Destination: Italy (Rome, Campagna and other towns)
Book: It Happened in Italy (2009) by Elizabeth Bettina
True, it is the marketers who generally write the blurbs for books, so you might give Elizabeth Bettina a pass for the subtitle that appears on the front cover: “Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust.” You might, except that phrase reflects the message pounded home in It Happened in Italy.
There is a fascinating story here–of how hundreds of Jews survived the Holocaust in small towns like Campagna and Potenza in the South of Italy during World War II. The author and her collaborator in a planned documentary, Vincent Marmorale, met with and interviewed more than fifty survivors–people who were in their eighties at the time of the interviews, and took several of them to Italy on three visits to the towns where they were interned during the war.
There are truly emotional moments of reunion and recognition, which could have made a dramatic book. However, despite the good deeds that Bettina did, her book fails in several ways.
Show Don’t Tell
I longed to know more about the experiences of the survivors and the people who helped them, but their stories are a minor part of the book, obscured in the unfortunate self-congratulatory tone as Bettina tells us about the miracles she was able to bring about in arranging the trips to Italy. She constantly TELLS us how incredible and miraculous the story is instead of showing us the everyday life during the war, or the communities as they are today.
When she does spend some time on a survivor’s story, she inevitably interrupts with “That was right next door to where my grandmother lived,” or other unnecessary information.
And is it really necessary to have 26 pages of two appendices devoted to “thank you” letters congratulating Bettina?
It struck me as odd that the most exciting things that happened seemed to center around the Catholic Church. Did surviving Jews really get as much thrill out of meeting Cardinals and the Pope as did Catholic Elizabeth Bettina?
Give us Context
Background information is scanty. If you take everything in the book at face value, you would believe that the people of Italy were uniformly broad-minded and charitable. Of course human nature being what it is, we know that is not true. And just telling us the Italians were wonderful is not enough. What about the “why” and “how?”
Bettina focuses on several camps in the south, like in Campagna where her family is from, and only mentions in passing that the situation in the north was different once Italy surrendered and became Germany’s enemy. Unless you know your World War II history well, you may forget that when Italy capitulated to the Allies, the Germans marched into Italy and started exporting Jews to the concentration camps where they were killed. In the South, the Allied forces controlled the area so the Germans could not get at the Jews.
The question still rages of whether the Pope and the church in general were complicit in the murder of the Jews. There is no hint of that debate in this book. Mussolini becomes a sympathetic character for allowing Jews to emigrate into Italy after other countries closed their borders, and for not setting up concentration camps. But orders against Jews proliferated and Jews were banned from working, could not live in their own homes, and had to check in with the police every day. Better than being killed, I grant you, but not an indication of the openness of Italian society.
What about the history of the treatment of Jews in Italy? Particularly in those towns where they were interned? Because the immigrant Jews were treated better than they would have been in Auschwitz, does that mean Italy was a paradise?
Several times Bettina mentions internees in the town of Eboli, with no recognition of the classic Christ Stopped at Eboli which describes a man “imprisoned”in 1935 by Mussolini’s government, in much the same way (internato libero) the Jews were during World War II.
Wikipedia says: “The southern half of Italy was not completely on board with Mussolini and his fascist government. The southerners were looked upon as inferior citizens. Levi recalls one local man’s view that he and his fellow people were not even considered humans, rather dogs. He tells another Northerners view of the southerners ‘inherent racial inferiority’.”
His description of the attitude of the people in Eboli, who have no strong ties to church or state and their extreme poverty would add to our understanding of the circumstances during World War II. But this classic is ignored, even in the bibliography of It Happened in Italy.
The southern part of Italy is known for marching to a different drummer, and on top of that, the people of Italy in general did not agree with alliance with Germany, or with Fascism. (Ironically, Jews could join the Fascist party until 1938, and some rose to high positions.)
A look at the historical and cultural context, would have created a much richer book, than the gee-whiz-aren’t-these-people-great version of history presented.
It is encouraging to know that there were individual acts of compassion and courage and that some lives were spared because of those acts. It is lovely to know that a handful of Jewish survivors were able to return to Italy from the United States, and that they have such warm feelings about the Italian people. However, a bit of context would help.
A Book for Travelers
All doubts about the conclusions of the book aside, it will introduce you to some places in Italy that you may want to add to your itinerary for a visit to Italy. With the exception of Sicily and perhaps Naples, Southern Italy is generally lowest on the wish list of people heading for that country. Certainly travelers interested in history, and particularly Jewish history, will find the book a useful guide. But anyone who wants to learn about possible destination beyond the Big four–Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan–will welcome this introduction to some smaller towns.
One of the survivors featured in the book, Ursula Korn Selig, when interviewed in 1905 in the New York Times, had a more balanced view than is presented in the book.
For a complete history of Jews in Italy, see the website of the United States Holocaust Museum.
A review that perhaps goes overboard in shedding light on the historic facts omitted or distorted by Bettina can be found at the website for Italian-Americans.
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