Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew: An Italian Story
The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival
The ironic title of Dan Vittorio Segre’s autobiographical sketch, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, offers a clue not only to his own history but to that of Italian Jews in general. Between 1870 and 1922, under the liberal regime, the good fortune of Italian Jews was unique in Europe. Nowhere else did Jews find such an easy entry into the ruling class. They were present in the highest ranks of the army, the navy, and the diplomatic service.1 Social discrimination was negligible, and the idea of persecution unthinkable. The weakness of Italian nationalism helps to explain the convergence between the Jews and Risorgimento liberalism. The enthusiasm of the Italian liberals of Cavour’s generation for Jewish emancipation had been at first somewhat ambivalent in its motives. They had a negative view of traditional Jewish culture and regarded emancipation as a way of reforming the character of the Jews so that they could become worthy citizens of the new nation.2 However, Jewish reformers also wished to make a clean break with the demeaning misery of the ghettos, and were therefore ready to accept the liberals’ terms.
The Italian Jews had, indeed, every reason to welcome unification. The treatment of Jews in the Papal States, in particular, shocked the whole of liberal Europe. The issue was dramatized by the notorious Mortara case, when a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized by a Catholic maidservant was forcibly removed from his family and brought up as a Christian. The Jews of Rome were the last in Western Europe to be released from the ghetto, when Italian troops entered the city in 1870. On the other side, Italian patriots found themselves after unification in the situation of a beleaguered if powerful minority. Literate Italian speakers made up less than 10 percent of the population of the new kingdom, and for most of its inhabitants local or religious loyalties came first. The Jews, as Segre points out, were among the few groups willing to serve the nation with “unlimited enthusiasm and faithfulness.” Although there were very few in number (about .01 percent of the population), they played an important role in public life, and, more surprising, their successes aroused little or no resentment.
The Italian Jews tried to preserve a dual identity, as Jews and as Italians. However, Segre is very frank about the fact that for many Jews this became little more than a comfortable illusion. They acquired the prejudices of the most conformist members of the Italian bourgeoisie, and their Judaism became something purely formal, devoid of its ancient values. Their Italian identity seemed beyond question; there was a singular absence of the kind of threats and exclusions that elsewhere maintained a keener sense of Jewishness. Even clerical prejudice could seem to be a thing of the past; when Segre’s father, the mayor and the largest landowner of his village, got married, the parish priest led a torchlight procession in his honor and the nuns of a local orphanage embroidered a…
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