Contemporary Jewish Memoirists

This paper is very much a work in progress, in that the entire field of Jewish memorialism in Italy is so fluid and so intensely productive, that it will take a long and protracted commitment of study and research before the canon of a critical discourse can be established. The raw material being produced right now is so copious and diverse that it is even impossible to delineate the criteria for the selection of a representative bibliography. What is certain is that we are observing a puzzling whose area of belonging, the famous and cherished Italian "appartenenza," in Italian literature is still elusive. My curiosity in the phenomenon can be summarized in a few simple question: Why is so much written about Italian Jews today? Why are so many Italian Jews writing about themselves today? What is it about Italian Jews that makes them the object of so much attention today? What is it that makes Italian Jews the object of their own attention? Why are Italian Jews so interested in talking about themselves, in disclosing to other Italians and themselves who they are, how they think, who they think they are? Why this interest -- and why now -- in the past and the present, contemporary, living experience of Italian Jews?

Let me specify the boundaries of my own inquiry first. By "memorialists" I refer primarily to writers who described personal vicissitudes in exceptional circumstances, primarily those of the Lager. But under this term I started grouping other genres of texts, autobiographical in nature, that focus on the themes of the Jewish identity and the Jewish experience in general. Among them are books like "Essere ebrei in Italia" and "Raccontalo ai tuoi figli" by Stefano Jesurum. Or Elio Toaff’s interview with Alain Elkann "Essere ebreo" for intance. I also include in this group of works the book by Liliana Picciotto Fargion "Il libro della memoria," which is quite simply the encyclopedia, a monumental undertaking, with the names and essential biographical data of the Italian Jews deported to the Lager between 1943 and 1945. And even Angelo Pezzana’s "Quest’anno a Gerusalemme," the book of a non-Jew who collected the autobiographical accounts of Italian Jews who emigrated to Israel in the last sixty-seventy years. But the bulk of my reading has been on autobiographical works such as "Cara Sophie" by Maria Sofia Casnedi and Fabio Della Seta who are speaking at this symposium; Elia Springer’s " Il silenzio dei vivi"; Ada Sereni’s "I clandestini del mare"; Aldo Carpi "Diario di Gusen"; or Lia Levi’s "Una bambina e basta."

These represent a spectrum of experiences, of sensibilities and literary abilities that differ in scope, profundity and urgency. But they all share the Jewish perspective on events and – peculiarly -- they all have been written in the last 10- 15 years. Indeed, the amount of publications about Jewish subjects, that started as a trickle around the mid ‘70’s, has dramatically increased in the last few years. Before that time, there was mostly silence. With the exception, of course, of Primo Levi.

And it was with Primo Levi that my critical inquiry began, and with it the first questions started forming in my mind. The questions that I was asking then, though, were the exact opposite of what I am asking now. Back then the main enigma was: "Why is it that, with the exception of Primo Levi, basically no other Italian Jew had described and defined in autobiographical terms the experience of the Jewish identity in Italy, particularly after the Shoa? And why such experience of identity had not been committed to the literary form? Where were those who could talk about such dramatic aspect of the recent history of Italy as the racial laws and the deportations? Where were the Italian Jewish writers who could shed light on the contemporary reality of the longest continuous Jewish community outside of Israel, a community as old as the Diaspora itself? Of course history books were being written, but never, it seemed, the accounts came from the victims themselves. So, why didn’t those experiences have the voice of the protagonists themselves?

I found myself confronting an even more puzzling question when, in 1989, I was offered by Mondadori Editore the opportunity to collaborate to the series "Guida alla lettura di…" I was asked to submit a list of three authors that fit my interests and expertise. In order of preference, I listed Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Vasco Pratolini. To my great surprise, Primo Levi was eliminated by the editor. And even greater was the surprise when I heard the motivation: Primo Levi was, in the eyes of Mondadori’s literary establishment, "un minore." I knew at that time that certainly in the United States and, dare I say, in the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, Levi was definitely considered a "maggiore, " whose fame and reputation at that time was rivaled only by Italo Calvino’s, and whose work, in the recent years has shown an even longer shelf-life than Calvino’s.

What was, or was not, in Levi’s work that made him one of the most celebrated and respected writers in the United States but not in Italy? What was in his writing that made him marginal with respect to the canon of Italian literature? It couldn’t be that Levi was a "minore" in Italy just because the subject matter of his work only concerned Jews and the Italian Jewish community is so small. His work, particularly "Se questo e’ un uomo," is not exclusively about Judaism or the Jewish experience, but rather about the Lager and the immensely vast questions on human nature that it raises.

As my study proceeded, I began to conceive Levi’s work as the itinerary of discovery of an identity. In my analysis each of the writings fit within the notion of a macrotext, where the genre and the content of each single work could be seen as a chapter in the lifetime story of the definition of his Jewish identity, a psychological journey into the consciousness of a Jewish identity. In each of the works, I traced the evolution of this consciousness and the dynamic relationship with the permanence of an Italian identity, together with the process of integration of the two at levels that became progressively deeper and deeper both in the literary form and in the dimension of the autobiographical representation. And here I must make clear the distinction that Jean Starobinsky credit to the Italian language, the ability, that is, to distinguish between "autobiografia" and "autobiografismo," where the first is a conscious process, while the latter is the mere reflection of existence.

It became progressively clear to me that Levi’s psychological and spiritual parable had to seen in the context of a Jewish experience and could be understood in the context of the Jewish literary discourse. In the formulation of this hypothesis I found the key, or what I believe is the key, to the questions that had puzzled me. The perspective that I had adopted was to be inverted: the question of belonging was not to be asked of Primo Levi but of Italian literature. In other words, I should no longer ask what was missing in Levi’s work that caused the exclusion from Italian literary discourse, but rather I should try to determine what was missing in the Italian literary discourse that didn’t allow it to inlcude Levi’s work. If Levi’s work belonged to the Jewish literary discourse, and if his work was outside the canon of Italian literature,I was now ready to entertain the notion that for the Italian literary discourse, the Jewish discourse was absent. For the transitive property, if the Jewish discourse doesn’t belong in Italian literature, Levi’s work is also excluded. Ergo, Levi is a "minore" notwithstanding the commercial success of his work. (Paradoxically, commercial success and recognition outside the literary establishment could be seen as further evidence of strangeness. We all know that in Italy commercial success is de facto an argument against the "letterarietā," the literary properties, of any work.)

I soon discovered that it was indeed almost impossible to assign Levi’s opus to any category of "belonging" within Italian literature. With "Se questo č un uomo" and "La tregua," the most documentaristic of the texts, the obstacle is the Shoa itself, since the Shoa, as per the famous caveat by Theodore Adorno is itself outside any literary discourse. But if we were to remove the Shoa component, probably the realm of belonging would be that "war stories," autobiographical accounts of extreme situations, describing how ordinary people behave in extraordinary circumstances. (See for instance Mario Rigoni Stern with "Il sergente nella neve" or Giulio Bedeschi with "Centomila gavette di ghiaccio," about the disastrous Russia campaign by the ill equipped ill trained Italian mountain troops of the mythical "Julia" and "Tridentina" divisions.) Levi’s narratives fit quite well within this group, and, as anyone who frequents Italian literature knows, this genre is always "minore." Just as ‘minore’ was "Perche’ gli altri dimenticano, "an almost forgotten book about the lager by Bruno Piazza, published posthumously by Feltrinelli in 1956.

However, when we include Levi’s work in the overall discourse of the Shoa, and if we connect the strictly narrative texts to the later ones, a different picture begins to emerge. With "Il sistema periodico," "La chiave a stella," "L’altrui mestiere, " to finish with "I sommersi e i salvati" the problem is how to account for it in the context of Italian literarure? What use does Italian literature have for the moral aphorism, the moral allegory, the "dilettantismo" that attempts to define a cosmogony out of the details of everyday life in which chemical elements become the physical representations of the spiritual world of he Jewish soul? And what is the place of the self-effacing, unassuming, anti-heroic, auto-ironical autobiography, that hides universal metaphysical meditations under the guise of the ordinariness of existence. If something similar is to be found in literature, Levi’s identity leads us to search in the tradition of the rabbinical tales, the so-called "storielle ebraiche," a tradition that Levi studied intensely, and a tradition characterized by stories that have a moral but not an answer and almost never offer a completely satisfactory solution. A tradition, I shall submit, very far removed from the Italian.

Italian literature is ignorant of the Jewish discourse. As evidence, I will refer to a recenlty published collection of essays on the Jewish literary experience in Italy, with the quite significant title of "Appartenenza e differenza: ebrei d’Italia e letteratura." What emerges quite clearly in these essays, with particular regard to the 20th century, is the absence of any Jewish discourse, even in the works of Jews or half-Jews such as Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia and Umberto Saba. Where Carlo Levi could be said to be basically a-Semitic, and Alberto Moravia sounds determinately un-Semitic, Umberto Saba pushes his rejection of the Jewish identity to an extreme that to any objective observer is simply anti-Semitic.

All this is particularly curious, in light of the fact that a significant portion of the Italian literary establishment, and particularly the publishing and intellectual world, had a very significant presence of Jews. It should be sufficient to mention the names of few of the important publishing house between the two Wars: Treves, Lattes, Bemporad and Mondadori among them. The exception is the publishing house Adelphi, although this happened decades later.

Jews as writers have been silent. Maybe this silence has resulted both from the learned ancestral survival instinct not to attract attention, and the desire to belong. The first reaction is readily understood. After centuries of persecution, from the Middle Ages through the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, through the establishment of the ghetto, until the emancipation by Napoleon, the Jews learned not to raise their voice outside the walls of the compounds where they lived. They had learned to fear "being noticed," for being noticed, individually or as a community, eventually would draw the fire of the anti-Jewish elements always fanatically present.

The second aspect, the desire to belong, finds its most obvious manifestation in the ardent participation of Jews in the widespread movement to unify Italy that is known as "Risorgimento."

It could also be argued 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 while in the rest of Europe, Eastern as well as Western, Jewish communities flourished until they amounted to hundred of thousand if not millions of individuals, 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 pogroms were not necessary in Italy, one could suspect, because there was always some subtle kind of 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 "self 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.

If attracting attention was a way to insure reprisals, one could also argue that writing about oneself attracts attention. But maybe another mechanism of self-censure was at work as well. Literature, unless you call literature the blatant propagandistic efforts of "regime authors" in dictatorial societies, is almost never about the positive, but rather about the harshest truth about oneself, one’s own people or culture. It is in fact a denounciation of what is immoral, wrong, intolerable, hypocritical and corrupt. It lifts the veil, it allows discovery. In an editorial appeared in New York Times Review of Books a few years ago in response to the question about the paucity of Italian American writers, Gay Talese stated that the cause was the reluctance, the embarrassment, the "vergogna" to talk about private matters in public. Maybe this reason is also common to the Jews and explains why ther are absent from the literary discourse in Italy. Because, whatever the reasons, collective, subjective, overt or subconscious, the fact remains of the absence of a Jewish discourse in Italian literature. More specifically, a Jewish discourse is absent in terms of themes, genres and topoi. Nor is there a framework of reference in a moral sphere, or an aesthetics, or a mythology. The exception of the Finzi Contini, is really no exception at all, in that the work’s literary form, the novel, corresponds to all the expectations of the Italian literary canons. In it, the Jewish text, lacking a context, becomes almost a pretext.

Another argument could be made for this silence, and it is in a way what Haym Maccoby addresses in his remarks reported by Ron Rosenbaum in his very recent book "Explaining Hitler." "Here the Jews are, for the first time for many centuries, able to speak out. Before we couldn’t speak out because we are going to get killed if we speak out. Now supposedly, we must not speak out because it is bad taste to speak out. One way or another there is a gag on us (…) We can’t speak out in times of persecution because we’ll be persecuted. But in times when we are not persecuted, we must not speak out because that would show lack of gratitude to people for not persecuting us. So, when do we speak out? Never?"

"Never" is no longer the answer apparently, not even in Italy. Quite the contrary, the moment has come to speak out. But that also mean to reveal, to disclose, to bare one’s soul. And the books start coming: memoirs, stories, interviews, accounts, contemporary narratives, experiences of the camps, memories of the Shoa, genealogies, explanations, narrations, cookbooks….

Italian Jews are speaking out. They are writing, both those who have something to say, and sometimes even those who don’t have much to say beyond their own personal stories. They write and they find publishers. And they find publishers because somebody buys their books. And there must be a lot of people buying those books because new books keep on coming out. So, suddenly there is this convergence of interest: Jews who write about themselves and non Jews who want to learn about them.

What are the circumstances that make the phenomenon of current Jewish memorialists possible now? It is not, I argue, the narration of the event themselves, but the process of identity discovery of the people involved. The works we see in the bookstore are not simply about the Shoa, or about surviving the lager. Of course the urgency to speak out is also a response to revisionist history that denies the Shoa, and the imperative to speak the truth. It is undoubtedly true that the few survivors that are left, as they get old, realize that once they are gone, no memories will be left. But for every person who wants to talk, there must one another one who is willing to listen. So why is it that Italians are willing to listen today? And why do they buy those books?

The question now is: "What is the common ground where Jews and non Jews are meeting through the mediation of books? What do the Jews say now that they are speaking out that non Jews want to hear?

My answer is both simple and, I think, complex, and it will require a careful analysis. I believe that the Jews are allowed to speak now because they found a proper context of belonging, not just in literary terms, but in terms of the society as a whole. This domain is the discourse of diversity. Simple and reductive as this may sound, the Jews speak out their diversity. A diversity the Jews themselves denied in the first part of the century, that was imposed upon them with the racial laws, that remained with them when the society denied that diversity in the period after WWII. Jews were an anomaly in the homogeneity of the Italian people, a small curiosity, a little bump.

A diversity that, until a few years ago, Italy was not able to hear and perceive, as if it were made of sounds so faint that the ear could not detect. But now Italy is facing a whole loud choir of diverse sounds. And literature, as a reflection of society is reverberating these voices and is making them its own. As far as the Jewish experience is concerned, diversity was always imposes upon Jews through history as a mark of guilt and shame. In the last one hundred years then, Jews sought to defy the notion of diversity by stressing "normality" and integration. But diversity fell upon Italian Jews again as a curse during the Fascist regime when the racial campaign began and later the racial laws were promulgated. Primo Levi is the term of reference when it comes to describing this sense of bewilderment and estrangement that befell the Jews, but it is a feeling shared by all the accounts one is given to read.

Diversity, of course, became very much part of the consciousness of the Jews after the horror of the Shoa became known. Yet Italy still did not have a context for its appearance, maybe also due to the fact that Jewish diversity would have been a reminder to all Italian of the racist nature of Mussolini’s regime, something Italians are all too willing to forget or minimize. Italy probably could not accept the notion of diversity because for the dominant ideologies, Marxism and Catholicism, to admit its existence would have been an implicit admission of a complicity in creating it. Moreover, in the absence of the discourse of national identity and in the absence of a definition of what it is to be Italian -- a discourse that has forever being suffocated both by the Marxist doctrine and the Catholic thought -- there was no space for a definition of what is Italian and at the same time "other" than Italian . The universalism both of the Catholic church and the Communist party made it impossible for the discourse of diversity to emerge. So Jews were left in the peculiar position of having experienced diversity, of carrying within themselves the notion of this diversity, and yet of facing the impossibility to express it.

For the longest time there was no space in the consciousness of Italian for any diversity. It could be interesting to try to determine whether it was Italian Jews that imposed this discourse of diversity or if it developed in Italy out of other pressures. The timing of the circumstances is such that it is hard to resist the temptation to theorize that Jewish themes began to emerge at the same time as Italy, for the first time in recent history, confronted the phenomenon of diversity brought to its shores by immigration. Italy began to interrogate itself, questioning its attitude about immigrants, wondering if it harbored racist feelings. And almost with a sense of anxiety, Italy turned to the Jews as a mirror in which it could see itself. But in turning to them, it didn’t only see itself, but it did see them in their diversity, it discovered in its own midst a people who felt differently, whose internal collective experience was different, who saw history in a different way, who lived religion and ethics according to a different perspective. And Italy started to listen.

At the very same time the Jewish leadership in Italy took a very clear position on the issue of diversity brought by immigrant: absolute rejection of any discrimination, pressure on the State to recognize the rights of the new minorities and pressure on the society to develop a new sensibility. Within the context of the discourse of diversity, the Jewish discourse could finally be articulated and, in this form, it found a way into literature. The little known genre of memorialism, or the account of diversity, began to appear in the bookstores. It wasn’t Jews trying to explain themselves as a way to apologize for being different, but a way to assert an identity, a certainty that before could not be expressed. First of all, the need to take possession of their own history, by means of the accounts of the protagonists themselves, the victims of history that official history had somehow put in a corner and forgotten. Furthermore, literature offered the possibility to express the real-time experience of the discovery of that difference. One of the most significant accounts I read is by Stefano Jesurum, who, as a militant of the far left, much to the disapproval of his family and friends, embraced the Palestinian cause and became involved in a sort of celebrity tour of Feste dell’Unitā and similar political gatherings where he was asked to debate, as a Jew, a Palestinian. He was the "good Jew" who bashed Israel, who felt dutifully remorseful and guilty, until the day when he shocked the audience, his comrades and the Palestinian partners in this representation, claiming an identity he had until then exploited but not abided by.

In the other texts I have been reading, I found the constant thread of trying to "educate" people about this diversity, about this thing we call the Jewish identity. There is no minimizing it anymore, as the trinity of Carlo Levi-Moravia-Saba were doing, but rather the intellectual equivalent directed to Italian of the famous slogan of diversity we hear here in the United States: "We are Jews, we are here, get used to it." This assertion of identity and diversity is the beginning of a substantial phenomenon and I anticipate that it will take time before we will be able to construct a hypothesis on the various aspects of this discourse and the specificity of the Jewish discourse within the discourse of diversity in Italian society and in literature. I think that it is inside society that we will see more and more the apparent signs of the affirmation of diversity from the Jews. The first example of this new consciousness are already in the history book. In 1994 when a political election was called, the date chosen for the election was a Sunday that corresponded with the first day of Pessach. The Jews demanded and obtained that the polling stations be kept open until after sundown on the following Monday so that observant Jews could vote without violating the commandment. It was a significant "victory" not against the State, but rather against the tendency of accommodation, the defensive attitude of not making waves in fear of retribution. But the most eloquent case of this affirmation of diversity, this determination to speak out, not to suffer in silence anymore, occurred on the occasion of the shameful verdict on Priebke, when the Roman community, the "ghetto," and I use this word with affection, rose up and forced the Jewish vision of justice on the cynical indifference of the State.

The phenomenon of the Jewish themes in the field of publishing is thus a result of the interaction of forces that converge at this particular point in history. A people with an identity finds in the changes in society an aperture for letting its voice come through. And this voice is heard because it has a function in society, it help society cope with diversity, it teaches society that it has lived with diversity within itself for a long time and from those experiences, good and bad, something can be learned for the days ahead. Italians maybe are learning that diversity doesn’t mean alienation, hostility, conflict. The Jews, despite all they had to endure, show how it is possible to be different while at the same time being the same. And in everybody heart there is the hope that this model of diversity could work for all the other minorities, present and future, that will have to coexist under the same Italian sky.

Chronology of the Priebke Trials