Nature and gratitude — these are two themes that echo throughout 88-year-old Agathe Nadai’s thoughts as she writes her memoir while sheltering at home in Scarsdale.
Nadai starts her story in 1932, in Vienna, Austria, where she was born to Anna and Alexander Nadai, two secular Jews. Her father worked as an engineer and inventor, and her mother was a lover of European literature and music. Nadai recalls her early memories fondly.
“I was quite exposed to nature … We had two dogs which were my playmates. And I had a lot of attention being the only child of the whole family,” she said. “We went to visit the grandparents. They were very secular and progressive, especially at the time in Vienna in Central Europe. They were very progressive and open minded towards nature and embracing every culture.”
Her childhood took a turn when she was around the age of 6.
“Some turmoil was happening, which I didn’t understand,” she said. “All of a sudden we had to flee from Vienna because it was the beginning of ’38. The Nazis were arriving.”
"Agi" and her parents fled to Budapest, where they stayed for less than a year. There, her father was arrested by the Gestapo before her eyes.
“A man came and arrested my father and I was screaming and my mother left with the Gestapo, which is one of the officers of the Nazis at that time. So that night I was left completely alone in the hotel against the window. I’ll never forget that one. My mother said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back, and just stay there.’ I was forever looking out of the window. After a long time, both my parents came back. My mother managed to go to the top of the police office and she managed to get my father liberated.”
Her family left Budapest, fleeing to various parts of Croatia. In one Croatian city called Split, Agi and her family were homeless, sleeping in a roofless, ancient ruin called the Diocletian Palace.
“There was sawdust on the floor. There were rats running around and there were other little places faraway in the castle with other humans there. So my father said ‘This is our space.’”
She slept between her parents, and remembers overhearing her mother lean over and wake her father.
“She said, ‘Wake up. Look at the sky. Look at the stars and look at the moon,’” she recalls. “That piece of nature she brought up in those moments was the greatest symbol of the rest of my life. The sky, the moon, and the stars — no matter what happens around you [those are always there].”
Finally they made their way to Italy. Agi spent the rest of her primary and secondary education there, and eventually completed one year of medical school. She developed long-lasting friendships that she maintains to this day, and met her high school classmate Vittorio Castelli, a boy she would eventually marry and divorce.
She moved to New York in 1953 with her parents. She applied to college, and was accepted into Barnard College, where she majored in pre-med.
Life in the United States wasn’t a difficult transition for her, but she found the experience very different from the one she had in Italy, especially in terms of relationships between men and women.
“In Italy there was never a problem between the women and men. We were all treated the same way. In Italy, it’s basically a matriarchal society. It doesn’t look like it. You’ve got the big macho guys running around, but they really have not much power.”
She witnessed this difference firsthand, when she applied to medical school. The interviewers asked personal questions about decisions she’d make as a mother and her dating life.
When her boyfriend asked how the interview went, she didn’t hold back.
“I said, ‘The professors were very lucky.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ [I said] ‘That I did not take off my shoe and throw it at his head.’”
Due to the sexism she knew she would experience in medical school, Nadai decided to go to graduate school instead. She received a master’s degree in cellular biology at the school of pharmacy at Colombia.
Nadai married Castelli in 1957. Because of her family’s secular Judaism and her family-in-law’s Catholicism, she was unsure of whether she wanted to marry in a church or synagogue, but decided to honor the faith of her in-laws. Still, she felt the need to honor her Jewish family as well.
“I went to a [priest]. [I told him] I felt a bit embarrassed because my grandparents got caught and killed in concentration camps. So I felt guilty… I told him my story. He said ‘Don’t worry. On the wedding we will use the Old Testament for your ceremony.’”
Agi and Vittorio lived in an apartment by the Columbia Presybterian Medical Center, before moving to Riverdale. She became a lab instructor and grad student at Columbia University, and published a paper on effects of stress on connective tissue.
In 1960, the couple had a daughter, Serena, and moved to Scarsdale in 1970. Vittorio’s mother and father traveled from Rome to help take care of the child, so that Agi and Vittorio could continue their professions. However, at a young age, Serena developed asthma, so Agi had to take time off from her career. Even at home, Agi prioritized including nature in her and her daughter’s lives.
“I stayed home but I organized our life, very much focusing on nature — climbing mountains, country skiing, rock climbing.”
When Serena graduated from Scarsdale High School and began attending Barnard, Agi didn’t know what to do next. On a trip to Southwest America, she found her next passion.
“I was invited to go with my husband's friends down to the Grand Canyon … I fell in love with the rocks, so I went back to [Barnard] and … I took an introductory course in geology. I had so many questions about the rocks that I wound up getting a master’s in geology.”
She became a structural geologist, consultant, and a specialist in the geologic history of the Caribbean Sea. Her career took her to the Everglades, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. During this time, she discovered and published a paper on a more exact age of the Caribbean Sea.
When her mother developed dementia, Agi had to put her adventurous life on hold to take care of her. She began working in an office for the Environmental Protection Agency. When tragedy struck New York City, she was forced to move on to her next project.
“I worked during 9/11 and it happened five blocks from my office so I did not go back,” she said. “I retired. Then, I became a yoga teacher.”
Her interest in yoga began when she worked in the Everglades, spending most of her day in the swamps. To relax, she did yoga, and her passion for it was born, resulting in her teaching her own practice for the past 20 years.
“I teach Yoga Gaia. It’s the somatic expression through yoga poses and music but I pair your and my story. We started [our story] 13.7 billion years ago, [with] the whole evolution of life. [The purpose is] to understand we are all connected. This is all based on science but in simple words for everybody — high school kids, young kids and adults.”
Six years ago, tragedy struck even closer to home. After a battle with cancer, Serena passed away at the age of 53.
“When she was sick I was always with her,” she said, “and then it took me a while to recuperate.”
Serena often encouraged her mother to write a memoir of her life and experiences. She wrote 20 chapters, but put the project on hold when Serena passed. Recently, she began to write again, inspired by a documentary she saw that described how Italians helped Jewish people during World War II.
“I realized the most important thing I’d like to spread is when we arrived in the war to Italy and — this piece I call ‘The Angels who Saved Our Lives’ — the story of us in Italy surviving, showing that [the Italians] are not anti-Semitic and the fantastic treatment we got from the Italians when the Nazis came. At any social level, they put their lives [on the line] to save us, and they did save us. So this is what I really want to promote.”
Now in her golden years, besides spending her days doting on her granddaughter Kyra and chatting with her childhood friends from Italy, she is taking a course in memoir writing at the Scarsdale Adult School, continuing her lifelong love for learning and happily sharing the story of her long life.