Vicolo degli Azzimi. Dal ghetto di Pitigliano al miracolo economico
By Vera Paggi

Rimini: Panozzo Editore, 2013.

Reviewed by Mark Lazerson

Vera Paggi, a journalist at Italy’s RAI 3 television station, vividly recounts the paradoxical travails of her Jewish paternal grandparents provoked by the 1938 Racial Laws [Le Leggi Razziali], Italy’s version of Hitler’s Nuremburg Laws. Paradoxical because her Jewish, boar-hunting, surgeon Grandfather Bruno finds himself like other Jewish professors fired from the Pisa Medical Faculty, despite his indifference to Jewish traditions and detachment from the Jewish community. Leaving behind his wife Milvena and their seven young children, among whom is the author’s father, he flees to the wilds of Venezuela in search of work to support his family, since no Jew can be hired legally in Italy and the rest of Europe is closed to Jews as well. First in Pisa and then in Florence, Grandmother Milvena courageously shields her large family against the growling winds of penury and hunger while attempting to stay one step ahead of the relentless anti-Semitic tornado. When death camp deportations begin in earnest after September 1943, Milvena manages to shepherd all but her eldest son Claudio to safety in Switzerland. Claudio, drawn to the siren call of the Resistance, dies of typhus in Yugoslavia.

Vicolo degli Azzimi begins with the arrival of the Paggi family in the beautiful and very isolated southern Tuscan hilltop village of Pitigliano, most probably after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The book’s title-- Matzot Alley – recalls the place in Pitigliano’s Jewish ghetto where matzot were baked for hundreds of years. But the book’s merit and strength are in telling the story of one family trapped in the Italian Shoah, which murdered about twenty percent of the country’s 40,000--50,000 Jews, with the rest forced to live in exile or underground. But the book falls short in insights into how the Paggis felt as Jews. Relying almost entirely on family diaries, correspondence, and oral interviews, there is no mention of mezuzahs on the doors, kashrut, candle lighting or even a Shabbat dinner.  The reader gathers that Grandmother Milvena came from a more traditional Roman Jewish family, being the only one to fast on Yom Kippur and to believe in God. She even courageously thwarts her husband Bruno’s opposition to both circumcising their sons and to his own burial in a Jewish cemetery. But the question of what Jewish values she transmits to her children is unexplored by the author. Not only is practically nothing said about Jewish identity; nothing is said about what the highly assimilated Paggis thought about their neighbors who stopped greeting them after the Racial Laws and did not begin again until after the Allies crushed the Fascists. The author prefers to avoid asking any uncomfortable questions about relationships between Italians and their Jewish compatriots, most of whose ancestors arrived when Romans ruled the peninsula and Italians did not yet exist.

Since the author refrains from commenting about her ancestors’ choices-- other than to speculate about whether her grandfather was a philanderer-- the reader is left wondering how many other Jewish Italian families fled Jewish life during the interwar years. Certainly unlocking the ghetto gates after centuries allowed some Italian Jews to jettison their rich heritage, much as escaping the shtetls had permitted eastern European Jews to do the same. Encountering an abundance of non-Jewish Italians bearing family names like Segula, Abramo, or Lattes is a reminder of how many did discard their birthright.

At one point the book does comes close to engaging in these issues. Paggi’s Aunt Franca, whose oral history largely informs the book’s narrative, confesses that the Racial Laws left her with a confused Jewish identity when she was eight years old: “I knew that I wasn’t Christian, but at that moment being Jewish meant being excluded.”  

While a large number of Jews initially supported Mussolini, both his public and private statements about Jews were, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, prefigured Italian Fascism’s collaboration in genocide (Sarfatti 2007; Duggan 2013). His historic accord with the Vatican in 1929, granting Catholicism exclusive state recognition, marginalized Italian Jews, eroding the gains won during Italian national unification. Although it later emerged that Pope Pius XI’s intention to publicly denounce the Racial Laws had been aborted by his death in 1939, large parts of the Vatican hierarchy, including the rector of Milan’s prestigious Catholic University, embraced them.

Despite the very long and distinct culture and history of Italian Jewry, the minimal discussion about the family’s Jewish identity implicitly conveys the idea that, were it not for the Racial Laws, Italian Jews would have melted away into invisibility. Such an idea recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1975; Levy and Sartre 1996) meretricious thesis that Jews are only a reflection of the anti-Semite. Once anti-Semites disappear so will Jews, since there is nothing else to explain their existence today other than irrational anti-Semitism.

Ironically, the Paggi family comes closest to confronting their Jewish origins when forcibly interned for two years in Switzerland, richly detailed in the letters left by Grandmother Milvena. Pressured by international Jewish agencies and a handful of wealthy Swiss Jews, the Swiss establish a few internment camps where Jewish observance is encouraged, and a few Paggi children are placed there. For the first time in their lives they participate in a Passover Seder and study Hebrew and Jewish values and history. In contrast to the official anti-Zionism of the Italian Jewish establishment at the time, reflecting Fascist pressures prior to the Racial Laws, the children are shocked to learn that Jews are a people with a national identity and not just a religious group.

Then, on the road back to Florence from Switzerland at the war’s end, the three youngest children are treated to a memorable vacation organized by the Jewish Brigades who, fresh from victory in Europe, are heading to Palestine to defend the nascent Jewish state against the Nazi’s erstwhile Arab allies. But despite the children’s enthusiasm for their new Jewish Brigade friends, nothing is said about Aliyah or what Israel might mean to them. (The term Zionism never appears at all and the book’s only reference to Israel is a footnote remarking that it replaced the British mandate of Palestine.)

Although the various family accounts portray the average Swiss as hostile and callous to their uninvited Jewish guests, the family members essentially spare Italians of any criticism. When anti-Fascist Italians from the National Liberation Committee (CLN) demand that Grandmother Milvena pay them 70,000 lire (equivalent to more than 105 years of a worker’s annual wage) to purchase the family’s escape to Switzerland, Aunt Franca defends the extortion:

“Since the smugglers demanded 1,000 lire for each fugitive, and the CLN couldn’t ask the English officers (who were among those in the same group seeking passage to Switzerland) for money, they asked the Jews for money.”

Most startling is Great Aunt Wera’s long diary entry made sometime in April 1945, as she is leaving Switzerland to return to Italy. Angered by what she views as unjust cries by her fellow Jews for both reparations and recognition of the many wrongs done them, she writes:

“All of that is wrong. The reality in the current situation is quite different. We are all guilty! Having renounced our portion of justice and liberty each one of us compromised with Fascism. None of us can claim to have resisted even passively the offenses against our rights as human beings...”

 Although Corner (2012) and Duggan (2013) disagree at what point, following his 1938 alliance with Hitler, Mussolini lost popular support, both acknowledge that until then he enjoyed a broad political consensus. Nor does Wera feel that Italian Jews merit different treatment from other Italians, despite being uniquely persecuted not only by the Fascists but also by their fellow compatriots who received both their stolen property and their jobs. While Great Aunt Wera’s indifference to the civil rights of her fellow Jews merits criticism, similar views were articulated by leading Italian Communist Jews. For example, Vittorio Foa (1991), a leading post-war, left-wing intellectual and trade union leader, in his memoirs denounced the Fascists not for imprisoning him for being Jewish but for violating his civil rights as an Italian. Perhaps the distancing of Jews like Aunt Wera and Vittorio Foa from Jewish peoplehood helps explain why Italian Jews received no reparations whatsoever from the Italian state until 1996. Ariel Paggi (2009), a distant Jewish cousin of the author who grew up in Pitigliano, recalls in his memoir about the Italian Shoah how high Italian Communist Party functionaries contemptuously rejected Jewish appeals for reparations, claiming that if Jews deserved them so did Communists.

Considering the family’s suffering at the hands of Italians, it is remarkable that at war’s end the Paggis wanted to return to Italy. A considerable number of Italian Jews never returned, or left the country shortly after the war. Nobel Prize winners Modigliani and Enrico Fermi, whose wife was Jewish, chose to remain in the US. Many of Italy’s more observant or Zionist Jews made Aliyah to Israel. Even Grandmother Milvena wanted to join her mother and brother in New York, writing to the Swiss authorities that she opposed repatriation to Italy because she “no longer has any ties” there. While Milvena’s wish to seek refuge in America appears unremarkable, it upset her daughter:

“Her request today would appear incomprehensible because she had a sister who lived in Rome while her parents-in-law lived in Florence.”

In the end Milvena returns to Pisa, later to be joined by her husband Bruno, who regains his position in the medical school in 1947. But the end of Fascism, war, and state anti-Semitism provides only a brief interval before serious illness cuts short their lives.

Their children, together with Bruno’s brothers and sisters, carry on in a new post-war Italy which is in pursuit of affluence. How the nightmare of the Shoah and the betrayal by their country, teachers, colleagues, and neighbors weighed on them remains a mystery to the reader. Even among the majority of Italian Jews who both survived the Shoah and avoided Primo Levi’s (1959) march to and from the death camps, many remained scarred for life. After the war some converted to Catholicism while others baptized their children, ’just in case’. Then there were those who denied their children knowledge of their Jewish birthright. Even today among the majority who stubbornly and proudly maintain their traditions, many do so warily.

However much the Paggis’ choices were personal, repeated many times over by others, their effect has been collective and has shaped post-war Italian Jewry, now numbering no more than 30,000. Outside of Milan and Rome, and perhaps Livorno, where the arrival of observant Libyan, Persian and Syrian Jews fleeing Arab and Iranian persecution has invigorated Jewish communal life, many historic synagogues such as the one in the Paggis’ ancestral town of Pitigliano have been transformed into museums. Ironically, the only two days of the year when most Italian synagogues open their doors are not on Shabbat but on the first or second Sunday of September for the Day of European Jewish Culture, and January 27 for Holocaust Memorial Day, marking the liberation of Auschwitz. A recent article on the Roman Jewish community optimistically suggests a renewal of Jewish life and religious commitment by a younger, combative generation of Jews no longer scarred by the Shoah (Ledeen 2014). But it remains uncertain how many Italian Jews are ready to take up the challenge of Vittorio Dan Segre z”l, an Italian who fought in the same Jewish Brigades that had hosted the Paggi children and then afterward served in the Israeli diplomatic corps: “Feeling Jewish because your grandparents were deported to Auschwitz is much less challenging than putting Tefillin on your arm and on your head each morning.”

Vera Paggi’s sensitive book takes the pulse of a certain stratum of assimilated Italian Jewish society, and tells us much through its silences as well as through the voices it evokes.

Mark H. Lazerson is an attorney and visiting research fellow in the University of Bologna's Department of Management.


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