The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010
By Robert S.C. Gordon

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 206 pages + Notes to p. 242, Bibliography to p. 268 and index. 

Reviewed by Jacques Roumani

Growing up in Benghazi , Libya, in the 1950s, I was nursed in the love of Italian culture, a by-product of Italy’s colonization (1911-1943). But, as a youngster, I could not comprehend how such love persisted despite my parents’ painful  experiences inflicted by Italy’s Fascist Racial Laws in 1938-1943. They were especially  traumatized by the violence and widespread looting of April 2, 1942 after the Italian reconquest of Benghazi (Cyrenaica) from the British, when Fascist groups took revenge against the Jewish community suspected of having collaborated with the transient British occupation.  The riots destroyed my father’s business  and possessions, leaving him destitute but still responsible for a famished extended family.  Harsher repressions followed during the latter part of World War II, including the deportation of hundred of Jews  from  Cyrenaica to  a brutal  concentration camp in Giado, south of Tripoli, and then sporadically to camps in Italy and Bergen-Belsen.( My parents were expelled to Tunisia under extreme hardship, as they were considered “undesirable” aliens of Tunisian nationality/French protégés.)   

That date in 1942, ” il due aprile”, remained etched in my mind for many years after I heard my parents’ stories. Such stories gave rise to larger questions about Fascist Italy’s anti-Semitic policies, crystallized in the Racial Laws of 1938: Were they an aberration in an otherwise  gentle, humane culture, or were they intrinsic to it? Were we, the Jews of Libya, doubly victimized by the application of these laws in Libya as well as by Italy’s racist policies and attitudes towards its colonial subjects in North and East Africa? How did ordinary Italians react to their country’s Fascist regime as it embarked on the path of racial exclusion and persecution? And, finally, how do contemporary Italians relate to the Holocaust in which Italy played an increasingly prominent part?

To most English-speaking audiences, Italian responses to the Holocaust have been echoed in piecemeal fashion through popular films such as Roberto Benigni ‘s Life is Beautiful (1997), novels (and film) such as Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Contini (1962), survivors’ testimonial literature, national memorials in Rome (Fosse ardeatine, site of the Nazi overnight revenge massacre of 335 citizens, of whom 75 Jews),  Milan and Ferrara, and the highly influential writings of Primo Levi  (If This Is a Man, several editions since 1959, and The Drowned and the Saved , 1986).

Robert Gordon’s book places the entire gamut of Italian responses to the Holocaust within the dynamics of Italian culture in its multiple dimensions – responses shaping cultural forms and being shaped in turn by them. The book illustrates Italy’s ongoing interactions with European and American engagements with the Holocaust, or the Shoa, its Hebrew equivalent that Italians prefer to use to underline its specific Jewish character (pp.177-180).  The Holocaust in Italian Culture (1944-2010) is magisterial in its analysis and synthesis of Italy’s postwar coming-to-terms with the Shoa in all its complexity.  The process was initially slow and discontinuous, sometimes blurred by the lingering impacts of Fascism and the Resistance before it became finally embedded in national culture. This short review cannot do justice to this complex process as it evolved over the past sixty-six years and is revealed in gripping detail by the rich texture of Gordon’s book, covering the numerous topics and artists that define Italy’s cultural infrastructure.   This review is thus necessarily limited to a few key aspects of the story.

Complexity was inherent in the evolution of the Italian Fascist state whose ideology enjoyed a certain popular consensus, including among its tiny but influential Jewish population (35,000 on average). The latter’s preferences  reflected those of the general population in terms of support or rejection of Fascism – that is, until its enactment of the anti-Jewish 1938 Racial Laws that also alienated many Italians as they deprived Jews of their rights and set in motion persecutions and deportations to death camps in Europe after Italy entered World War II alongside Germany. The momentum of persecutions intensified after July, 1943, when Italy split into two upon signing an armistice with the Allies. The liberated south  joined the Allies’ fight, while Rome, the center and north of Italy came under direct Nazi occupation or under the puppet regime of a fallen Mussolini whom the Germans rescued and placed as head of the ephemeral Saló Republic in the north. Together, the Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists combined forces and extended the deportations to include Italian prisoners, soldiers and partisans, besides the Jews.  This was Italy’s civil war as well as its Hitler-allied war against the Jews.

Considering that Fascist Italy was an early inspiration and model for Hitler’s racial, totalitarian state, as the author suggests, it was “part progenitor of and collaborator in genocide,” mitigated at times by being  “ part uncertain fellow-traveler, even filibusterer” (p.5). It ended up victim as well as perpetrator. Between 1943 and 1945, it is estimated that 7800 Jews were deported from Italy, including over 1200 from Rome.  Most were massacred, 800 survived (n. 12, p.109). Partisan prisoners numbered close to 30,000; Italian soldiers captured numbered up to 750,000 (p. 6).    

A major strength of Gordon’s book lies in moving smoothly between the different foci of his subject, providing chronology and historical detail where necessary, highlighting debates and, above all, making historical complexity and its cultural manifestations accessible to the general reader through short systematic introductions, summaries and recapitulations of the main points of each of the ten chapters of the book.  The author succeeds in untangling such problematic issues as  “Grey Zones andGood Italians” (chapter 8, pp.139-153) to more comprehensively explain the tragedy of the Shoa in Italy. He does it without succumbing to “banal relativism,” as Primo Levi had already warned against in his last book (1986) a year before he died, and that hovers over the concept of ”grey zones” in which individuals and collectives may be caught as victims and direct or indirect perpetrators, resisters, abettors  and collaborators or as indifferent bystanders with good intentions but avoiding the ultimate test of morality.

Many, if not most, ordinary Italians chose to wait out the war: “this vast band of the population was the “grey zone of civil attesismo” [wait-and-see-ism] where choices were avoided wherever possible” (p.147).  At the same time, many local acts of solidarity and support of persecuted Jews reinforced the notion of the decent Italians, “brava gente,” who actively chose to detach themselves from the system and try to save Jewish lives. (There were also those within the system who, employing ‘Italian-style’ tricks within a notoriously slow bureaucracy,  helped mitigate the harshest repressions. These examples were, however, cynically manipulated by Italian politicians in the immediate postwar to exculpate Italian responsibility for Holocaust events.) Abuses of this somewhat rosy notion led to a backlash in the 1990s, analytically questioning the “myth” of the “good Italian,” whose goodness  was supposedly inherent in Italy’s national character (pp.151-2) and immune to racist or genocidal influences.  But, on balance, there is no gainsaying the fact, as the author states, that “ordinary individuals acted with their own complex motivations, quite distinct from systems and structures,” (p.155) and worked around the racial laws to help Jewish friends and neighbors, with or without the support of church authorities, “even as the state, the regime, the party and the Parliament shamefully became enthusiastic racists.”

As is already apparent, this is only a short overview of the daunting scope of the subject that the author has successfully undertaken, distilling the encounter between Italy’s main cultural forms and the Holocaust. The encounter began with meager cultural and historiographic manifestations in the immediate aftermath of the war and first impressions of the mid-1940s, transmitted via newsreels and a few testimonies.  This is followed by a decade (late 40s to late 50s) of silence and widespread indifference to Nazi and Fascist crimes, as the country was flooded with the return of prisoners, soldiers and survivors, blurring their different categories and experiences , and its citizens were desperately busy rebuilding the nation and their lives. No Nuremberg-type trials (of war criminals) took place in Italy during this period. To the contrary, the national mood was to exonerate and forget. Italy’s relationship to the Holocaust was generally seen as marginal. However, beginning in 1958-1963, a paradigm shift began to take shape for various reasons, including literary and media events, the impact of the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961, and the young’s impatience with established narratives.  The Holocaust emerged in the 1960s as a “key historical phenomenon, a distinct subject for memory and historical understanding” and became “an element of shared cultural and public knowledge” in line with what was becoming known in Eastern Europe and through the historiography of the war years in the West as well, revealing the first evidence of collaboration and complicity (e.g., France, Holland). The 1970s and 80s witnessed a full engagement with the Holocaust in all forms of Italian culture, leading it to become a “central feature” of national history and memory. From then on to the present day, spurred by the influence of films in Italy and the US, and by the example of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, mass awareness produced  “ intense interest in the Holocaust, not only in its own right and for its own sake, but also as a filter for essential debates and doubts about Italy’s relationship with its own identity and history “ (p.12).  A man, Primo Levi, and a city, Rome, stand out as the main protagonists of this cultural transformation (in addition to the universal role played by the Diary of Anne Frank), bringing in the Holocaust from the margin of historical consciousness to the center of a rich and diverse national discourse.  The author devotes an entire chapter to each: Primo Levi because his voice as survivor, witness, and rational thinker has educated Italians and the world about the scope, depth and variations of evil in the camps and the crematoria in Auschwitz and elsewhere. His frequent visits to schools and the introduction of his books in the curricula of middle schools are among his enduring legacies to Italy; Rome because of its dramatic and multiple roles in Holocaust history (including the unresolved issues surrounding the role of the church of Pope Pius XII), and because it is the site where “the threads of complexity in the way it intersected with Italy’s national history and culture are woven together with telling vividness “(p.13).

It is thus at the heart of Rome, in Villa Torlonia, that Italy’s Museo della Shoa is about to be completed in 2013-2014. The Villa was Mussolini’s personal residence for almost twenty years (1925-1943) as well as the site of Jewish catacombs from Roman times. The symbolism could not be clearer, contrasting Mussolini’s failed legacy of anti-Semitism and national destruction with the enduring vitality and continuity of the ancient, small Jewish community of Rome.  The early postwar notion that Italians were almost bystanders in the face of the Holocaust has been turned on its head (p.16), thanks to modern Italy’s vigorous cultural confrontation with its 20th century past. As Italy’s President Ciampi is reported to have stated in a public letter in 2001, “the racial laws of 1938 marked the most serious betrayal of the Risorgimento and of the very idea of the Italian nation, to whose success the Jews had contributed in crucial ways” (p.203).

As with the Museo della Shoa , the labor of documenting , remembering ,  understanding and representing this period of Italian and Jewish history and identity, begun with the establishment in 1955 of Milan’s CDEC  (now Fondazione Centro di  Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea) continues,   facing new challenges and stimulating vigorous debate.  It is exemplified by the recent publication of a two-volume  compendium, Storia della Shoa in Italia (Turin: UTET, 2010) comprising essays by 50 Italian and international scholars. Also of great importance is a recent program on developing appropriate methodologies for teaching Holocaust studies, pioneered by Professor David Meghnagi at the University of Rome (Roma Tre). Further, under its auspices, a new series of lectures by prominent scholars is being offered this academic year (2012-2013) at the Gregorian Pontifical University, Cardinal Bea Center for Jewish Studies, in Rome, on current issues in the cultural representation and dissemination of the tragedy of the Shoa.  A crucial issue highlighted in the introduction to these lectures is confronting the danger of opportunistic  “instrumentalization” and hence “banalization” of the Shoa. As Professor Gordon has warned, “the new level of presence of the Holocaust in cultural conversation and imagination has also brought a distorting willingness to stretch its historical specificity for any and every current purpose” (p.137), for example by using the Holocaust as “a metaphor for power, ideology, and violence, Fascism, capitalism and the bourgeoisie” (recalling the writings of Foucault and others).  Thus far, it would seem that, though real, this danger is recognized and to a large extent neutralized by the overwhelming testimonies, knowledge and debate accumulating in this field globally and, at various levels of Italian society, encapsulated in the pedagogical and media events on the “Day of Memory” (pp.196-209) commemorated annually in Italy on January 27 since 2001. This memorial  day, notwithstanding controversies surrounding its scope and meaning,   “demonstrated the very particular status accorded to the Holocaust in the post-1989 polity in Italy: one built on an extraordinarily broad-based consensus and moral respect for the Event” (p.206).

We are all indebted to Professor Robert Gordon for his remarkable elucidation of the interconnected, multifaceted links joining  contemporary Italian culture with the Shoa. His book is an indispensable, standard reference and guide to future developments in this area of Italian public life. One would hope that the Italian translation is imminent.

Dr. Jacques Roumani is Review Editor of Sephardic Horizons

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