• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Triumph of the Italian Jews

Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924-1974

by H. Stuart Hughes
Harvard University Press, 188 pp., $15.00

GETO—the word stood out in large black capitals against the small print of a poster on the wall of the Gesuati Church when I was in Venice recently; it turned out to be the name of a film which was to be shown, once only, in the Camera di Commercio on May 11.1 More familiar in its nondialect form “ghetto,” the word prompts images of fifteenth-century Frankfurt or twentieth-century Warsaw, but it was Venice that provided a name for the urban prisons in which the Jews were confined for many centuries. Since Venice is a city of small islands connected by bridges, nothing was easier than to post sentries on the bridges and isolate one of the islands in the northern sector of the city, an industrial site where there had been a foundry—it was done in 1516.

On the screen, watched by an overflow audience, a series of haunting images traced the 300-year history of the ghetto, as the camera focused on the original decree, still in the archives, which established its regulations; ranged through the rich interior of the “Spanish” synagogue, designed by Longhena, the architect of the great church of La Salute; moved along the bricked-up windows facing the canal and the outside world and then climbed the stories which had been piled on stories as height was made to serve for space; release came only with the arrival of Napoleon’s troops, who brought in the modern age. But the film ended, as it had begun, somberly: newsreel footage that showed the solemn commemoration, in the ghetto itself, of the Italian Jews murdered by the Nazis. And in the ghetto now (it is still called by that name though no guards stand on the bridges) Venetian children kick their soccer ball against a high brick wall on which, below the crowning fringe of triple barbed wire, are fixed seven bronze bas-reliefs, images of the Holocaust.

Italian Jewry had never occupied a conspicuous place in the consciousness of the rest of the world. There was no mass emigration, like that from Russia and Poland, no organized anti-Semitic movements, as in Germany and the Austrian Empire, no sensational affaire like the Dreyfus scandal in France. Indeed the Jewish presence did not loom large in the Italian consciousness either; Jews had been in Italy as long as anyone else (there are Jewish catacombs in Rome as well as Christian), and, above all, unlike their northern coreligionists, they had no separate everyday language. When in the early nineteenth century the gates of the ghetto were flung open (everywhere except in papal Rome, where they stayed closed until 1870 in that crass world of ignorance and corruption immortalized in the Romanesco sonnets of Belli), the Italian Jews rejoined the mainstream of Italian life and culture from which they had been separated since the Renaissance. By the beginning of the twentieth century, to quote Stuart Hughes, they “appeared fully integrated into the national life. Still more, their leading personalities constituted a special and respected variety of elite.” Many of them left far behind them not only the memory of the ghetto but also their religion; often, indeed, they had half forgotten their Jewish ancestry. They were to be brutally reminded of it by the anti-Semitic decrees of 1938 and the arrival of the SS murder squads in 1943.

The “silver age” of the Italian Jews, the subject of Stuart Hughes’s book, is a fifty-year period that began in 1924, the year of the murder of Matteotti and the consolidation of Mussolini’s dictatorial power. A silver age must have a golden predecessor, and Stuart Hughes finds it in the years between 1906 and the mid-1920s, “two decades in which Jews loomed largest in the national life.” (There had been a still earlier golden age: the Renaissance years before the Counter-Reformation and the establishment of the ghetto, years in which the Jewish population of Italy “reached its all-time high” and “Italy’s Jews felt themselves least reviled, most respected, closest to acceptance by the majority.”)

The modern golden age gave Italy two prime ministers of Jewish descent, Sonnino and Luzzatti, and two dozen Jewish members of the Senate; Jews constituted only one tenth of 1 percent of the population but 8 percent of university professors and 6.7 percent of the names listed in the Who’s Who of the period—there were even Jewish generals and naval officers. But in one field, that of literature, they had not made their mark. This was to be the achievement of the silver age that followed 1924, and it is with six writers of the period, all of them Jewish or part Jewish, that Stuart Hughes is concerned. Their names are inscribed high on the honor roll of modern Italian literature: Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, and Giorgio Bassani.

What would lead a non-Jew to write of Italian Jewry?” Stuart Hughes asks himself in the opening sentence of his book. The reason is “quite personal”: he “suddenly realized” that nearly half of the Italian acquaintances he had made over “a number of years of sustained and close contact with Italy” were of Jewish origin. It was a fact they had neither suppressed nor emphasized; when it surfaced “it was conveyed matter-of-factly, in a tone neither of boasting nor of apology.” So too with the writers; their biographical sketches sometimes did not mention the matter at all, though “in most cases this identification still seemed important to them.”

Stuart Hughes was intrigued by the possibility that the study of this Italian situation might contribute to (“or even transcend”) the “debate on assimilation versus Jewish identity…. It might…be possible both to be highly assimilated and to treasure one’s Jewish heritage.” Since his experience “suggested that the residual sense of Jewishness was a very private matter,” he turned from individuals to literature as “the best and possibly the only avenue to understanding. It seemed plausible that even with writers who spoke scarcely at all of their Jewish origins or associations, one might pick up echoes and resonances of a tradition extending back for more than two thousand years.”

What is left of identity”—so Stuart Hughes poses the question—“when both language and religion are gone?” For the first two writers on his list, Svevo and Moravia, the question imposes itself peremptorily; they are in fact figures “so uncertain about their Jewishness” that “possibly…they do not belong in our story at all.” Both were baptized Catholics (Svevo as a grown man, Moravia at birth); Moravia, whose Jewish father was an atheist, grew up without Jewish memories or associations. Svevo (whose real name was Schmitz) attended a school run by a rabbi in his native Trieste (then part of Austria) and, later on, a boarding school near Würzburg which catered mainly to the sons of German-Jewish businessmen; his pen name Italo Svevo recognizes his German (Swabian) education as well as his ambition to be an Italian writer. But, though he helped James Joyce, his English teacher and friend, “with the specific details…needed for composing a Jewish character” (Joyce in turn rescued him from obscurity by vigorously promoting his third and last novel, La coscienza di Zeno), there is no overt trace of his Jewish heritage in his published work. Critics have, however, seen “cryptic-Hebraic…theme and tonality” in the self-defeating, self-deprecating passivity of his protagonists, their sense of futility and premature assumption of old age (the “hero” of Senilità is in his thirties).

Stuart Hughes proposes a different reading of the last novel: he finds a “more cheerful tone” to the “self-denigration” of Zeno, whose failures in love and business turn out to be a kind of success and whose inability to give up smoking (a leitmotif of the book) is in the end accepted with humorous indulgence. “If, then, we are to view Zeno as a crypto-Jew,” Stuart Hughes writes, “it is as a Jew with a style of humor familiar to us all from countless folk anecdotes…the ostensibly self-denigrating Jew who in the stories he tells on himself invariably manages to come out on top.” He is “a person not without hope.”

In Moravia, as in Svevo, Stuart Hughes finds “echoes…of familiar Jewish themes…the ingrained sorrow, the weariness of a life not yet lived, epitomized by the conviction of senilità“; but the hope which he detects in the ironic self-denigration of Zeno is missing. From the first novel Gli indifferenti (1929) to the late La noia, which appeared in 1960 (the English title The Empty Canvas 2 does not do justice to the Italian word, which covers a broad range of negative mental states from boredom to dislike), his protagonists “lingered behind Svevo’s Zeno in the shallows of despair: despising themselves, they clutched at sexuality as the only form of salvation they knew.” Moravia himself, in an interview, described his personality as the product of a “curious amalgam” (presumably a reference to his Jewish father and Dalmatian mother) which had “determined” in him “an excess of sensitivity.” Stuart Hughes recognizes the importance of a painfully sick childhood in the creation of a conviction of “the impossibility of taking action,” but lays more stress on the Jewish strain in Moravia’s ancestry as the root of what he himself described as “the central theme” of his books and his life—“the problem of action” in the sense of “contact with reality.”

This may be right as far as the novels are concerned but it should be remembered that Moravia is also the author of Racconti romani and Nuovi racconti romani, two dazzling collections of very short stories about Roman life written, most of them, for the third page of the Italian newspapers. In these pages the people of the Roman streets come to life in all their color, cruelty, cynical humor, and savage energy; there is no problem of contact with reality here. It is as if the air of his native city had somehow lightened the burden of Moravia’s heritage; the themes here are not Jewish but Roman. These stories are a prose equivalent of that other great street drama of Roman life, the 2,269 sonnets of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli.3

They date, however, from the post-war years; Moravia’s influence on the younger generation of Jewish-Italian writers was exerted through the novels and especially Gli indifferenti, with its scathing portrayal of the moral squalor of bourgeois (and Fascist) Italy. Primo Levi read it as a young man, and it was by reading and rereading this novel that Natalia Ginzburg taught herself to write. Moravia, though as a well-known dissident he had to go into hiding in 1943, emerged unscathed from the ordeal of the German occupation. The two younger writers, however, felt the full brunt of the Nazi terror in their own persons: Primo Levi survived ten months in Auschwitz and Natalia Ginzburg’s husband Leone, frequently imprisoned by the Mussolini regime, died, probably murdered, in a German prison sometime in the winter of 1943-1944.

  1. 1

    Directed by Alberto Castelloni and Paolo Borgonovi.

  2. 2

    Translated by Angus Davidson (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961).

  3. 3

    The best introduction to Belli in English is still Eleanor Clark’s brilliant essay in Rome and a Villa (Doubleday, 1952).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print