Franco was born to a Jewish family living in the northern Italian city of Bologna. Even though a fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, came to power in Italy in 1922, Bologna's Jews continued to live in safety. Like many Italian Jews, Franco's family was well integrated in Italian society. Franco attended public elementary school.
1933-39: When Franco was 7, Mussolini enforced "racial" laws against the Jews: Franco was expelled from school, and went instead to a Jewish school hastily organized in makeshift quarters in one of Bologna's synagogues. Franco could not understand why he had to leave his friends just because he was Jewish. His father died in 1939, and he moved with his mother and older brother, Lelio, to Turin, where he began religious school.
1940-44: Mussolini was overthrown in July 1943. Two months later, German forces occupied Italy, and gained control of the north, the part where Franco's family and most of Italy's Jews lived. The Italians had been protecting the Jews, but now Germany controlled Italy. The Cesana family went into hiding in the mountains. To evade the Germans, they moved from hut to hut. Lelio joined the Justice and Liberty partisan group. Though only 12, Franco joined as well, proud that so many Jews were fighting in the Italian resistance.
Franco was shot by Germans while on a scouting mission in the mountains. His body was returned to his mother on his 13th birthday. He was Italy's youngest partisan.