Jewish Memoirists: The Role of Memory in the Discourse of Identity.

Fabio Girelli-Carasi

This paper is part of a larger ongoing research that started, with a different perspective, several years ago. Because it is a work-in-progress, what I will present is the blueprint for a comprehensive analysis, with hypotheses and several open questions, and my initial attempts at the formulation of preliminary answers.

My research began when I first approached the world of the so-called "Holocaust Literature" through the works of Primo Levi. Among the peripheral observations I made in the course of my original study, was the fact that Levi appeared to have received much higher recognition in the Anglo-Saxon world than in Italy where, until a few years ago, he was still considered a "minore," an author of lesser import, in the literary landscape. Besides the issue of the unquestionable value of Levi's work, I found it rather puzzling that Italians would not care to derive national pride from his success abroad. As we very well know, Italians are always seeking such recognition, as can be easily evinced, for instance, from the pride exuded by the media on the recent Hollywood triumph of Roberto Benigni.

An initial exploration of Italian literature, and in particular of what is considered the standard canon, led me to the preliminary conclusion that Primo Levi was not assigned a pre-eminent position in the literary firmament because his work was outside the discourse of Italian literature. Its realm of belonging, I was convinced, was the Jewish discourse, a discourse of which Italian literature was completely ignorant. Lacking this context, Levi was reduced to an oddity, a strange and almost isolated phenomenon that escaped categorization, and was therefore ex-centric, out of the mainstream, and to be handled as a separate entity.

The absence of a Jewish discourse in Italian literature does not mean that representation of Jews is totally absent from the literary expression. As Lynn Gunzberg demonstrated in her seminal work Strangers at Home: Jews in the Italian Literary Imagination, after the emancipation Jews have been depicted in literature, particularly in texts of "popular" literature, written mostly by non-Jewish authors, with results that can be easily imagined. Lynn Gunzberg's thesis is that these works reflect more closely a widespread anti-Jewish sentiment in the population, something that seems to be in contradiction with the presence at high levels of Italian society of pre-eminent Jewish personalities, politicians, military and academics.

The "success" of the Jews probably originated the myth of Italians being philo-Semitic, a gross generalization that borders on distortion, and that has been enormously reinforced by a peculiar interpretation of the events in WWII. Just because "only" a third of Italian Jews were eliminated in the Lager or had to flee the country, and just because the genocidal fever did not reach the proportions it did in Germany, France, Central and Eastern Europe, the conclusion was this was the result of a "benevolent" attitude. Just because "fewer" Jews were killed? I beg to differ and would like for a moment to subvert standard terminology to suggest that this operation amounts to a sort of homespun Italian "negationism," a comfortable position that denies the existence of anti-Semitism and that for the longest time in Italy took the connotation of default ideology.

To return to the main point, I believe that what I am proposing here complements Lynn Gunzberg's thesis and her conclusions. I will submit that, although a "discourse about the Jews" may have been present, it was a discourse in which the Jews themselves were not allowed to participate, while a Jewish discourse proper has been absent from canonic literature and society.

"Discourse" is a comprehensive term that encompasses the production of meaning and the construction of significant texts, cultural, literary and artistic that, collectively construct an ideology or an aesthetic. In literature, at least, it signifies a body of works that are interpreted, show marks of a historical stratification, and reflects both a self-conscious and an unconscious vision of the world bundled within the definition of an identity. According to the standard tools of literary criticism that I chose to adopt, these works, and the discourse they would create, are identifiable when they satisfied at least the basic test of "belonging," the cherished Italian "appartenenza." The criterion of "belonging," thus, does not apply exclusively to topics, topoi and themes, but includes necessarily the notion of genre and, to use a softer term, even "tone."

As to the reasons why Italian literature doesn’t contemplate a Jewish discourse, the standard hypothesis points to the historical circumstances, first of which is the extremely limited size of Italian Jewry through the centuries, a community that ever hardly exceeded 60,000 or 70.000 members. However, an intriguing opposite hypothesis could be offered based on the fact that, in rather stark contrast to the 70-plus percent of illiteracy in the general population through the middle of the 19th century, practically all Italian Jews were able to read and write. The high literacy rate among Jews makes it not completely coincidental that -- after the emancipation -- and in particular in the first half of the Twentieth century, a significant portion of the publishing industry was controlled by Jewish owners, as was the case of Treves, La Nuova Italia, Lattes, Bemporad and Mondadori.

And yet, even in this circumstances, we witness the failure of a Jewish discourse, or even Jewish themes, of affirming themselves. Even Jewish authors, or authors of Jewish descent, were silent on Jewish themes and issues, with attitudes towards Judaism that ranged from the indifferent to the dismissive to the openly hostile, as were the cases, respectively, of Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia and Umberto Saba, to mention just some the most representative voices. A particularly insightful analysis of this subject is contained in the volume Appartenenza e differenza: Ebrei d'Italia e letteratura, published in 1998 (Firenze: La Giuntina.).

In the 20th century, then, the historical absence of texts by Jews about Jewish themes, arguably must be attributed to reasons other than the exclusion of Jews from the cultural and intellectual establishment. A possible explanations, I shall venture, is that Italian Jews, historically, always wished "not to attract attention to themselves" as Jews, something that through the centuries they had learned was not in their best interest, for establishing a high profile would trigger unwelcome reactions against the whole community. Anyone reading the history of Italian Jews immediately realizes that the most salient events are almost to the letter the embodiment of the old proverb that the nail that sticks out, is the one that gets hammered. I would argue that this historically sedimented attitude most likely persisted even after the emancipation, resulting in a silence that pervaded the literary world even in this century.

In support of this thesis, one could take into account the demographic stability of the Italian Jewish communities, to reach the conclusion that the so-called benign treatment of the Jews by Italians is more wishful thinking on the part of Italians than reality. This conclusion can be drawn from the observation that in the rest of Europe, Eastern as well as Western, Jewish communities flourished until they amounted to hundreds of thousands if not millions of individuals, while in Italy the number of Jews was always kept very small, and in reality has declined progressively as a percentage of the total population. Genocide and large-scale pogroms were not necessary in Italy, one could suspect, because there was always some subtle kind of self-imposed population control mechanism at play. I don’t believe necessarily in a vast anti Jewish conspiracy to keep the number of Jews constantly low, but it is possible to envision a sort of "collective birth control" implemented by Jews who had realized that once the community went beyond a certain size, they would suffer repercussions. So, each community learned what its organic size was, above which it could not go. Jews learned to keep a low profile and to keep quiet.

As we move from the remote and quasi-remote past to more recent periods, the "hole" in the canon of Italian literature becomes harder to explain. I refer here to the absence of a discourse, historical, moral, metaphysical and epistemological, emanating from the historically determinant experience of the racial laws of the Mussolini regime and the Italian Jewish "contribution" to the death toll of the Shoa in Italian literature. To put it simply, Italian literature, and, at large, Italian consciousness, for the longest time did not have a place for a Jewish discourse, not even when a discourse emerged in the rest Europe, in the U.S. and in Israel, formulated in the terms of what would be later labeled "Holocaust literature." There was very little place, in particular, for first person accounts, for memoirs, for religious and philosophical meditations on the meaning of the Shoa, either in general or in reference to the Italian experience in particular. Obviously, among the Jews of Italy and in their publications these themes were widely debated and discussed. Oral history was pre-eminent and a very firm form of consciousness existed. However, this hardly penetrated the discourse of society at large.

A confirmation of this situation is in Anna Bravo's essay "Gli scritti di memoria della deportazione dall'Italia (1944-1993). I significati e l'accoglienza," published in Storia della memoria e della deportazione (Firenze: Editrice La Giuntina 1996). In a thoroughly researched paper, the author lists practically all of the publications on the theme of Jewish "deportation," and prefaces her findings with the observation that most of the works "could only count on small or very small publishing houses, too weak and too far from the cultural establishment to offer widespread distribution on the market and, consequently, obtain adequate recognition in the historical-literary environment" (p. 65.) Her thesis is that -- significantly -- historical research in Italy gave scant attention to the uniqueness of the Jewish predicament, and that the ordeal of the Italian Shoa was subsumed under the "larger" rubric of the history of deportation to the German labor camps of Italian political prisoners, partisans and draft evaders. In Italian historiography, Italian Jews are left with the role of extras in the representation of the drama of Italian suffering, as ratified by the new national ideology of the Resistenza. It is in a way the same sort of operation, a construction of text, performed by the Polish on Auschwitz, which was to be interpreted as a symbol of Polish suffering under the Nazi, with no reference to the Jews.

Or more dangerously, it mirrors the attempt by the Catholic church, and by the pope, Paul John II himself, to appropriate itself of the Shoa, using the argument that the Shoa was an offense against humanity, against "Man," to use standard Catholic rhetoric. In that the Shoa was against "Man," it follows that it was against Christ, therefore it was anti-Christian, and consequently it becomes part of the experience of Catholic suffering and martyrdom. This thesis reappeared in a piece signed by Luigi Giussani, head of the Catholic fundamentalist group "Comunione e Liberazione," in the newspaper La Repubblica on January 2nd, 1999.

The situation in Italy remained stable for some forty years, with a handful of titles published primarily, as we saw, by small specialized houses. Of course there was one major exception, and this exception was Primo Levi. But, to use a standard Italian common place, Levi was the exception that confirmed the rule.

The landscape began to change significantly ten to fifteen years ago. The trickle of books became a steady stream, growing in size and relevance. In a crescendo that apparently is still to reach its peak, Italians publishers and readers "discovered" Judaism. Books on the Jews and Judaism started cropping up everywhere on the shelves of the poorly frequented Italian bookstores. It was a phenomenon that took everyone by surprise and that encompassed several genres of texts, from the journalistic to the erudite historical essay, to the ongoing historiographical research, to the collection of personal stories. As Jews became a hot publishing item, my task changed. It was no longer the attempt to explain why a Jewish discourse was absent in Italian literature, but it became the effort of deciphering to what extent this production affected the direction of the Italian discourse on the Jews, and if that amounted to the establishment of a Jewish discourse in the Italian consciousness.

The most tantalizing question was why the phenomenon is taking place at this particular junction in Italian history. In a previous essay that I presented last October at a symposium at SUNY-Stony Brook, I formulated a tentative hypothesis that took into consideration the major social changes that have taken place recently in Italy, the most relevant of which has been the arrival of foreign immigrants. In this context, I contended, Italians began interrogating themselves about the myths and the truths of their proclaimed tolerance and antiracist nature in view of particularly hideous episodes of violence and a widespread attitude of intolerance. In order for this self- interrogation not to become self-referential and automatically autoexculpatory, Italians needed to turn to someone else for an answer from outside. The Jews could provide those answers, for, historically, the Jews of the Diaspora have always had the special and unwelcome task of functioning as the litmus test of the presence of racism in a society. My thesis was that Italy was witnessing the birth of the discourse of diversity, and that within that discourse, for the first time, the Jewish discourse could be articulated and become part of the main discourse of Italian society about itself.

As clearly demonstrated in the volume Ebrei in Italia: un problema di identitÓ by Maurizio Molinari, there is no question that, starting at the very beginning in the 19th century, when the ideological construct of the Italian national identity was formulated, Italian Jews have felt fully and completely Italian, in terms of both their historical and existential consciousness. However, the Jews, in the consciousness of a Christian world, from the Middle Ages onward, have always represented the epitome of Otherness. Reflected in this historical Otherness, Italian are now trying to see, as in a mirror, the image of themselves. In the books written by Jews, Italians are looking for reassurance, hoping to hear, not surprisingly, good things about themselves.

It may not be completely coincidental that the shaping of a discourse of Otherness and diversity in Italy, in 1994 found its first comprehensive treatment in the book Gli altri, whose author, Furio Colombo, a non-Jew, is nevertheless one of Italy's intellectuals closest to Jewish sensibilities.

Another explanation as to the interest of Italians for everything Jewish has been offered in a conversation by Liliana Picciotto Fargion, arguably the foremost historian of the Shoa in Italy. According to her interpretation, Italians are reacting to a lack of a collective identity as a people and, in a time of confusion and uncertainty on what it means to be Italian, are looking at the Jews, fascinated by their certitude and the unwavering strength of their identity. One could thus conclude that in the books written by Jews on the Jews, Italians are establishing the discourse of their identity. If this were the case, it would raise other and more complex questions, questions such as: "Is the discourse of Italian identity at all compatible with the Jewish discourse?" Or, in other words: "Do the same books have the same meaning for non-Jewish Italians and for Italian Jews?"

When I set out to read this new literary production, my goal was to apply a critical filter that would allow at least a preliminary categorization of the phenomenon. By now the landscape has become quite various. Some texts are historical and journalistic-type investigations, such as Alexander Stille's Benevolence and Betrayal, the history of Jewish families through the racial laws and the war. Other are, improperly speaking, "guides to Judaism," as, for instance, "Essere ebrei in Italia" by Stefano Jesurum, Elio Toaff’s interview with Alain Elkann "Essere ebreo", or Nedelia Tedeschi's A domanda rispondo. A sizable portion of the texts that have been published are centered around the notion of identity, encompassing both the notion of Otherness and "diversity," and the consciousness of belonging. This is transparent even in the titles, that emphasize the complexity of the Jewish-Italian identity. A book of photographs chooses as title La differenza invisibile. Another one is the already mentioned Ebrei in Italia: un problema di identita' (1870-1838) and the also mentioned Appartenenza e differenza: ebrei d'Italia e letteratura. The proceedings from "Il Nuovo Convegno", 1997, carry the revealing title Identita'.

But a special place is occupied by the first-person accounts of the persecution and the Lager, the real "memoirs" of occasional writers whose only urge is to tell their story, to "bear witness," and add another piece to the complex and never-finished mosaic of the Shoa documentation. It was my previous critical interest in "Holocaust literature" and a familiarity with the issues of autobiography, that led me to concentrate on those texts, and to focus on the discourse of Judaism in terms of identity and its interplay with memory. In the development of this discourse in Italy, I believe that a crucial role, in textual terms, belongs to the work of Liliana Picciotto Fargion and her book, the monumental research Il libro della memoria. Gli Ebrei deportati dall'Italia (1943-1945) (Milano: Mursia 1991.) This volume establishes without question the cognitive grid and the documentary scaffolding without which individual accounts could again be relegated to the rank of "isolated" and unconnected voices. This is the crucial text, in that it establishes as a subtext the notion of participation by the perpetrators in a vast machinery of extermination that was not only German or Nazi, but also Fascist and therefore Italian.

In a parallel fashion, from a factual, non-textual perspective, the landmark historical event that imposed a Jewish discourse at the political and social level, was the uprising of the Rome ghetto (a word I use with great affection,) that followed the shameful and cowardly verdict in the Priebke case in 1996. This event was even more significant in terms of its meaning for Italian Jews, than the murderous attack on the Synagogue in Rome in 1982.

As I mentioned, the production has grown significantly over the last ten or fifteen years, with an acceleration in the last five or six. Among the texts that I analyzed, the most noteworthy are works such as Cara Sophie by Maria Sofia Casnedi and Fabio Della Seta; Elia Springer’s Il silenzio dei vivi; Aldo Carpi's Diario di Gusen; Lia Levi’s Una bambina e basta; Giuliana Tedeschi's C'Ŕ un punto della terra…; Liana Millu's Il fumo di Birkenau; Emanuele Pafici's Non ti voltare; Liliana Treves Alcalay's Con occhi di bambina; Ada Sereni’s I clandestini del mare initially published in 1973 and reprinted in 1994. I could even include Angelo Pezzana's Quest'anno a Gerusalemme, which contains interviews with Italian Jews emigrated to Israel, and the collection of personal stories in Una gioventu' offesa: Ebrei genovesi ricordano, edited by Chiara Bricarelli. Last week, the daughter of another author, brought to my attention a text I had seen listed in bibliographies but that I had not yet acquired. It is Carla Pekelis' La mia versione dei fatti, published in 1996. My preliminary reading, would place this text at the top of the list, in terms of both historical and literary significance. I trust that in the future development of my work, I will devote much attention to this text, due to its relevance and intrinsic literary value.

The texts I mentioned above represent a spectrum of experiences, of sensibilities and literary abilities that differ in scope, profundity and urgency. My interest, however, was to see to what extent they contributed to the Jewish discourse, and in what context. The first tentative conclusion is that these texts have the effect of "reconnecting" Italian Judaism with the experiences of the rest of Europe. This in itself could be the topic for a monster-size research. As a general idea and, I hope, a useful provocation, I will suggest that it is clear that very little is shared between Italian Judaism and the Shtetl Judaism of Eastern Europe, which is the basis of American Judaism today, in terms of reciprocal knowledge. Time and again I heard anecdotes from American Jews who were first stunned when they found out about the existence of Italian Jews. One of my American friends, for instance, recalled being a child and telling fanciful and foolish stories, to which the family would inevitably replied "oh yeah, and there are Jews in Italy," as a way to characterize something completely unreal. The distance and reapproachment between Italian and other Jews is the subtext of identity, as appears, for instance in Liana Millu's book, a text that is ambiguous at least if not outright suspicious in its reticence on Jewish themes. In describing an exchange among prisoners, she states: "I didn’t understand well German to begin, and she spoke it mixing it with that Yiddish dialect that to me sounded like the most horrible language on earth (p. 47)." On the occasion of Hanukah, a clandestine celebration takes place, and Millu talks about the "perennial flame of their faith" (emphasis added).

At the individual level, the sense of identity receives quite a different treatment in Giuliana Tedeschi's work, in which she describes the itinerary of its materialization. Talking about other inmates in the Lager, she describes a group of Jewish women from Salonika, in Greece. " 'They are savages,' French and Italians said with disdain. However, with their Mediterranean exuberance they were preferable to the Polish women, hostile and impenetrable." In a later episode the writer sees on the bed of a truck a bundle of overcoats with the Jewish star: "I saw these coats become alive, walk in the streets of the world: France, Belgium, Hungary (…) And I felt on me the burden of the star that I had never wore." From this point the Jewish identity becomes total and paramount in her consciousness, as appears in several encounters with German guards and SS. Progressively she is one of many "filthy Jews" to be gunned down, then the "the filthy Jewish prisoner" at the presence of a pure Arian SS. Her participation in the rituals of Rosh Hashanah is without reservations, and slowly we witness the recovering of a long-forgotten identity, in the form of childhood memories, reminiscing about "ancient biblical traditions, with that element of miracle that fascinated my childhood, but made me incredulous and doubtful during my youth years." The memory returns and so does identity: " 'Bread and patience' says the proverb. And I accepted its wisdom."

Elisa Springer adds another piece to the mosaic, with a non-linear narrative that intersperses flashbacks and foreshadowing, and focuses the investigation of identity on the number tattooed on her arm. After the liberation, for years she had kept it hidden under a band-aid. She only tells the truth when her son asks about it, and from his reaction she derives the motivation to change her attitude, but at a great cost. "I wanted to hide the mark from other people's eyes, because I was wounded by their scorn and indifference. (My son) insisted: I should not feel any shame (…) I knew he was right but I could not find the strength to react and I was afraid I would be rejected by the others."

It is thus the interplay of identity and memory that slowly surfaces as the common denominator of these texts, a complex psychological dynamics portrayed with different attitudes, but all with the consciousness of performing the crucial task of the definition of the relationship between individual vicissitudes and the collective historical Jewish experience.

If identity is a crucial theme at the individual level, only when we read these texts in the context that they create, that is, within their particular discourse, we begin to see the traces of the production of an original meaning that injects itself in the Italian discourse. This is the outline of a new interpretive and, arguably, hermeneutic paradigm, the very paradigm of what I called earlier the "revisionist" reading of Italian history. I use this term consciously and in a subversive way, but a way which I think is quite appropriate, in that this revisionism challenges the comfortable myths embedded in the negation of anti-Semitism in Italy, as explained by Anna Bravo when she claims that "the ideology of extraneousness of Italians in the persecution of Jews and in war crimes, reaches its peak in the claim of innocence that goes hand-in-hand with the willingness to forget."

Well, these texts put an end to the silence and the willingness to forget. The negationist attitude is challenged by these very documents, forcing the revision of the commonly assumed notion of a comfortable past. It is a challenge that only memory can bring. And in doing that, Italian memoirists, perform the ultimate act of the most universal Jewish religious ritual, the most sacred, and the most uniquely Jewish after the Shoa: the act of remembrance.

The relevance of these texts goes beyond their documentary contribution. They fulfill the imperative that Liliana Picciotto Fargion defines in an essay contained in Storia e memoria della deportazione, when she reconstructs the origin of her book's title. Libro della memoria is the literal translation of the Hebrew "Sefer ha-zikaron," which indicated a type of book, written in the Middle Ages and after, which contained the names of people killed in the massacres of the crusades. By reconnecting to that tradition, "memory" ceases to mean individual and personal recollections. "Memory," even for Italian Jews, becomes the collective dimension of experiences and believes that has taken the connotations of an ideology that often borders with a Jewish secular theology. Thus the Jewish identity is re-confirmed, without ever being questioned. Italian identity too, is re-confirmed and remains unquestioned. The dialectic dimension of this encounter is played out in the memoirs, and the contribution of knowledge brought by the revision of history, rewritten by Italian Jews, forces a change in the Italian discourse. And by virtue of this, of this operation possible only to the possessors of a multi-layered identity, an identity of belonging and Otherness, the discourse of Italian Jews has become part and at the same time has changed for ever the general discourse of Italians.