header i-Italy

Articles by: Alessandro Cassin

  • Courtesy of Guanda
    Art & Culture

    A Primo Levi Atlas: Primo Levi di fronte e di profilo, by Marco Belpoliti

    Marco Belpoliti has crowned his decades long critical engagement with Levi with an ambitious new book, Primo Levi di fronte e di profilo  (Primo Levi: Front and Side-View), Guanda, Milano, 2015, that approaches its subject from a plurality of perspectives.

    Printed_Matter discussed this impressive genre-bending book, at present available only in Italian, with the author.

    Alessandro Cassin: your book seems like a —perhaps temporary— point of arrival of the long years you devoted to the study of Primo Levi.

    Let’s start with the book’s structure. In the manner of an intellectual biography, it organizes information on the life and works of its subject, yet it is not a biography. It appears more like a sort of encyclopedia, or better yet a website where you can jump from one section to another, building a path of personal reading and consultation. Could you explain how you conceived of this volume, who are the target readers and how do you envision people reading/using it?

    Marco Belpoliti: I had a vast amount of material I had written over the course of twenty years, and even more material, (from conferences, research projects, work outlines, etc.), only sketched out. Much of it had been published in Italian and foreign magazines, and books. Then there was material I had gathered for the issue of “Riga”  (a thematic journal on art and literature founded by Marco Belpoliti and Elio Grazioli, published by Marcos y Marcos, editor’s note) on Primo Levi, and for the notes to the 1997 edition of to Levi’s Complete Works, as well as a book from the same year, for Bruno Mondadori, conceived as a lexicon. Further, there were several essays that had appeared in foreign languages, English, French and German; notes for my university courses, and more. I was concerned that this material was not readily available to readers because it was dispersed in many different locations. So I started to read it and work on it during my train rides back and forth from Bergamo to Milano (60 minutes each way). In addition, I conceived of new essays, some have been completed, others not. Eventually I began to imagine how to organize all this material, and the solution came by itself. I had imagined a bigger book, almost an atlas, with three different graphic levels of texts, one above the other, like notes. But the publisher dissuaded me. Instead, as I started to put the material in order, I came up with the idea of using different fonts and font sizes to differentiate each section. I handed over 500 pages to the book editor at Guanda, then, during the following two years, I added 200 more pages. Of the book’s 735 pages at least 200 are new, previously unpublished material. The publisher probably had not noticed that the book was leavening like bread. For nearly ten years I have presented and explained over and over again the material in the book in my classes at the University of Bergamo. At the end, with the help of my wife Paola Lenarduzzi, who is a graphic designer, we found an affordable solution for the publisher: we did the layout of the manuscript ourselves using different fonts for each section. This book is the result: we made a virtue of necessity.

    AC The book has different sections: ten photographs with comments; the story of the books that Levi wrote; lemmas, which are organized as encyclopedia entries, and finally a series of essays with long extended sentences as titles. These essays, as often the phrases that form the titles, are born or revolve around the questions you pose. Sometimes the questions are answered, other times times you leave them unanswered. The feeling is that taken together, they point to the questions that you asked yourself over the years, that are the driving force of the book … Could you elaborate?

    MB I wrote the long titles of the essays following a practice common in eighteenth century books. In addition to serving as titles they are also summaries, kind of like newspaper’s half-titles. They came later. They are not exactly the questions I asked myself before writing, but the “summary” in the form of a question, to the content of each chapter. Sometimes the question is perhaps exaggerated or too graphic, but I liked it that way, I thought it worked. I did not want it to look like typical nonfiction books. A friend told me that mine is a third way between the traditional academic essay and storytelling by contemporary critics: sort of a narrated essay. There’s nothing premeditated in my solution. I just tried to find the best-suited way to pull together many pages, striving to make the content interesting or fresh. The titles are one more layer of the writing.

    I included the photographs to make the book a bit “lighter”, as there were too many written pages. I decided I wanted ten, a perfect number, and no more. They are not the most beautiful images I had found, but rather the ones that were affordable. Some did not cost at all, because they belonged belonging to friends or to “La Stampa”, the newspaper for which I write, or to people long dead, therefore free. Here, too, I made a virtue of necessity.

    AC The title Primo Levi di fronte a di profilo  (Primo Levi Front-view and Side-view) suggests both a 360 degree investigation, and photographic poses. Besides a ” biography in 10 photographs”, the book provides a series of ” snapshots ” of the history of each book, followed by further examination. Paradoxically, a book of 735 pages presents data and reflections encapsulating them in units of succinct length and great concentration…

    MB The title derives from a visit to Auschwitz when Davide Ferrario and I shot La strada di Levi, a film on Levi’s journey narrated in The Truce. We had a take with the images of the deportees hung along a hallway, police-like images, front and side view, as in mug shots.

    Primo Levi is an enigma to me. He had been a deportee, and like those people in the photographs, subjected to a detention regime. I joined together many different things. Of course, no man will ever be represented by the pictures taken when caught by the police. Identification photographs are an attempt to grasp the identity of a man, yet the true identity always eludes us. So after 735 pages Levi still escapes. I have not pinned him down. I tried, but to no avail. The more pages I wrote, the more he escaped: he is a polyhedron, as I write in the preface; he has many faces, all different. Maybe I should have written a small book, a short one. As Pascal said to an acquaintance to whom he had written a long letter: I’m sorry but I did not have the time to right a short one. I probably would have needed another 10 years yet to write a good book. But fortunately, as you noticed, aside from two long chapters, all the rest is made of very short segments. It is a long, thick book, made of short or very short parts, which can be read by jumping here and there, following one’s own reading paths. I recommend it in the “Operating Instructions.” It makes it an easier and less challenging read.

    AC Your thought provoking chapter on The Search For Roots: A Personal Anthology,bears a peremptory subtitle: “A book made of texts by others is his  most perfect self-portrait. ” You come back to the concept of the self-portrait at least 3 times before page 603, where you underline ” In what is undoubtedly the key book for understanding his complex personality, The Search for Roots is both an anthology of texts and an intense human confession…” Curiously, in the recent US edition of The Complete Works of Primo Levi, Liveright, 2015  (which generally follows the order of the complete works you curated for Einaudi), The Search for Roots is absent. Could you comment on this omission and expand on what you think is the importance of this book?

    MB First of all you have to know that even the Italian edition of Levi’s Complete Worksin 1997 risked not having The Search for Roots. One of Einaudi’s executives had not included it. When I realized it, I raised hell: it is a very important book for understanding Levi. Then we came to an agreement: it was included, but in a smaller font size and as an addendum. I accepted the compromise. Now, in a new edition published in 2016, it will appear in the same font size as the other books.

    Why is it important? Because Levi speaks of himself in a direct way, as a man and as a writer, and does so using the words of others: he anthologized pieces he identifies with, pieces he loves, and one that describes him.

    Precisely in using other people’s words to describe himself, he felt freer. In the American edition it was perhaps not possible: they would have had to translate or search for original English texts from various authors. The Search for Roots has perhaps less of an impact in English, although I think it would have been better to include it. Certainly there must have been obstacles in acquiring the rights, and much had already been achieved by translating or re-translating all of Levi.

    AC Over the years you often returned to Primo Levi. Your contribution to the critical debate on Levi (and the curatorship of his complete works) has been substantial and far-reaching. Could you explain what led you back to this author? And further how do you think Levi can help us to read the present and the future?

    MB I came across Levi almost by chance, many years ago, thanks to a teacher of mine who had been a prisoner in Germany, a military deportee who had refused to fight with the fascists of the Italian Social Republic and had been deported. He simply told us: on the subject of Concentration Camps, read If This Is a Man. He had been a communist until 1956 and then left the party after the Soviet’s invasion of Hungary. He was a man of few words, very tough and competent. Then I read more of Levi’s books, as they were published, during the seventies. But I was more interested in Calvino, Sciascia, Pasolini. I read following my social and political interests, as well as literary ones. I did not think about becoming a literary critic. I concentrated on philosophical studies. Then, in the early eighties, at the home of a friend, the epistemologist Mario Porro, I discovered Other People’s Trades and a light bulb came on. I realized Levi was not only the witness, but a 360 degrees writer. He had combined literature and sciences, linguistics and ethology, chemistry and complexity theory. It was a true surprise. From there I began rereading his works and revised my view of him. It took nearly 15 years.

    Then, in 1991 I started to edit the journal “Riga” and after five or six years I began planning an issue on Levi. “Riga” is made by myself and Elio Grazioli, so we are free to choose authors, subjects, collaborators, with no need to clear anything beforehand with the publisher. I started to ask around various writer friends and essayists if they wanted wanted to collaborate: all of them had just reread Levi or were reading him. This is how the Levi issue came about. Stefano Bartezzaghi played an important role: it was he who opened my eyes to Levi as playful wordsmith. Meanwhile I had begun to work with Einaudi, they were publishing my book on Calvino, L’occhio di Calvino. I often went to Turin and I spoke first with Paolo Fossati, and later with Ernesto Ferrero. Fossati told me that Ferrero was preparing a new edition of Levi’s Complete Works. Then I told Ferrero about my work on Levi and the things I had discovered. Meanwhile, Martin McLaughlin had introduced me to a young English scholar, Robert Gordon who had graduated with him from Oxford. Gordon was then studying Levi, so we began a dialogue. One day Fossati took me to see Ferrero, and asked me to collaborate with him on curating Levi’s, Complete Works. We started together, but then, I ended up finishing the job myself. In Turin I spent time with Alberto Cavaglion from whom I learned a lot. Levi then was not who he is today. Now he is finally considered a writer, but not back then. He was only the witness, and received little attention from the literati.

    Today, one of Levi’s most interesting contributions is his investigation of the “grey zone”. Here we hear clearly his voice as a scholar of power relations, in both their extreme manifestation inside the camp, but also in their less oppressive manifestations in the outside world.

    His book for the twenty-first century and beyond is The Drowned and the Saved.  He still needs to be studied and understood, he is an important author for our future. I find his anthropological and ethological perspectives to be decisive. This is the new frontier, without forgetting the Nazi extermination and concentration camps. There are still similar situations in the world, and I fear that it will occur again. In different forms, but this kind of horror will occur again. We see it every day.  And again there is the theme of the “foreigner”, xenophobia. [For all of this], unfortunately, Levi continues to be topical and relevant.

    Alessandro Cassin is the director of Printed Matter and CPL Editions. Was a cultural reporter for l’Espresso and Diario and is a contributor of The Brooklyn Rail. His book Whispers: Ulay on Ulay co-authored with Maria Rus Bojan received the 2015 AICA Award.

    Thanks to Centro Primo Levi

    Info of Event:

    NOV 1, TUE, h 5:30 pm at the Italian Academy at Columbia University (1161 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10027). 
    SYMPOSIUM - A Fresh View: Primo Levi's COMPLETE WORKS. A dialogue between Ann Goldstein and Marco Belpoliti, editors of Levi in 2015-2016

  • Life & People

    S F VANNI: Germinating From Old Roots

    The bookstore, in business from 1884 to 2004,  reopens as a pop-up bookstore, cultural space and headquarters for our own CPL Editions.

    In a city in constant transformation, we believe in the symbolic value of the places that embody its cultural memory.

    The Amato Opera Theater was forced to shut its doors for good in 2009, the last of several downtown independent Italian institutions.

    We feel strongly that we need to go against the current by reviving and preserving the ancient Italian tradition of independent publishers- booksellers and attempt to redefine its role in the age of Amazon.

    The new VANNI space has been reimagined with help from architect Bonnie Roche and designer Jonathan Wajskol. The first of the two-room bookstore has become a multifunctional space for book presentations, lectures, and film screenings. The second room —with the original books published by S F VANNI— will be preserved as ‘urban archeology’. As one proceeds inside, it becomes a journey back in time, as it were, from color to black and white.
The import of Italian books in New York began with Lorenzo Da Ponte, (Mozart’s librettist), who first brought his library to Columbia University in 1805. In 1884 S F Vanni opened the first Italian bookstore (at 548 West Broadway); bookseller and publisher Andrea Ragusa, brought it into the 20th century on Bleecker Street and then to its present address, at 30 W 12th Street.
     What strikes me about this lineage—one that we are proud to take part in— is that it was carried out not by big corporations, but by a handful of visionary individuals. Another powerful example is Paolo Milano, the literary critic who arrived in New York in flight from the Racial Laws in the late ‘30s. His Portable Dante single- handedly sparked fresh interest in Italian literature throughout American academia.

    For the past 15 years, speared by Natalia Indrimi’s unwavering commitment, Centro Primo Levi has established itself as a platform providing access to resources on Italian Jewish Studies and current affairs. CPL Editions, our new publishing venture, is a natural extension of Centro Primo Levi’s online presence and its role in bridging the linguistic gap between Italy and the English-speaking world.

    Our publications, produced in partnership with OR BOOKS, will be available as e-books and print-on-demand, through the free CPL Editions APP, available at iTunes.

    We are deeply grateful to Professor Olga Ragusa for giving us the opportunity to link our new adventure to this history-laden location.
    Alessandro Cassin
    Director Of Publishing

  • Art & Culture

    The Force Of Things - From Italy to New York and Back

       The deeper one delves into Alexander Stille’s captivating The Force Of Things, the more tangible it becomes how sometimes the subject matter itself determines the tone and genre of a book. Ostensibly a memoir centered on his parents’ troubled relationship, the book merges biography, intellectual history and psychological portraiture, in a carefully calibrated prose at a novelistic pace.

    The unlikely, often unhappy, enduring-against-all-odds, union of Mikhail “Misha” Kamenetzki, a.k.a Ugo Stille, a Jewish intellectual of Russian origin- with Elizabeth Bogert, a beautiful and restless Midwestern white Anglo-Saxon Protestant,allows the author to tackle from multiple perspectives a key element in the make up of contemporary American society: the “cross-pollination” (as Stille refers to it) which occurred as Jewish intellectuals in flight from Nazi-Fascist Europe entered the mainstream of American culture. 

       While much has been written about the impact of the German and Austrian Jewish intelligentsia that settled on the two American coasts after Hitler’s raise to power, the story of the much smaller (roughly 2800) Italian Jewish emigration remains largely unwritten.

         The Kamenetzki family had fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, and after a brief residence in Germany arrived in Italy in the 1920’s. Mikhail (Michele) Kamenetzki grew up in Rome under Fascism. Italian language and culture were central to his education. He attended a prestigious Liceo Classico (where one of Mussolini’s sons was his classmate) and then enrolled at the University of Rome. In 1938, when the racial laws excluded Jews from all public schools, those who were already enrolled (as in Kamenetzki’s case), were allowed to finish. He graduated with honors from the University of Rome receiving praise from Giovanni Gentile, the author of the infamous “Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals”.

    Although his sympathies were from early on anti-Fascist, he remembered participating in uniform to the parades welcoming Hitler to Rome, where he and his best friend felt as “toy soldiers on parade”. As Italy entered the war and foreign Jews were sent to internment camps or confined to small villages, the family managed to obtain a visa to Portugal and passage to New York, despite the many roadblocks posed by both fascist authorities and the American Consulate, less than eager to allow Jews into the States.  

        In New York the Kamenetski’s settled first in Brooklyn and then on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After Pearl Harbor, Kamenetzki joined the US Military, placing himself on the fast track for obtaining citizenship and seizing an opportunity to contribute to the fight against Nazi-Fascism. Like Peter Treves and a number of other recent Italian Jewish immigrants, Kamenetski joined the U.S. Intelligence, where thanks to his fluency in Italian he was assigned to the Psychological Warfare Branch. The now Sargent Michael Kamenetzki was shipped first to Algeria and - after the Allies’ landing in Sicily - in Palermo where he was in charge of setting up a radio station.

        Before emigrating, Kamenetzki had shown precocious journalistic talent writing a column for the periodical Oggi, under the pseudonym Ugo Stille, which he alternately shared with his friend Giaime Pintor. Paradoxically, the racial laws that had forced him out of Italy, provided the big break in his journalistic career. In the immediate post-war years, Italy’s leading daily Il Corriere Della Sera had difficulty obtaining a visa for a correspondent; Kamenetzki/Stille, by then an American citizen, was uniquely positioned for an initially freelance job. This led to a protean forty-year career in that newspaper (which in itself deserves a separate book). In New York Ugo Stille frequented fellow Italian expatriates, among others Max Ascoli, Bruno Zevi, Nicola Chiaromonte and the future Nobel Prize winner Franco Modigliani. Through his work with Corriere Della Sera, he also quickly came into contact with the American political, financial and intellectual elites.

       Anti-Semitism was an integral part of the background of Stille’s wife, Elizabeth Bogert. In rebellion against her own parents and the narrow mindness of her milieu, she came of age through contact with the (mainly Jewish) expatriates who attempted to recreate the new Bauhaus in Chicago. Interestingly, despite the fact that her first husband was also Jewish, when she re-married there was relief at her husband’s change of name from Kamenetzki to the less Jewish sounding Stille. Furthermore, in her only extramarital affair, she fell for Saul Steinberg, yet another European Jew who had arrived in New York after a formative period in Italy.

        Misha and Elizabeth’s worlds collided in an explosive cocktail of attraction and disdain. Their daily conflicts deeply affected the upbringing of the author and his sister. As a result, a great deal of the author’s effort goes into a mixture of speculation and psychological insights into the mystery of what kept these two worlds together.

        To Misha, Elizabeth represented the America he had come to love: “She had the freedom, naturalness, irreverent wit and beauty” of American actresses, “she had none of the layers of conventions and centuries of breeding that many European women had; she was genuine and direct”.  And Elizabeth, while having little patience or understanding for Eastern European Jewish ancestry, was charmed by Misha’s intensity and conversational fireworks.

       Despite an impressive amount of detailed research, Alexander Stille’s perspective necessarily remains that of a son, a scarred spectator to their ongoing conflicts. As Misha did not teach Italian to his wife and children, for many decades the family remained excluded from essential parts of his professional and social life.

        The background for this tempestuous marriage is mid 20th Century New York, a time and place were individuals of diverging backgrounds could aspire to forge brand new identities for themselves.

        Possibly the single greatest achievement of the book is the constant shift between the strictly personal and the collective: everything seems to occur on many distinct parallel planes.

    While colorfully and painstakingly recording the specifics that made his parents exceptional individuals, Stille focuses on ways in which history, collective memory, a specific cultural climate, economic opportunity and random luck allow individuals to impact the world they live in. And conversely, on how historical events and cultural trends are ignited by individual actions and trajectories.

        In a layered construction, the author conjures up a variety of group portraits that include his father’s anti-fascist circle in Rome, his mother’s party life in a Cornell sorority, the art and literary crowds they frequented in New York. There are also vivid reconstructions of the personalities and Weltanschaung of the two sets of grandparents and their universes. In these physical and psychological personas he builds up, the author places them within manifold literary and cinematic references. Among other, scenes from Middlemarch, The Great Gatsby, Candide, The Divine Comedy, Lady with the Lap Dog and Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.

        Unlike the majority of German and Austrian Jewish refugees who never returned to their countries of origin, most Italian expatriates returned to Italy in the post-war years.  Ugo Stille, who had maintained a cultural umbilical cord with Italy through his work at the paper, was among the last to return when, in 1984, Corriere della Sera offered him the position of Editor in Chief.  

        Stille skillfully inserts himself into the narrative, alternating between the role of historian, investigative reporter and first person witness. In the shift between these roles, startling changes of perspective occur. For instance, when he uses his reporter’s skill to retrace from documents the movements across Europe of his paternal grandfather Ilya Israel Kamenetski, we are presented with a highly intelligent and wily man, equally at ease in Russia or in Naples, expertly manipulating the intricacies of Fascist bureaucracy. Among his startling-comical achievements he had managed to obtain a letter by the soldier-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio attesting to his services to D’Annunzio’s troupes during their short-lived occupation of Fiume.

    This letter would later turn out to be providential in the family’s fate. The same man, through the eyes of the author as a young kid, was a “rumpled refugee moving slowly with the help of a cane”. And in the author’s mother words (over-medicated, shortly before dying) Ilya Kamenetzki is described as “a Yiddish-speaking shtetl Jew who had the instincts and manners of an itinerant peddler.”

        Next to the parade of characters who populate this book, the author pays close attention to material fragments that make up the fiber spun in weaving these lost worlds: scraps of paper, photographs, pieces of furniture, mental habits, turns of phrases each one a spring board for evoking an underlying world of unspoken emotion.

        In the closing chapter of the book, Stille traces a sort of closing of the circle: after learning Italian and moving to Italy, he rediscovers the lost world of his father and embarks on his own adventure in journalism. As Ugo Stille spent decades explaining the US to Italian readers, in some generational symmetry, his son is now to scrutinizing facets of Italian society for American readers.

        Alexander Stille’s first book, Benevolence and Betrayal was an attempt to presents the complex and diverse experience of Italian Jews under Fascism though the experiences of five families. In his latest one, while focusing and his parents’ marriage, he is also addressing large historical issues indispensible to understand contemporary American culture.

  • Facts & Stories

    Memory Buried: In Search of Mussolini’s Camps

    Carlo Spartaco Capogreco is a professor at the Università della Calabria and president of Fondazione Ferramonti, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the largest Jewish internment camp in southern Italy. He is an independent scholar in every sense of the word. For the past 20 years, through detailed archival research, fieldwork, and extensive interviews with survivors, Prof. Capogreco has painstakingly reconstructed the realities of civil internment during the Fascist era. This has allowed him to reconstruct a comprehensive historical-geographical mapping of internment camps and other forms of confinement devised by Mussolini during 20 years of dictatorship.

    Capogreco’s first book on the subject, I campi del duce. L’internamento civile nell’Italia fascista (Torino: Einaudi, 2004), covers the period from 1940 through 1943. It will be followed by a forthcoming volume documenting the approximately 40 camps and detention centers in what became the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, which sent thousands of Jews to extermination camps in Nazi-occupied territories.

    Focusing on little-known, complex, and often overlooked realities of Fascist internment in its different varieties, Capogreco dispels many myths about Mussolini’s dictatorship. As early as 1925, the idea of segregating, confining, and interning political opponents was a key element of the regime’s strategy. The postwar perception of Mussolini’s Italy as a bland, paternalistic dictatorship that became racist and anti-Semitic only late in the war, under Nazi pressure, simply does not stand up to historical examination. Long before the racial laws of 1938, Mussolini’s policies in Libya, his treatment of the Slavic ethnic minorities in the northeast, and the repression of political dissidents displayed his propensity toward embryonic forms of what we now refer to as concentration camps and ethnic cleansing.

    Capogreco proposes a distinction between the terms “internment camps” and “concentration camps”: whereas in the former there was still a semblance of legality (as in the confinement of enemy aliens during a war), the latter simply constituted an arbitrary measure by a totalitarian regime. Fascist internment progressed over time with Byzantine complexity, from confinement to penal colonies in the Italian islands starting in the 1920s, to actual concentration camps in the Repubblica Sociale Italiana after 1943. In the period before Italy’s entry in the war, the internment of political enemies and the allegedly dangerous mainly took the form of confino di polizia. This meant either confinement in the islands, or the lighter status of confinato libero in central and southern Italian towns. As Italy entered World War II, in addition to the confino di polizia, the Fascists set up a network consisting of 48 internment camps, meant initially both for internal dissidents and enemy aliens, and 15 camps for former Yugoslav citizens. Another type of internment was the internamento libero, whereby an individual or family was forced to reside in a specific town and report daily to the local authorities.

    Initially, the anti-Jewish legislation introduced by Mussolini in 1938 did not mandate the internment of Italian or foreign Jews in camps. One of Capogreco’s merits is that he dispels the frequent misunderstanding that the Fascist internment camps were set up especially for the Jews. In fact, until 1943 only about 10 percent of the internees were Jewish. Mussolini’s orders mandating the internment of all foreign Jews residing in Italy as of June 1940 were never fully carried out. It was only after September 1943 that the Repubblica Sociale Italiana systematically rounded up Jews, interned them, and consigned them to the Nazis.

    Living conditions in Mussolini’s camps (prior to the R.S.I.) varied from grim to harsh. The prisoners suffered hunger, isolation, and disease. Although these camps were not intended for extermination, as Capogreco establishes beyond any doubt, they nevertheless served as an instrument of political and racial persecution.


     Your book dismantles the three main axes of an absolutory view of fascism: the idea that Italian colonialism was humanitarian, that anti-Semitism was not an intrinsic part of the Fascist ideology, but a late import from Germany, and the decades long shameful silence on the brutal crimes the Italian army perpetrated against the populations of the Balkans.

    These are the essential components of a particular view of Fascism which I hope to have helped dispel.

     Mussolini rose to power in 1922. Early on, his totalitarian regime adopted the policy of fighting political dissent and dealing with “unwanted populations” through confino di polizia, (police confinement) a form of forced exile mostly in the Italian islands. The complex network of camps and alternative forms of internment that you describe as being in place in the period between 1940- 1943, was set up administratively, logistically and ideologically in the preceding decades. In the words of the Chief of Police, Arturo Bocchini, the Fascist idea was to exert “a constant, albeit not too conspicuous repression”. The confino di polizia fit this perfectly.

    I am not suggesting that the Fascists had planned the whole system from the start, but we must remember that these things did occur and we must ponder on what exactly they consisted in.

     When one mentions concentration camps, Italy does not come to mind…

    That is true. The Immediate association is with the Lagers of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Gulags. This is unavoidable, automatic, the word “concentration camp” evokes a specific reality and is in itself a destabilizing term. Yet, historically speaking, it is not a useful comparison. It is difficult to focus on the specificity of Italian camps, little known in Italy itself, and even more so outside the country.

    In your book you compare the Italian penal colonies of 1926 to the early camps set up by the Nazis for political dissidents, such as Dachau…

    I ventured a parallel, between the two and so far no historian has contradicted me.

    Yet people still sometimes refer to fascist internment as kind of “forced vacation”

    True. This was the term used by the Italian Prime Minister about ten years ago, in an interview with the conservative British weekly, The Spectator. Far from a vacation, the confino di polizia was a form of deportation, which despite the lack of physical violence, was highly efficient in neutralizing political dissidents, by removing them from their cities, work, and families.

    How to you explain that Fascism is still viewed sometimes as a paternalistic, almost benevolent dictatorship with little in common with the true horrors of other 20th Century totalitarian regimes?

     Undoubtedly there were substantial differences between Fascism and other dictatorships. However I believe there were at least two breaking points that gave birth to a number of misunderstandings: Hannah Arendt’s The Origin of Totalitarianism and surveys on concentration camps such as the work of Andrzej Kaminski. The problem with Arend’s, famous and often cited book is that in tracing the origins of totalitarianism she leaves out Fascism. Kaminki, the Polish historian, in his The History of Concentration Camps from 1896 to today does not mention Italian colonial camps in Libya, not even in his foot notes! For Italian historians it ensued that if such authorities as Arendt and Kaminski did not mention Italian camps, either they never exited or they were not important.

     I quote from your introduction: “In 1990 the Italian President Francesco Cossiga, during a diplomatic visit in Germany stated: “We Italians have not known the horrors of concentration camps…” and again “in 2003, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stated: Mussolini never killed anybody. If politicians still express themselves like this what can be done to get across a more balanced view?

     Within my possibilities I have attempted to study and bring to light comprehensively everything that concerns Italian internment camps. I have searched for all that remains as far as documentation, physical evidence and testimony. My goal was a complete mapping of the camps. But the difficulties were extreme. Here is an example: I had heard about a work camp for Slavs near Perugia, yet despite months of archival research (even in Belgrade) I could not identify the site.  I had a name: the camp of Tavarnelle with annexes at Pietrafitta and  Castel Sereni. Castel Sereni is not a toponym, not the name of a town, it simply did not seem to exist…yet I managed to find it. A former internee I had interviewed in Lubjana, had described the prisoners arriving by train at the small station of Ellera, near Perugia and proceeding by foot from there. So I got off at that station and, listening to his story from a tape recorder through earphones, I started to walk across the countryside, heading south. A beautiful sunny morning in January, after being bit by a dog, I came across Castel Sereni. It was a large stolid warehouse, which took its name from the former owner, Sereni. It had been used as a camp during the war and then abandoned: this is the state of things in Italy!

    If those smaller camps were almost unidentifiable in Umbria, one can only imagine how much harder it must have been down South…

    Of course. But the problem is not a geographical one. It all stems from what happened in the post war period, when all that was discussed, remembered, celebrated was the Resistance.

    What about the silence and apparent lack of curiosity for the internment camps? Did it apply to the historians as well?

    Both popular historians and academics were busy either building up (those on the left) or attempting to demolish the myth of the Resistance (those on the right.) In either case, no one was interested in investigating the reality of Fascist internment. The experience of the camps was often confused with the confino di polizia and not investigated further.

    The terminology regarding the different forms of internment is often obscure, yet another source of confusion.

     The Fascist bureaucracy came up with terms such as internamento libero (free internment). Often both those interned in camps and the so called internati liberi, have been later mistaken with the confinati (those sentenced to confino di polizia) which was a different thing all together.

    What were the bureaucratic and concrete differences between confinamento libero and internamento libero?

    As far as living conditions, subsidy, and daily activities the two were very similar. Confino libero (free confinement) in small towns was a more bland version of confino di  polizia in the islands.

    In the same way that the confino had two levels of harshness (confino di polizia in the islands and the less harsh version confino libero in small towns) there were also two levels of interment: in the camps or in towns (internamento libero).

    Yes. The model was the same: the milder form of internment for the allegedly less dangerous individuals, while the more restrictive forms (the islands and the camps) for the most dangerous. It sometimes happened that in the same town there were both an internato libero and a confinato libero, For all intents and purposes, their status was undistinguishable to anybody but the police officer who had their files.

    Bureaucratically however there were important differences: the confino di polizia was mandated by the provincial commission (without a trial) and could last a maximum of 5 years, while the internment was decided by the Ministry of Interior it did not have a specific time limit.

    Among the confinati, did some return home after the 5-year sentence?

     It did happen occasionally. It also happened that a prisoner was returned home after a shorter time, through an “act of submission”, in itself an indication of Mussolini’s paternalistic approach to punishment.

    How harsh were the living conditions for those confined in the islands?

    It depends on which island and at what time. Certainly, deprivation and discomfort were real: there were those who died from psychological duress. In the last year there was real hunger. In the Tremiti Island there were cases when prisoners captured and roasted dogs and fed themselves by rummaging through garbage. Of course none of this is comparable to the horrors of what was happening in the Nazi camps.

    Still today many textbooks state that the Fascist regime had not been racist until the anti-Jewish laws of 1938. In reality racial discrimination had been a component of Fascism long before, as illustrated by the policies adopted in Libya, Ethiopia, Abyssinia and in the annexed territories of the former Yugoslavia…

    As far as the anti-Jewish laws of 1938, commonly referred to as “racial laws” I agree with Michele Sarfatti who believes they should be called “racist laws”. In any case, they were not the first of their kind. In 1937 Mussolini passed legislation prohibiting marriages between Italians and colonial subjects, clearly a racist measure. Other examples can be found in the often neglected history of Italian abuse of the Slavic minorities that became Italian citizens after the end of World War I. Italy had Croatian and Slovenian minorities that amounted to over half a million people. These were systematically discriminated and abused with a brutality that actually surpassed the 1938 measures against the Jews.

    In what way?

    Jewish persecution, in its horror, was systematic and regulated by laws, while the persecution against the Slavs remained arbitrary and lawless. For example, when in 1938 Jewish students and professors were expelled from Italian schools and universities, they were allowed to set up their own schools in which they could study Hebrew, practice their religion, etc. In contrast, the Slavic minorities in Italy were prohibited the use of their language even in their churches. Their schools, cultural associations, churches were shot down. Teachers and priests transferred south…

    A sort of ethnic cleansing?

    I would call it a preview of that. As a matter of fact in Trieste and in Venezia Giulia, the Fascists were encouraging the immigration of ethnic Italians from the South. Teodoro Sala and others who have studied this phenomenon called it fascismo di frontiera (frontier fascism).

    How do you explain that toward the end of the war there were episodes in which Italian soldiers were at the same time ruthless against the Yugoslav population and protective toward the Jews?

    The Italian military, more than the politicians, sensing that the war had been lost, were playing “dirty”. The generals stationed in Yugoslavia knew the Allies were arriving and believed the Jews to be a valuable bargaining chip. Despite the infamy of the racial laws there was not the will to exterminate the Jews neither within the Italian Army nor with the Italian Government.

    Long before the Jewish persecution, the Fascist had displayed their propensity for war, disregard for human life, willingness to resort to torture, as exemplified in the war in Libya were they used gas against the population…

    What happened in the Italian colonies, including the use of gas and the systematic violation of international conventions, although a well known fact among historians, has not yet become part of the national consciousness.

    General Graziani was hailed as the pacifier of Libya.

    Without numbers we risk vagueness. In Libya, in the early 1930s, 60.000 interned prisoners died under the supervision of Italian soldiers! For Graziani “pacification” consisted in rounding up semi-nomadic populations in camps and letting them die of hunger and thirst. I believe that the tent encampments that Graziani set up in the desert became the prototype for the concentration camps built on the Adriatic coast for the Slavs.

    It seems important to underscore that the racial laws of 1938 list a number of prohibitions for the Jewish population but never mention a plan of internment.

    That is a crucial point. Still today, many mistakenly believe that Italian internment camps were a consequence of the anti-Jewish laws, they were not!

    Were the concentration camps set up exclusively for Jews conceived only by the Repubblica Sociale Italiana?

    In practical terms, yes, although in the spring of 1943, before Mussolini’s fall, the Fascists had planned camps for the Jews, as well as projects of mandatory labor, but these were never carried out.

    Up to 1939 Italy had received a number of foreign Jews in flight from the Nazis. As Italy entered the war, in June of 1940, the situation of foreign Jews and those who were stateless became dramatic: they were all subject to immediate internment.

    It should be remembered that the Fascists always allowed emigration. Even Jews already interned in camps, if able to obtain visas and find a country that would receive them, were allowed to leave.

    What may appear like an act of generosity hid a profitable black market of visas…

    Of course. Profiteering from visas and also financial maneuvers around conversions to Catholicism.

    From your research it appears that in October 1940 out of 10.000 foreigners eligible for internment, only 4251 had actually been arrested. Of these 2396 were sent to camps and 1855 in towns or villages. To what do you attribute this rather lax enforcement of the law?

    A combination of factors: the objective difficulty of identifying and arresting all foreigners, the endemic inefficiency of the Fascist regime, and to some extent the help received by individuals in hiding. This help would sometimes be offered freely and generously, other times in exchange for money.

    Initially Mussolini did not conceived the internment of Jews as a prelude to extermination, yet without the directed Fascist censuses and police records, it would have been much harder for the Nazis to identify and arrest Italian Jews…

     It is my belief that there was no extermination intent up to September 8th 1943. After that it is a question of evaluating the degree of independence of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana from Nazi Germany. However there is no doubt that Mussolini and the Repubblica di Salò were aware that the camp of Fossoli was the Italian terminal for the Shoah, and that they knew exactly its role in the final solution. Similarly, there can be no doubt that the Shoah in Italy was largely facilitated by the Fascists’ detailed record keeping and forced segregation of the Jewish population starting in 1938.

    Despite the intentions of exploiting the potential work force of the internees, in most camps the saying went: “idleness rules”. This inactivity demoralized the prisoners, aggravating their sense of marginality.
    The internees suffered greatly from feeling reduced to a state of utter uselessness, regarding both their personal fate and the larger historical events unfolding around them.

    Can you describe the specificity of the camps of Ferramonti and that of Arbe?

    I have reconstructed the history of Ferramonti in Ferramonti, la vita e gli uomini del più grande campo di internamento fascista, La Giuntina, published in 1987. The camp had the peculiarity of being specifically set up for Jews, and in many ways life there resembled life in a ghetto. In certain respects it can be compared to a kibbutz: it was seen as a transit stop toward emigration to Palestine. All of this helped turn Ferramonti into a myth.

    For its internees, Ferramonti had a happy ending…

    For many of them it did, but this is to be attributed to chance or rather to the Allies’s landing in Sicily rather than in the north. The geography of the war was such that we did not experience the Repubblica Sociale Italiana in the South. The two camps with the highest concentration of Jews, Ferramonti (Cosenza) and Campagna (Salerno) were in the South. The Allies’ arrival prevented the transfer of the Jews up North, a move that had been planned during the summer of 1943.

    Some of the survivors remember their time in Ferramonti as “a positive experience”.
    Generally we are dealing with post war sublimations, made with the awareness of what could have happened “otherwise” in the RSI and in Nazi occupied territories. Further, Ferramonti has meant different camps in different times, with drastically different life conditions. There was a first camp- lets call it Ferramonti 1- a Fascist camp from May 1940 to July 25 1943, then an intermediate one – Feramonti 2- run by the interim Badoglio Government, from July 25 till September 14, and finally, with the arrival of the Allies- Ferramonti 3, which was a Displaced Persons Camp. Clearly if you take the testimony of a person who arrived at Ferramonti when it was operating as a Displaced Persons Camp the experiences will be at odds with one who arrived in 1941.

    And Arbe?

    The camp of Arbe, (Rab in Croatian), a former Yugoslav island annexed by Italy, was created in July 1942, after the invasion of Yugoslavia, under a very different set of circumstances. In Arbe there was a very particular situation: a strongly repressive form of internment for the Slavs and a rather protective type of internment for the Jews.  2700 Jews had arrived on the island in the spring of 1943, so climatically the worst was over. However, the Jews were placed in sheds while the Slavs, even during the winter, were kept in tents. Towards the end of the war, the Jews from different camps in Dalmatia were all sent to Arbe to prevent deportation to Germany. On a personal note, I have named my own son after Ivo Hezer of Zagreb, a former internee of Arbe who in 1986 organized the international symposium Italians and Jews. Rescue and Aid During the Holocaust at Boston University.

    I Campi Del Duce was published in 2004. Why did it take over half a century for the first serious study of civil internment under Fascism to come out?

    In the immediate postwar period, the former Fascists needed to somehow reinvent themselves and the anti-fascists wanted to move on. The emphasis was on national reconciliation and on the glorification of the Resistance. The amnesty certainly encouraged amnesia. As reports of Nazi horrors began to spread, internment and other Fascist crimes seemed to pale in comparison. What I am trying to say is that though the construction of internment camps was not in itself an unusual or demonic measure (the British had internment camps on the Isle of Man and the US interned Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor) the Fascists’ use of these camps cannot be condoned. What is specific in Italy is that the Fascist regime used its camps as an instrument of political and later racial persecution. The fact that they did not kill the internees should not absolve in any way their basic intentions or justify their purposes.

    This interview was made by Alessandro Cassin
    for the Primo Levi Center in New York.

  • Art & Culture

    How Italy Became Racist. A Conversation with Lia Levi

    Structured as an epistolary novel, the book narrates the late life attempt of the protagonist to reconnect with the son he gave up during the tragic years of Jewish persecution.

    Before the infamous racial laws, he had fallen in love with Sonia, the daughter of a wealthy anti-Semitic banker. In a long flash back, the novel recounts the parallel realities of the two families of origin: the Jewish one, who owned and ran a small hotel, and the gentile one which followed the ritualized social conventions of the Roman bourgeoisie. As the external pressure builds, this precarious marriage becomes almost clandestine, forcing the husband into a spiral of compromises.

    Written in plain and perfectly pitched prose, with keen attention to significant detail, Levi’s novel depicts Roman society in transition, where the escalation of latent anti-Semitic feelings into state policy, occurred at unimaginable speed.

    Italy under Fascism provided a fertile ground during and after the war in Alberto Moravia and Giorgio Bassani’s novels. Lia Levi is writing from a different vantage point. Sixty years after the war, she offers a new perspective, highlighting points of acute contemporary significance.

    Alessandro Cassin: Your novel, like Moravia’s Gli Indifferenti, takes place in Parioli, an exclusive neighborhood in Rome. The wealthy Roman bourgeoisie in your novel lives by an elaborate set of lies. One of the most glaring and pervasive is disguising their anti-Semitism as classism.


    Lia Levi: Sure, that was a common practice, a subtle way not to deal with an ugly reality. Few people then or now would publicly admit: “I am a racist”.  

    A.C: In Italian the title was L’albergo della Magnolia, a beautiful title, referring to the name of the hotel run by the Jewish family. Why the change in English?

    L.L: Together with my publisher we felt the The Magnolia Hotel would not have meant much to an English speaker. The Jewish Husband introduces the subject more explicitly.

    A.C: You have developed a highly personal narrative style. There is always a simplicity of language, a desire to be crystal clear, to really get to the heart of the matter. Maybe this comes from your being also a children's author, where clarity is paramount.

    L.L: Perhaps. I keep these activities separate, as two distinct tracks, but I realize that a search for simplicity and essentiality has become somehow my signature.    

    A.C: Your novel unfolds in four intersecting planes: a central love story, a group portrait of the Roman bourgeoisie, individual stories versus historical events, and perhaps the crucial theme of the book: betrayal and deceit.

    L.L: I am not sure we should talk about the first as a love story, I prefer to characterize it as a passion, an amorous passion. Further, that last and most important theme is also one of self-deceit. Amos Oz said that life is based on compromises; the question becomes what kind of compromises we are willing to make…  

    A.C: One of the merits of the novel is to show step by step how the racial laws forced the protagonist onto an irreversible path of compromises. Once he takes the first step he is doomed and finds himself on the path to self betrayal...

    L.L: Lying to oneself and betraying oneself is clearly on of my central themes.


    A.C: Is the book based on a true story?

    L.L: No. But I lived through that historical period as a child, and I feel I have assimilated it deeply. It comes out naturally as the backdrop of my inner life. So, as I unleash my imagination in the creation of fiction, I draw from a true and accurate atmosphere that relates to that time period. The plot makes veiled references to stories I have heard about, which occurred in later times.  

    A.C: I would like to go back to the theme of compromise, which colored that whole period for so many.

    L.L: Naturally, there were many different kinds and levels of compromise... The lesson, then and now, is never to give up one’s dignity. In my case, my mother hid me in a boarding school run by nuns, where I was given a non-Jewish name. Giving up my name and my identity was more than a compromise, it was a lie.  

    A.C: The American public, with few exceptions, is still not familiar with the period of Jewish persecution in Italy. In this sense your novel is an eye opener...

    L.L: I was rather surprised when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC: there are references to Mussolini’s racial laws and to the prohibition of mixed marriages, but beyond this, one does not get a sense of what really happened.

    A.C: One of the main achievements of your narrative is precisely to make the reader feel the horror of the progressive deprivations, loss of identity and hope experienced by Italian Jews under Fascism...

    L.L: You can commit a crime not only by killing someone but also by taking his dignity away. There is a specific horror in the daily practice of discrimination and segregation.

    AC: A passage in your novel describes a crucial moment: the census of Italian Jews in August, 1938, an apparently innocent administrative act which in effect marked the beginning of total segregation....

    L.L: It was not easy for the Fascist to tell Italian Jews apart from gentiles with the census the has reliable lists. Not filling out the census was perceived as a great risk.

    A.C: The episode of the census resonates with contemporary events showing how administrative acts can have enormous political consequences.

    L.L: This book is about the past and the present. 

    A.C: The characters in this book are only vaguely aware of the genocide of European Jewry, which is taking place in the concentration camps in Eastern and Central Europe. Italy still feels relatively safe. The point that you make forcefully is whether the Italian Fascists threatened the physical lives of the Jews, they created a psychological and economic environment so dehumanizing and degrading that it effectively wiped out their whole way of life.

    LL: I wanted to show what it feels like to be turned into second-class citizens!  I have explored the same theme in even greater detailed in another one of my books, Tutti i Giorni di tua vita, which follows a family from 1922 until after the war. There I chronicle the expulsion of the Jews from universities and jobs and the race to take over workplaces “freed” by the expulsion of the Jews.  

    A.C: How do you see the complementarities of history and the kind of literature that you are involved with?

    L.L: Nothing can or should substitute the study of history, but there are certain details that can shed light on particular historical events, which can be best, grasped through a literary passage or a movie scene. I do think literature can help make people understand history. In The Jewish Husband, the professor/narrator cannot conceive that the law prohibiting Jews from teaching applies to him (“so dedicated, so competent, so loved by his students”). He shows up for the first day of school as if nothing had changed. I feel this illustrates the absurdity of it all...

    A.C: Then there is the bizarre scene of the Matrimonio Paolino, the allowed church wedding between a gentile and a Jew - with the agreement that the children will be brought up as Catholics...

    L.L: Writing fiction allows mixing past and present. Those weddings actually did occur during Fascism despite the official ban on mixed marriages. I was able to describe it because I actually attended one after the war. The Matrimonio Paolino is a demonstration of the political cunning of the Church.

    A.C: Sonia’s cousin, Ruben is a very interesting character. In contrasts to the professor, he is a non-intellectual, a man of action. He has declared himself an antifascist yet...

    L.L: I was interested in portraying someone strong, who actively embraced the antifascist resistance, yet at a crucial point of this life - as it happened to many - confronted with immediate danger, was not able to save himself. Ruben had clear strength, but lacked the versatility to get out of harm’s way or to make the necessary compromises to survive.  

    A.C: The ending allows the reader several different readings. The father, in giving up his paternal rights, either commits the ultimate act of cowardice, or makes this ultimate act of renunciation in order to save his son...

    L.L: This often comes up in public readings, and the truth is that authors do not have all the answers regarding the motives of the characters. One possible answer is that after so many compromises, finally the father acts out of a nobler spirit of sacrifice. This ties in to the sacrifice of the desperate parents who during deportation attempted to save their children by literally throwing them from the trains.

    A.C: The current political climate in Italy makes reflecting on the Fascist past particularly poignant. How do you feel about the way contemporary authors have dealt with this subject?

    L.L: Naturally I find it both significant and positive that younger generations of writers wish to write about that period. I think there have been many failed attempts to do this, and a few very successful ones. Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost is excellent. He found a new literary form, a new way of narrating. There have also been successful movies, but regardless of the medium I think the challenge is to find new, personal ways to depict this material.

    A.C: Though in no way a religious book, one senses in your novel an ethical tension, typical of the Jewish tradition: “thou shall tell your children”...

    L.L: Certainly! Though I consider myself a rather non-religious person, the Seder has always been a central moment in my life. I have internalized the importance of the telling of the story, a story. I don't want to say that one tradition is better than another, but simply that this one is mine, I was brought up in it.

  • Op-Eds

    Brava Gente? The Resurgence of the Shopworn Myth of Italian Benevolence During Fascism

    As the generation of Holocaust survivors and first hand witnesses is dying off, the public  hunger for information tends to welcome all efforts to reconstruct facts, whether by historians, personal narratives, even attempts by non professionals. The complex and often contradictory story of what happened to the Jewish population in Italy during World War II is little known to the American public. Important scholarly publications don't reach the general public with regularity. Elizabeth Bettina’s It happened in Italy, Untold Stories of How People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust belongs to the category  of non academic attempts . Unfortunately it falls short on most accounts.

      Ms. Bettina is  an Italian American Catholic who works in marketing. Her family came  originally from the town of Campagna, (Salerno) in Southern Italy. The author spent her vacations there visiting her extended family. For years no one ever spoke to her about  what had happened in the town during World War II, nor about the presence of a Jewish detention camp. One day she accidentally stumbled upon a photograph from Campagna in the 1940's. It pictured a group of locals posing in front of  the Church of San Bartolomeo, including a policeman, the Bishop and a rabbi. This picture triggered Bettina’s investigations, carried out with the help of Professor Vincent Marmorale Vice President of of the Holocaust Memorial Committee of Long Beach NY. Meetings with former internees from Campagna followed, and so began the journey which provides the narrative of her book. As she learned more about the detention camps in Campagna and Ferramonti and met survivors who had  fled to the United States after the war, the author felt compelled to tell their stories. The book is a history of her induction into the history of the Holocaust. She befriended a few of them and arranged for some to return to Italy for a visit. Bettina proceeds in her investigation with the dogged determination of an oral historian, the resourcefulness of Indiana Jones and the enthusiasm of a neophyte. As word spread about her research into the heart -warming story of Southern Italians saving Jewish refugees, she was granted access to the highest echelons of the Vatican. This progression led to personal visits with Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Ruini and culminated with a group audience, with Pope Benedict VXI. The surprising silence over how these survivors were persuaded to go back to Italy is saddled with another more disquieting silence: how and why these survivors ended up being granted such an audience. Not once does the author wonder why her story, particularly the role of  the Bishop of Campagna, was so readily embraced by the Vatican.

    Bettina’s reliance on Jewish survivors to support her tendentious argument appears to be an unwitting part of a larger orchestrated effort to pave the way toward the controversial canonization of Pope Pius XII. Not surprisingly the book is printed by Thomas Nelson, a publisher of Christian books, religious videos and software.

     It Happened in Italy, weaves a few threads of anecdotal micro histories about the survival of foreign Jews, mostly in two Italian detention camps: Campagna (Salerno) and Ferramonti di Tarsia (Cosenza) without the context of the larger narrative of Jewish persecution in Italy.
      On June 18th, during a presentation of the book at the Italian Consulate in in New York, Ms. Bettina and Mr. Marmorale, referring to the Holocaust, reported “You all heard about the horrors, we are telling you the good  part of the story, the one that contains hope and light at the end of the tunnel”. If the truth of what happened in Italy, in all it’s ambiguous complexity, is to emerge, it is time to move beyond the “good stories” as opposed to the “horrifying ones” and understand that they are inseparable. Taken out of context, even true stories of Italian compassion become merely simplifications, an assortment of "feel good" tales.

       Bettina fails to inform us about what was happening  at the time to the large majority of Jews in Italy and  seems completely unaware of the fact that after September 1943 the situation in Northern and Central Italy occupied by German forces, was radically different from the South, already liberated by the Allies. Though internees in the camps she describes might have enjoyed compassionate treatment, their survival was mostly  a consequence of their geographical location. The Jews who were interned in camps in the Center and North, were also initially treated with some dignity, yet later the Fascist authorities did nothing to prevent their deportation to Auschwitz.

      With respect to the roughly 8000 Jews deported from Italy to Nazi concentration camps, the subtitle “How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust” is both thoroughly inaccurate and morally offensive. Bulgarians protected and saved their Jews  by not allowing any to be deported. Italians simply did not.   

       To understand how Jews were saved by internment in Campagna one must bear in mind at a minimum a few facts and chronology, all omitted in the book. By the fall of 1936 Mussolini had adopted state anti-semitism. In March 1937 il Duce denounced Zionism as an instrument of British domination and Fascist Italy “brandished the sword of Islam”. Throughout 1937-38 the national press carried out an inflammatory anti Jewish campaign culminating with the “manifesto della Razza” and the proclamation of racial laws. Paradoxically, despite its anti-semitic  legislation, Italy allowed in Jewish refugees from other countries  until 1939. However from the autum of 1938 the Fascists had  reversed their policy and ordered the expulsion of all foreign Jews. When Italy declared war, in June 1940, most foreign Jews were already interned. Italian soldiers found themselves occupying territories with significant Jewish populations. Despite a twenty month Nazi occupation “only” about 18% of the Jews (Italian and foreign) present in Italy were deported.  Occasionally Jews were hidden and helped by locals. It is in this very small category that the book on review attempts to find its locus.

      While discussing events which occurred to foreign Jews who had found refuge in Italy, Bettina completely ignores the fate of Italian Jews and makes no reference  to the thousands of  Italians who freely denounced their fellow citizens of a different religion. Beginning with the racial laws of 1938 Italian Jews were heavily discriminated against, denied basic civil rights, expelled from schools, government and industry. All of which eased the way for later arrests often carried out by Italian fascists and deportation by the Germans. The Italian military did not surrender Jews to the Nazis in Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Greece and later in Russia. The grateful testimonies of the Jews under Italian rule gradually started the myth of Italiani brava gente. Yet  this alleged national  trait of benevolence was not applied uniformly or consistently. The treatment of Italian Jews within Italy is but one example; the conquered people of Abyssinia, Libya  and Albania can attest to a different story tainted by gratuitous brutality.
    From 1938 till 1945 Italian Jewish resistance groups mobilized to help Jews arriving from abroad. The most effective was Delasem (Delegazione di Assistenza agli Emigranti Ebrei), which worked closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Delasem (never mentioned  by Bettina), provided legal assistance, false documents,  food and shelter to thousands of European Jewish refugees who had managed to reach Italian territory.
    The book's two geographical focal points are the city of Fiume, located on the Adriatic Coast in the North East, and the town of Campagna,  852 miles away, in the South. Fiume (today the  Croatian city Rejeka) had been annexed by Italy in 1924 and  became a  major point of entry for foreign Jews. Campagna, on the other hand, was a rural center,at the periphery of political and military activities.

      Bettina’s story concentrates on the relationship and respective roles of two main characters perceived as rescuers of Jewish lives: Giovanni Palatucci, a high police official (Questore) of Fiume and his uncle Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, the Bishop of Campagna.

     Yet she provides insufficient background about these two complex characters, both crucial to her narrative and to revisionist accounts of the role of the Church during the Holocaust.  
      It is deeply disturbing that after arranging for return trips to Campagna for a few survivors, Bettina zealously insists on parading them to high Church officials.

       The author misguidedly equates the establishment of detention camps in Southern Italy with the creation of  safe havens for the Jews. More specifically the narrative  implies that the Campagna internment camp was set up by Bishop Palatucci in order to provide  shelter for the Jews sent by his nephew. In reality Campagna, like all the other 39 internment camps, had been set up by the Italian Ministry of Interior, and though some of its internees had been sent from Fiume, this accounted only for a small percentage of its population.  

    The Italian researcher Marco Coslovich, author of Giovanni Palatucci. Una giusta memoria, Mephite,  2008  clarifies: “In 1940 Palatucci was only commisario di pubblica sicurezza” - a police official in Fiume - “and certainly was not in charge of deciding which Jewish refugees  were sent to Campagna or any other camp. He became Questore, only in the fall of 1943, by which time it was no longer the possible to  travel between Allied and German occupied areas such as Campagna and Fiume.”

    Bettina’s description of  Giovanni Palatucci is at best sketchy. The wealth of published material on the Questore, honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1990 as one of the Righteous Among the Nations goes unmentioned.

    Bettina never discloses that Bishop Palatucci’s initial interest in the refugees in the improvised camp of Campagna had probably more to do with ministering to the sizable number of Jews who had converted to Catholicism in a desperate attempt to save themselves. Similarly, in 1941, Father Callisto Lopinot, a Capuchin friar, was sent by the Vatican to Ferramonti to tend to the spiritual needs of  85 - among the 1440 interned Jews - who had converted to Catholicism.  For Marco Coslovich” it is ludicrous to imply that  Bishop Palatucci had a role in conceiving the Internment camp in Campagna. On the contrary there is a letter dated April in 1942 to his superiors in Rome in which the Bishop specifically requests the closing of the camp. His tone is totally at odds with his alleged benevolence toward the Jews ”

      According to the respected scholar  Susan Zuccotti: “The Palatucci story has been  a subject of enormous confusion, in part because of the scarcity and unreliability of the sources. Further confusion stems from Three Popes and the Jews ,1967 by Pinchas Lapide. The author, an Israeli diplomat, completely garbled the Palatucci story while providing incomplete and deceptive accounts of Pius  XII’s alleged actions in favor of the Jews.  While any historian can pick out mistakes on every page of Lapide’s work, everyone gave credence to the book based on

    the fact that the author was an Israeli...."

      It becomes obvious that whatever benevolence the Holy See allegedly demonstrated toward the Jewish internees in Campagna and Ferromonti, this cannot be seen as either typical or indicative of the Vatican’s behavior toward the Jews in Italy and elsewhere during the Holocaust.

      Moreover, focusing exclusively on the survival in Southern Italian camps and a few fortunate instances of survival in the North, Ms. Bettina blends and confuses these two radically different realities. The wide eyed naiveté of this perception gushes throughout  the book: ”I discovered that Campagna was not the only place where Jews were interned in Italy during World War II.

    Quietly, all over the boot of Italy - from small towns outside Torino, Milano, and Perugia to small towns in the regions of Abruzzi, Basilicata, and Calabria and many in between - Jews were helped by Italian people who risked their lives to keep them from the hand of the Nazis”.

     The author's biased use of  survivors' testimonies is deeply disturbing: these appear to portray  Southern Italian detention centers as “summer camps” where Jews were treated with dignity, allowed to pray, get married, receive mail and visits, all in stark contrast to Nazi death camps. Sadly, their experiences and  testimony cannot be taken to represent what was happening to Jews in Italy at large. After September 1943, the “fortunate” internees of the Southern Italian camps had no way to communicate with Jewish refugees in the North, nor were they necessarily aware of the arrests and deportations taking place there.

      Common sense suggests that the history of this period defies generalizations, yet the author generously  sprinkles such bromides throughout her narrative: “Italians, in general, did not do what they were told to do or “follow the leader”. After extensive research and interviews all over the boot of Italy, North to South,I came to understand that most Italians were going to do what they thought was right - and helping persecuted people was right”.

      In her cursory descriptions of the two internment camps at Campagna and Ferramonti, the author leaves out other vital information, i.e.  the dates when the two camps were in operation, who was sent there and by whom; more importantly,  the essential detail that  when the deportation of Italian Jews began, the Germans had no longer any access to Southern Italy.
    Carlo Spartaco Capogreco, president of the Fondazione Ferramonti and author of I campi del Duce (Einaudi, 2004) states clearly “The survival of detainees of the Camps of Campagna and Ferramonti  can not be attributed to the good will of Italians, but rather to the fact that the Allied Command decision for a landing in Sicily and consequent invasion of Italy starting on July 9th, 1943”.

      Bettina is at best vague and superficial, at worst plays fast and loose with important numbers: while she claims that possibly thousands of Jews were saved in Campagna, from her own Appendix A we learn that the list of Internees on Sept. 16, 1940 has 272 names on it!

      On the other hand overabundant detail is devoted to the circumstances and chain of events that brought her in touch with the survivors. Equal space is devoted to her relationship with her collaborator, Professor Marmorale. The book is replete with tiresome reports of phone calls between the two.   
     The self referential chattiness of the author frequently gets in the way of the narrative. The reader is bombarded  by  personal trivia about where she lives and works in Manhattan and how long it takes to get  from one place to the other: "My apartment is in Midtown, not the quietest of neighborhoods, but definitely convenient. I can walk to Central Park in five minutes, to Fifth Avenue in ten minutes, and do work in fifteen minutes. When I leave my apartment, I usually have my cell phone out of the big, black bag that is my pocketbook”. Starting from the premise that “almost no one really knows what happened” Bettina confuses her own learning process with the presumption of revealing unknown historical facts.

      Kindly put, her work is shoddily researched, annoyingly annotated, and full of heavy handed paraphrases. Unfortunately, given the seriousness of her subject, the author’s tearstained empathy sorely lacks professionalism and depth.

      Historical research suggests clearly that the comparatively smaller numbers of deported Jews from Italy has more to do with the size of the Italian Jewish community (roughly 1 per 1000 inhabitants), its high level of assimilation, and the fact that deportation began relatively late in the war,  when the Nazis controlled only a portion of the country), than to any particular “goodness “ of the Italian population. The relatively high survival rate among Italian Jews during the second World War has led many to suggest that the Italians were reluctant or unwilling participants in Hitler's Final Solution, a view advanced in recent years by, among others, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. However, the consensus among serious scholars has repeatedly refuted the consolatory myth of Italian benevolence.

      Yet another sweeping generalization on the book’s dust jacket states: “In fact, there were thousands of “other Palatuccis” sheltering  and helping Jews all over Italy”. Does this refer to thousands of other high police officials? Bishops? Ordinary citizens?
    Whatever its motives, Elizabeth Bettina’s book ends up whitewashing and obscuring facts by overlapping memory with history, individual accounts with historical interpretation .
    Note: while Ms. Bettina was assembling her material, she and her collaborators video taped interviews with many of the survivors, which she plans to release as a full length documentary film. One can only hope that in the documentary she will rectify some glaring omissions  and include some of the background and context missing from her printed narrative.