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.
One of Leone Ginzburg’s older associates in the anti-Fascist movement was the painter and political activist Carlo Levi. He is famous for one book; it is the fruit of a period of exile, under the Fascist regime, in the poverty-stricken, arid, ruined lands of the Mezzogiorno. The village to which he was confined for the duration of the Abyssinian war (Gagliano is the name he gave it) lies southeast of the small town of Eboli. Eboli, the peasants told him, was where Christ stopped; he did not get as far as Gagliano. They had given Levi a title for the famous book which he wrote about them later, as he waited, hidden in German-occupied Florence, for the arrival of the Allied armies. In this book “he managed,” says Stuart Hughes, “what three generations of…professional students of the area, far more qualified than he, had failed to accomplish”: he awakened his fellow northerners (he was born in Turin) to the “bitter realities of the Italian South.” His Jewish identity is hardly mentioned; it surfaces only occasionally, as when the village priest, asking him to play the organ at a Mass, speaks tactfully of a “different faith.”
Stuart Hughes finds in Carlo Levi’s work a familiar Jewish theme, however: “the age-old theme of exile.” Perhaps, too, his sympathetic understanding of that alien peasant world, which in a famous passage he linked to Virgil’s “humilem…Italiam,” “low-lying Italy” (as it appeared to the Trojans on their ships), and to Dante’s “umile Italia” (so different from the imperial vision Mussolini struggled to impose), a world “hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient…,” owes something to ancestral memories of another confined and forgotten world, the ghetto.
“With Primo Levi,” Stuart Hughes writes, “we come at last to a ‘real’ Jew.” Born, like his unrelated namesake Carlo, in Turin, he studied to become a chemist only to find his way barred by the anti-Semitic laws of 1938 which made him an alien among his fellow students and professors. What had been a “cheerful little anomaly” became overnight a source of embarrassment; forced back on the Jewish tradition in which he had been raised but to which, like others of his generation, he had paid little more than lip service, he began “to be proud of” the “impurity” for which he had been cast out. By 1943 he had joined a partisan band in Piedmont; he was arrested when the group was rounded up by the Germans in December of that year. He incautiously identified himself as “an Italian citizen of Jewish race” and was soon on his way to Auschwitz. He was still alive when the German guards marched their prisoners west through the snow before the advancing Russian columns; too weak to march, he was left behind in the January cold of 1945 to wait for the Russians, who arrived ten days later. It took him nine months of wandering in Eastern Europe before he found his way back over the Brenner Pass to Italy.
In 1947 he published his account of the ten months in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo (“If This Be a Man”),4 which became “one of the classics in the genre” of concentration-camp memoirs. It was originally rejected by the publisher Einaudi, whose founder, Giulio, had been a member of an anti-Fascist group in Turin; the reader who had advised against publication was none other than Natalia Ginzburg. It was not until 1958 that Einaudi reversed this decision; from then on the firm published all of Levi’s writing.
The initial rejection is understandable. The book shows no trace of hatred for the German people, not even for the administrators of the death camps; it is almost as if Levi had dismissed them as nonhuman. In fact, twenty-two years after the war’s end, when his former boss at the Buna chemical factory, where he had worked while an inmate at the camp, suggested a “friendly reunion,” his reaction “in the German of the concentration camp” was “Der Mann hat keine Ahnung“—“He hasn’t the faintest idea….”
Levi offered his book not as one more account of unspeakable suffering but as a “serene study of certain aspects of the human soul”; it was prompted, as Stuart Hughes puts it, by a “compulsion to plumb the depths of unparalleled human experience.” It certainly plumbs the depths: the cowed, silent shame of the prisoners as one of their number, the last resister, the last man of courage, is hanged; the total collapse of morale and human norms of feeling in the ten days of waiting for the Russians as the sick men froze or starved to death; the old Jew who prays in thanksgiving to God that he has not been marked for death in the “selection” that has just taken place—“If I were God,” Levi comments, “I would spit out [his] prayer upon the ground.”
For Levi and his fellow Italian Jews—“gentle, educated, defenseless,” no good at manual labor, unfit for the dog-eat-dog struggle to survive that was the rule of the camps—the old man’s thanksgiving “for a special favor bestowed from on high smacked of a notion of Judaism they had abandoned three generations ago…” for an “ecumenical humanism” that “admitted of no limitations on a universal claim to sympathy.” Levi remembers in Auschwitz the speech Ulisse makes in Dante’s Inferno as he urges his crew to embark on a final voyage into uncharted waters:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.
Though he and his companions are, in fact, in hell and living like brute beasts, he finds some reason for his sufferings in the idea that like Ulisse, he “is embarked on an ultimate voyage beyond the limits of the human,” that he is, through suffering, pursuing “virtue and knowledge” that will enable him to “deepen…understanding of an evil so vast and irreparable that it had pervaded the lives of one and all.” Later he can sum up his wartime experience as “the awesome privilege of our generation and of my people.”
Still another Levi of Turin (unrelated to the other two) grew up to be a writer: Natalia, the youngest of the five children of Professor Giuseppe Levi, three of whose four sons were active, like their father, in the anti-Fascist movement. Her education, which she looked back on as marked by “inattention, incoherence, absurdity, and an absolute absence of any…defined and precise ideology,” left her without religious instruction, and her isolation as the youngest in a formidable family inspired in her a “melancholy…motionless, limitless, incomprehensible, inexplicable, like a sky way up high, black, brooding, and deserted.” As she described her apprenticeship later, she trained herself to write “without feminine…sentimentality”; she “wanted to write like a man.” She created a distinctive narrative style which Stuart Hughes brilliantly sums up as marked by “a dry factuality, the cool stance of an external observer, with an undercurrent of suppressed rage.” (She herself expressed the wish that “every sentence should be like a whipping or a slap.”) The style was to serve her well as, with the news of her husband’s death in prison, she entered the years of solitude and “irremediable…sorrow.”
The milieu of her early fiction is not Jewish; she had a strange conviction that her background made her unfit for the profession of literature—she could not think of a “writer who was at one and the same time Jewish, of a middle-class family, son of a professor, and raised in Piedmont.” The early stories and novels, in fact, are set in a vague locale which could be anywhere, and the characters, often not given names until near the end of the tale, might be anyone—anyone, that is, afflicted by the brooding sense of loneliness, of the fragility of human happiness, which was the legacy of her difficult childhood and the bitter loss of her husband. “Why have we ruined everything?” is the refrain of the lovers in Voices in the Evening (1961).
Her only long novel Tutti i nostri ieri (“All Our Yesterdays”), published in 1952,5 deals with the vicissitudes of an Italian family in the war years; the two Jewish characters, a “Turk” and a Polish Jew from Warsaw, are both peripheral foreigners. And in the novella Sagittario (1957) there is a Jewish character, a doctor, who is also a Polish refugee. It is as if the author found it impossible to deal in the fictional mode with her own people; in Voices in the Evening there are no explicitly Jewish characters at all. But finally, in 1963, she confronted her own experience in Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings): the story of her family with “gaps and omissions” which needed to “be read as though it were a novel.”
The links connecting the episodes and personalities are those characteristic expressions which in every family are preserved as cherished souvenirs of personality or memorable incident; the book is a “lexicon” of “those ancient phrases, heard and repeated an infinite number of times in our childhood…. One of these would make us recognize one another, in the darkness of a cave or among millions of people.” In this autobiography, a classic of the genre, the “only book” which, by her own account, she wrote “in a state of absolute freedom,” she found what Stuart Hughes calls “precisely the tone she needed, a tone of delicate irony veined with cordial affection.” It is a heroic as well as a delicately comic family chronicle. The Levi home was a nucleus of anti-Fascist activity—it was the base, for example, for the spectacular operation that smuggled the socialist statesman Filippo Turati out of Italy to safety in Corsica. But the sad note is still there: the arrival of Jewish refugees from abroad stirs fears for the future, ancestral fears, soon to be justified, of persecution and exile.
Of the other main theme Stuart Hughes finds in these writers, senilità, there is no trace in Natalia Ginzburg’s writing; that was the malaise of the older generation. But she contributed a third theme—“again a variant on something eternal”: the family, in this case a family in which “private life and public concerns were inextricably entangled.” It was a family history to which she would look back in memory for support and of which she could feel proud.
No such source of moral strength was available to the last of the six writers, Giorgio Bassani, whose family belonged to the upper bourgeoisie of Ferrara. The Jewish families of Ferrara had an almost unique distinction: they were large-scale landowners (a consequence of their role as suppliers of capital for the drainage and reclamation of the Po delta in the nineteenth century). Most of them were supporters of Fascism during the 1920s but their treatment after 1938 was no different from that meted out to the anti-Fascist Jewish families of Turin. Young Bassani, at the age of twenty-two, was suddenly excluded from his accustomed world of social acceptance, tennis, and the pursuit of pretty blondes; he had to break his engagement to a Catholic girl and later became a teacher in the now segregated Jewish school. He also became an active anti-Fascist and later worked against the regime under an assumed name in Florence and Rome.
After the war, he published three volumes of poetry, but the series of stories and novels that were eventually to be retouched and joined together as Il Romanzo di Ferrara (1974) began with the publication in 1952 of the bitter story “Una lapide in Via Mazzini“; it appeared in the famous magazine Botteghe oscure, of which Bassani was then editor. He also worked for the publishing firm of Feltrinelli and it was he who accepted for publication Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great Sicilian novel Il gattopardo, after it had been rejected by Einaudi.
Bassani, “alone among his contemporaries, celebrated his Italian Jewish heritage as the underlying and pervasive theme of his work.” Though many of the stories concern relations between Jews and non-Jews (relations which Stuart Hughes sums up as “a riddle of irremediable misunderstanding”), the focus of the stories is always on the Jewish protagonist, the Jewish milieu. In the development of Bassani’s themes, Stuart Hughes sees him progressing through four phases: “initially through depicting ambiguous relations between Jews and non-Jews; then through setting up an alter ego, for whom he next substituted his own person; in the end through creating a self-contained all-Jewish preserve in which a single lofty, enigmatic figure epitomized the subtleties and the perplexities of Italian Judaism.”
That figure is the seventy-three-year-old patriarch Professor Ermanno Finzi-Contini; the novel in which he appears, Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962, English translation 1965) is the work that made Bassani’s name familiar to American readers, and many who did not read the book saw the tragic, beautiful film that De Sica based on it (1970). The Finzi-Contini family, rich landowners “with their palatial residence close to the city walls,” were “obsessed with their own privacy”; they had restored for their personal use a small abandoned synagogue of the “Spanish” rite and had not been seen in public for five years or so when the anti-Semitic laws were promulgated in 1938. The professor then put the tennis court in his huge gardens at the disposal of young coreligionists excluded from the local club, and so the narrator, a young man hopelessly in love with the professor’s blonde daughter Micòl, became a member of the charmed circle.
The narrator is admitted not only to the tennis court but, after his exclusion from the municipal library, to the magnificent collections in the professor’s private study; he is admitted, too, into the professor’s “intensely private vision of Judaism in the contemporary world,” a secret plan in which the narrator was to have a part, to become, in fact, “one of the shining lights of Italian Jewry.” This vision is never revealed except by vague hints. For the narrator’s father, a physician and freethinker who thinks of himself as a “modern Jew,” the family’s self-absorbed, withdrawn existence is merely “misplaced pride, a covert anti-Semitism,” but the narrator knows that it is in fact a way of dodging urgent pressure to join the Fascist Party, as many Ferrarese Jews had done.
In 1938, when the regime reveals its anti-Semitic program, the family leaves its private synagogue and rejoins the Jewish community for Rosh Hashana; “We’re all in the same boat now,” says Micòl—as indeed they are. But for the moment it seems almost as if the professor, at any rate, welcomes the new segregation laws; at the family dinner table, the first time the narrator is invited to share their meal, the new situation is greeted with “elegantly sarcastic…comments,…well-bred hilarity.” It may be, Stuart Hughes suggests, that the professor saw this resegregation as conforming to his secret plan; perhaps “deep in his heart [he] nourished a nostalgia for the ghetto….” For those invited to share it, the garden, for a few years, offered “an oasis of serenity in a world of desperation”; for the narrator its “mere recollection spelt ‘paradise.”‘
It was to end, of course, in the hell of deportation and the camps. Bassani leaves this to the imagination, merely stating the fact in the prologue, but no one who saw it will ever forget the sequence in De Sica’s film in which the family, three generations of it, is herded into the local schoolrooms with the rest of Ferrara’s Jewish population by an officious Italian usher—“Prego,” he says imperiously, “prego“—as jackbooted SS troopers pace the corridors.
Two of Bassani’s major characters appear in stories set in postwar Ferrara; neither finds it possible to reinsert himself in the new society. They both leave, one by shooting himself, just at the time when life seems to be returning to normal; “It is as if,” says Stuart Hughes, “the anti-Semitic laws were a ‘time bomb’ whose delayed action could destroy even those who had apparently come through unscathed.” The protagonist of the late novella L’airone (The Heron, 1968), a landowner (though not on the scale of the Finzi-Contini), escapes the worst consequences of the persecutions by marrying a non-Jew of a socially lower order, transferring his property to her and moving to Switzerland. In 1947, tied to a wife and daughter he does not love, afraid of rebellious sharecroppers on his estate whom he has denounced to the police, he goes off hunting in the marshes. A heron is brought down by his guide and he watches it drag itself about mortally wounded; it is no good to eat, the guide explains, but can be stuffed and used as an ornament. The landowner represses an impulse to put the wounded bird out of its misery; to have done so, he suddenly thinks, would seem like “shooting, in a sense, at himself.”
Later, back in town, he remembers the heron—it too had felt “hemmed in on all sides without the slightest possibility of escape.” The sight of stuffed birds in a taxidermist’s window clinches his resolve; the birds were more beautiful now than when they were alive—they glowed with “a perfection of…beauty…, final and imperishable.” Before he shoots himself he recalls that he has regularly paid his annual dues; no one could raise objections to his burial in the Jewish cemetery. “It was,” says Stuart Hughes, “as though his suicide might restore him, in a sense deeper than he could possibly think or express, to the company of his fellow-Jews…as though what remained of his Judaism could be saved through death alone.”
The early story “Una lapide in Via Mazzini” is equally uncompromising. As a workman, in August 1945, starts to mount on the walls of the synagogue in Via Mazzini a plaque inscribed with the names of 183 Jewish citizens of Ferrara who are presumed dead in the camps, he is interrupted by a strange figure, a man dressed in bits and pieces of all the uniforms of Europe, who gives his name as Geo Josz, one of those inscribed on the stone. The narrator clearly speaks as a citizen of Ferrara, occasionally switching from third-person description to first person plural; the tone of voice is that of a reasonable, solid citizen who has survived the vicissitudes of Mussolini’s regime, the German-dominated Repubblica di Salò, and the dangerous period of partisan epurazione—he wants no further trouble, just a return to normal.
Geo Jasz is a disturbing element from the beginning; subtle nuances in Bassani’s fluid prose, so apparently colloquial, so elegantly structured, convey the narrator’s feeling of unease, almost annoyance, at this unexpected reappearance. Josz does little to improve the atmosphere: he asserts roundly that the plaque will have to be “done over again,” he even doubts that it should be put up at all. He treats one of his uncles, who had joined the partisans from his hiding place in the country, with distrust, almost hostility; he greets with hysterical joy the one who had been the most prominent Fascist among the Ferrara Jews and with him settles into an “instinctive understanding,” a tacit “pact” to forget the past.
But in May of the next year he meets on the Via Mazzini one Count Scocca, a figure who was “for all of us, without exception, the symbol of the blessed days entre deux guerres,” an impoverished aristocrat who had been on the payroll of Mussolini’s secret police, the OVRA, and director of the Ferrara section of the Italo-Germanic Cultural Institute. No one knew what passed between them but the conversation ended with two slaps on the Count’s face, administered by Geo. Had the Count asked after his family? Whistled a snatch of Lili Marlene? No one knew.
But from that point on Geo Josz became a real pest; he appeared in public wearing the rags he had first turned up in and would sit in the principal café, opposite the former Fascist officials who were now coming out of the closet (Ferrara was “returning to normal”), and show pictures of his relatives who had died in the gas chambers. And suddenly, one day, he disappeared, never to be seen again. The narrator by this time is not only baffled but almost indignant. One thing is clear: not only does he feel no responsibility for what Josz and the other 182 have suffered, he has not even the slightest idea of the enormity of that suffering. Der Mann hat keine Ahnung….
But then in a sudden moment of illumination, he understands the riddle. Geo and the Count had met at twilight, the hour when “things and people who before seemed perfectly ordinary to you, may suddenly show themselves for what they really are….” Geo must have asked himself: “What am I doing with this man? Who is he? And who am I, answering his questions and so playing his game?” He answered with two slaps on the cheeks. But he might have answered, says the narrator, “with a demented, inhuman howl, so loud that the whole city…could have heard it and shuddered.”
“Prisoners of hope,” Stuart Hughes’s title, is a phrase used by the rabbi of a small town in Piedmont to comfort his son. “Many times,” he said, “Jewish optimism is born of despair. Only for prisoners of hope is there a sure tomorrow.” Even Bassani’s dark vision in The Heron was balanced by the story “Necessity Is the Veil of God,” which he put first in the last volume of his consolidated Romanzo. It is a short evocation of a victim of the Holocaust, a woman whose husband, together with his parents, was sent off to the death camps. But she had borne a son and that son, in 1945 as the survivors gathered in the synagogue, “seemed the very personification of life that eternally ends and eternally begins again.”
Stuart Hughes sums up the “overarching theme” of his book as “the eternal hope of a people whose sufferings have likewise been eternal.” At times it must have seemed that the hope was illusory. Yet there is one remarkable statistic which suggests otherwise, that the “ecumenical humanism” implicit in Primo Levi’s rejection of the old man’s prayer was not confined to enlightened Jews. Of the 36,000 Jews caught in Nazi-occupied Italy, just under four-fifths were saved, an “apparent miracle, surpassed only by the record of Denmark.” And much of the credit goes to the Italian people whose behavior, at the time of the great Rome roundup, was described in a Gestapo report as “outright passive resistance which in many individual cases amounted to active assistance.”
The years between 1924 and 1974 may indeed have been a silver age for the Italian Jews, but for Italian prose literature the age was golden. This distinguished book, which combines the expert skills of a seasoned historian with the understanding of a literary critic steeped in the language and literature of his subject, offers a challenging interpretation to those who already know these writers, and will serve as a masterly introduction for those whom it will inspire to make their acquaintance.
August 18, 1983
Directed by Alberto Castelloni and Paolo Borgonovi. ↩
Translated by Angus Davidson (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961). ↩
The best introduction to Belli in English is still Eleanor Clark’s brilliant essay in Rome and a Villa (Doubleday, 1952). ↩
Published in English as If This Is a Man (Orion, 1959), and as survival in Auschwitz, translated by Stuart Woolf (Collier, 1961). ↩
Published in English as A Light for Fools, translated by Angus Davidson (Dutton, 1957). ↩