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La Forza del Destino

Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew: An Italian Story

by Dan Vittorio Segre, translated by Dan Vittorio Segre
Adler and Adler, 273 pp., $16.95

The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival

by Susan Zuccotti
Basic Books, 334 pp., $19.95

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 present for the bride.

With hindsight, of course, one can say, as Arnaldo Momigliano wrote in these pages, that “the Jews were less a part of Italian life than they thought they were.”3 In The Italians and the Holocaust some of Susan Zuccotti’s informants relate instances of anti-Semitism in their childhood. There were parents who advised their children to keep quiet about being Jewish. Nevertheless, when the position of Italian Jews changed radically for the worse, it was not in any way the direct result of an increase in specific anti-Semitic prejudice. It was instead the destruction of the more general values of tolerance and justice by Fascism that opened the way for a return of discrimination and persecution.

At first the advent of Fascism seemed only to confirm the sense of security of the Italian Jews. If even an aggressive nationalist dictatorship accepted the Jews’ status as good Italians, what could they possibly have to fear? Jews joined the Fascist party in significant numbers, and some even held high positions under the regime. All the same; Susan Zuccotti overstates the case when she writes that “Mussolini’s movement was as free from anti-Semitism as any other political party in Italy.” Zuccotti herself mentions sporadic anti-Semitic incidents provoked by Fascists during the 1920s. The frequent attacks by Fascists on the evil influence of Italy’s greatest bank, the Banca Commerciale, also had anti-Semitic overtones. The leading anti-Semitic propagandist in Italy, Giovanni Preziosi, first made his name during the period of Italy’s entry into the First World War by his denunciation of the bank as a fifth column for Germany; its founders and first managing directors were Jews of German origin.

It is true that Mussolini chose Aldo Finzi, a Jew who had close connections with the Banca Commerciale, for the key position of undersecretary of the ministry of the inferior in his government. However, in 1924, during the crisis provoked by the murder of the Socialist deputy Matteotti, Finzi was sacrificed to the suspicions of the extremist wing of Fascism, who hinted darkly that the whole affair was the fruit of the machinations of “cosmopolitan high finance.”

Mussolini himself certainly showed no signs of anti-Semitism in his personal relationships. By far the most important of the many women in his life was his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sanfatti; she was coeditor of Mussolini’s own ideological review, Gerarchia, and she exercised great influence on the regime’s patronage of the visual arts. However, if Mussolini took care to dissociate himself publicly from anti-Semitism, it was probably more out of prudence than out of sympathy. He believed in the stock clichés about the power of international Jewish finance, but he drew the conclusion that it was unwise to provoke such dangerous enemies. In his best Machiavellian style, he declared that “one must never touch either the Jews or the Church.”

But for all his public caution, he did not discourage the anti-Semitic polemics of the journalist Telesio Interlandi, who later became editor of the chief racist newspaper in Italy. La difesa della razza. Interlandi was commonly regarded as Mussolini’s unofficial mouthpiece. When Hitler came to power, Mussolini did not delay long before giving the anti-Semites their head. There is little doubt that he approved the press campaigns in 1934 against Jewish anti-Fascism and Zionism.

Some Jewish Fascists did not despair easily, however. The periodical La nostra bandiera, edited by Dan Vittorio Segre’s cousin Ettore Ovazza, redoubled its efforts to win the regime’s favor by condemning democracy and Zionism. Ovazza was prepared to carry his conformist zeal to extraordinary lengths. In true Fascist style, his group mounted a regular punitive expedition against the offices of the Jewish community’s most important publication, the pro-Zionist Israel. This happened after the introduction of the racial laws in the autumn of 1938, which had excluded Jews from Italian schools and forbidden civil marriages between Jews and non-Jews. This episode convinced Dan Segre’s father that he should encourage his son to leave for Palestine as soon as possible. Ovazza had sought the elder Segre’s approval, but even though he was a former officer of the Fascist militia, he had given a firm refusal. He explained that:

As Italians we had lost our sacrosanct rights inscribed in the constitution, but as Jews nobody could take away our sense of dignity and honor. To attack coreligionists in such hard times…in order to ingratiate ourselves with a regime that had betrayed us was to act as slaves, not as free men.

This exemplary story shows both how some Italian Jews had really become alienated from their heritage and how for others discrimination revived their sense of pride in being members of a special community.

The later horrors of the Holocaust have overshadowed the inhumanity of the Fascist racial laws. They appear almost trivial in comparison. But in the circumstances of 1938 their gravity should not be underrated. They were scarcely less severe than the Nuremberg Laws themselves. Later, Fascist legislation was probably taken as a model by German satellites such as Romania. As Zuccotti rightly emphasizes, the distinction that Fascists tried to draw between their “spiritual” anti-Semitism and the biological concepts of the National Socialists was an empty one. The only serious difference was that between racial and religious anti-Semitism; the Fascist measures, in both name and content, belonged to the first category. Converts were treated as Jews, provided neither of their parents was Christian.

However, the Italians made poor fanatics, as Mussolini often complained, and it was a long-established premise of the national culture that laws demand exceptions. Humane sentiment, corruption, and Mussolini’s own hesitations, dictated by changing political circumstances, all conspired to mitigate the harshness of the racial laws to some extent. Certificates of “Aryan descent” could be bought. Farinacci, the leading pro-Nazi in the Fascist movement, refused obstinately to fire his Jewish secretary. As many as 10,000 Jews had fled to Italy from Germany and Austria. The racial laws provided for their expulsion within a year. All grants of Italian citizenship made since 1919 were revoked. But about one third succeeded in obtaining an extension of their stay for one reason or another, and three thousand more refugees actually arrived between 1938 and 1941.

With Italy’s entry into the war, the condition of both foreign and Italian Jews worsened significantly. Foreign Jews were interned in camps as enemy aliens, irrespective of their national origins. Families were often deliberately broken up. The largest of the camps was at Ferramonti, in a particularly poor part of Calabria.4 Conditions were primitive and extremely unhealthy, thanks to bad diet and housing, endemic malaria, and medical neglect. But the prisoners were not deliberately harassed or mistreated, and they were allowed to organize their own communal services. The camp acquired something of the atmosphere of a kibbutz; it reminded one visitor of Jewish Palestine.

The location of most of the camps in the south may have been punitive in intent, but it had fortunate consequences, since it meant that the internees never fell under German control. Not all foreign Jews were interned in camps. Some suffered the relatively mild fate of enforced confinement in small villages (confino), a measure previously used against anti-Fascists. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, deported to a small village in the Abruzzi with her husband and children, remembered her stay there as a period of calm and happiness. When Mussolini fell from power, she and her children stayed on in the village voluntarily until the Germans came.

The Italian Jews who remained at liberty also suffered new indignities. In some of the cities with important Jewish communities—Trieste, Ferrara, Casale Monferrato—there were serious acts of violence by Fascist thugs. Beating up Jews and setting fire to synagogues was a safe way of trying to revive the mystique of the armed squads of early Fascism (squadrismo). Jews were not allowed to serve in the armed forces, and this unfairly exposed them to the criticism that they were shirking the burdens of the war. In May 1942 they were made liable for compulsory labor service. The regime expected that this measure would meet with popular approval, but in fact it reawakened sympathy for the Jews. The program of forced labor gradually fell apart. In all, only about 2,000 Jews out of 15,000 who registered were actually drafted.

  1. 1

    See A. Momigliano, “The Jews of Italy,” The New York Review, October 24, 1985.

  2. 2

    See A.M. Canepa, “Emancipation and Jewish Response in Mid-19th Century Italy,” European Historical Quarterly, October 1986, pp. 403, 429. The absence of popular anti-Semitism in Italy should not be taken for granted. There were serious anti-Semitic outbreaks during the period of the French occupation, and even in 1848 crowds in some places rioted against Jewish emancipation. No one has as yet provided a convincing explanation of its disappearance at a later date.

  3. 3

    The Jews of Italy,” The New York Review, October 24, 1985.

  4. 4

    See C.S. Greco, Ferramonti: La vita e gli uomini del piu grande campo d’internamento fascista (Florence: Edizioni La Giuntina, 1987).

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