loved.” This became the name of the association she founded in 1981, i.e., the first achievement

of her work and support for disabled young people. From that moment, there were at least 3

children at home, in addition to her own; during the summer months there were up to fifteen


In 1981 the inauguration of LA CASA 7 rue Chalopin in the 7th arrondissement, opened the door

to those who are 18 or older and who are not fully self­sufficient. The goal was to help them

achieve full independence.

Onorina struggling against hunger, and also against the worst misfortunes, exclusion due to illness

or marginalization: her first word to them is love.

Tomatis too had begun the fight against cancer but was not only a scientist.

There is a poem that has accompanied me throughout my life. His poetry is completely unknown

but quotable. His name is Silvano Masacci. I think this poem draws a connection between the story

of Onorina and that of Lorenzo.

Imagine the Earth and the Moon in a few thousand years when they will be a desert of ruins, places

like the ruins of Pompeii or the Inca city Machu Pichu. The space that speaks to us through the

words of Masacci explain:

“In the Sea of Serenity from the Bessel crater

A bear cub was found stuffed

They say he had belonged to the children of the Moon

This year the winter wrings my heart

I feel my bones creak softly

I do not know if I can jump to Sirius Canis Major

I am the Omega Nebula in Sagittarius

A tiny cosmic powder particle

Once my father was selling shoelaces

On the steps of the Church of St. Andrew

He had a dog with white eyes

My mother I’ve ever known

Is gone to the sea

I can still hear his voice in each shell

Oh Aldebaran, red, which grazed the Pleiades

Do you remember my heart became a Galaxy?

The blades with small ice cathedrals

The sunset with the ephemeral golden dreams

I was in everything on Earth

In every age, in every place

I walked silently all things

I became atom

I’ll be the nothingness that extends into the Cosmos …… “


This poem could be that of a human being that Memé welcomed because he had no father or

mother. Someone lost in the universe. This poem, when read by Tomatis, made him call me,

“Buonasera ……. sono Tomatis”.

In 1996, during a walk on the River Saône in the company of the Ligurian writer Francesco

Biamonti invited to a conference at Villa Gillet, Biamonti, told me his very positive impression of

him. Tomatis had earned the respect of the scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tomatis in his book “The rielezione” explains why he chose to leave his hospital career and to

become even more intensely involved in helping humanity. These two pages, which I will read in

Italian, are moving because they narrate thedeath of Rico, a 16 year old sick teenager. His death

changed Tomatis life forever: piety guided his mind. It is always the man, the true man, who will

guide the scientist throughout his life … the same “pietas” that Meme Santilli had devoted her life:


(From ‘The rielezione’ R. Tomatis, Sellerio Editore, Palermo)

“So I had to get my degree in medicine, I practiced the profession, pompous term for the minimum

service that I provided with enthusiasm and trepidation.

Among my first experiments, there was a period at the tuberculosis sanatorium. I spent every

morning, three nights a week and on alternate Sundays: an almost total immersion in a very

different environment from t university. I was so caught up with my mission that I managed to

overcome the doubts and constant fear of being wrong that characterized my way to be a doctor. I

continued to have doubts, but I forced myself to act because I believed and because I wanted to

believe in what I had learned, and because of despair because of the inaction, the waiting of my

older and more expert colleagues were intolerable.

In front of the fluorescent screen, I spent a time beyond necessity and prudence, I gave sometimes

lumbar punctures, I visited the most seriously ill patients with greater frequency than prescribed.

Some colleagues laughed at me, others were angry and did not hide their disappointment for my

interference with long established routine.

The patients were children between eight and seventeen years, from poor families, often living in

remote areas and rarely able to visit.

I grew fond of them, I spent hours in their company, I do not think they had a special trust me as a

doctor, but I was closer to them by my age and the way I behaved. They let me take therapeutic

initiatives but they had the most total lack of confidence in medicine, and they were convinced of

not having chances to survive. Their pessimism was absolute, each of them had seen someone of

their age die, they were cynical and naive. I played with them cards or checkers, I used to walk

with those who were feeling better.

There was Rico, who was sixteen years but who looked no more than twelve, whose lungs were

devoured and had a small shrill voice because even h larynx was affected. He told me “Doctor why

do you struggle? Anyway I won’t make it, you know that”. Antibiotics arrived too late for him,

when the illness had already gone too far. The head doctor nodded, and I hated him when he said

“it’s all rotted poor one, there is nothing we can do.” Looking small and pitiful in a too large pajamas too,

with eyes that covered half his face, small arms end as breadsticks,iRico spoke words

that did not admit reply, and after having pronounced them he kept staring at me to block any

possibility of consolatory reaction on my part. I ended up staying with him more than others, and

one evening I surrended to one of his prayers: I took him to the Valentino (riverside park in Turin

NdT) to eat ice cream . It was a warm summer evening, I covered him with my jacket so he

wouldn’t feel the cold air on the vespa. He had never seen the Valentino and he was excited. He

died three weeks later, one night when I was not on call. An employee of the municipality came to

remove the body, no one knew where his father was, his mother was in a sanatorium for adults and

was in no condition to travel. I wondered if being a doctor was a valid choice, if it could really be

helpful and able to cure. So started the decision ,that I took later, to abandon the practice of

medicine for research, which i believe could more effective to help people. “(‘La rielezione’ R.


“Provide us with us some real words” is the only request for any journalist with a minimum of

conscientiousness. My testimony makes me believe that Onorina Santilli and Lorenzo Tomatis

belonged to this rare category of completely humble people who were able to approach the great

mystery of truth and life, The pain of others, moved by the desire to soften the unfinished suffering

of others.

Memé, I met her two years ago. His look of elderly woman was surprising. In his eyes glimpsed

the reflection of the infinite. A very rare gaze, testimony of a totally pure innocence.

With Tomatis I had a friendship made of small but remarkable rendez vous where my great desire

was to learn from him something today I finally begin to see.

As a journalist I want to clarify that the daily heroism of Meme Santilli remains the most

disarming thing of all. Memé was a disarming woman in front of whom you had to forget all our

knowledge and stay pure, just as Tomatis was able to give up his scientific knowledge in front of

death, trying to masterminded a plan to fight against the modern threat to health.

This is a recollection of the life of two people that became a vital force forever. I also feel the

need to thank those who were close to Memé and Renzo, knowing that any success in life is the

fruit of the love we have received from others. I invite you to share your memories of Memé and


I am very grateful to Lorenzo and Grandma since they left us great inheritance of brightness. A

Legacy for the Italian community in Lyon but also for humanity as a whole.