Category Archives: Italy

Questionable History, But Reasons to Travel to Italy

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.

Campagna Italy, map
An idea of the remoteness of some of the villates, including Campagna.

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?

Vatican City
“Vatican City at Large” by Sébastien Bertrand from Paris, France – Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Other Sources

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.

Note: I have included links to Amazon.com for your convenience.  You need to know that when you buy anything through the links on this page, I make a few cents. Thanks for supporting A Traveler’s Library.

War and Murder in Florence

Book Cover: The Light in the Ruins
Destination: Florence, Italy

Book: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian (July 2013) (read on a Kindle for this review)

I didn’t want to put this book down while I was reading it, and I didn’t want it to end. It is a delicious mystery novel set in recent history of Florence, Italy, one of the most glorious cities in the world.

Florence bridges
Florence bridges by Bob Tubbs View from Piazzale Michaelangelo from Wikipedia FR.

What magnetic force has made the city of Florence, both rich in art and plagued with political and social uproar?  Of all the places I visited in Italy, it was Tuscan Florence I felt I could settle in to. And yet, as The Light in the Ruins illustrates, there has been a price to pay for all that beauty.  Real life is not as orderly as impressive architecture.

It is impossible to read about the fictional murders in The Light in the Ruins without thinking of The Monster of Florence, a book about a real life serial killer. (See my review here.)

However, when I think of upheaval in Florence, I tend to think of the early Renaissance, the Medicis and the “mad monk”, Savanorola. But in The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian unfolds more recent history–the horrors of World War II as it affected Florence and the surrounding countryside.

 villa outside Florence
“View of a villa outside Florence” by bongo vongo from Flickr with Creative Commons license.

His book segues between 1943 and a murder case in 1955 that illustrates how the divided loyalties during the war had a lasting effect.  ( I’m reminded of another book I reviewed some time ago, The Sadness of the Samurai, about the long-lasting effects of Fascism and the Spanish Revolution.)

In the flashback, Bohjalian creates characters that personify the Germans–some repellant and some sympathetic; and  the Italians divided between collaborating (forced or voluntary) and secret and violent resistance. Among other moral dilemmas, he delves into the complex decisions of those Italians who wanted to protect their national art treasures and the Germans who wanted to confiscate them. Were the Italians and Germans allies or were the Germans occupiers? How far should one go in order to survive? What was acceptable collateral damage?

The book starts with the murder of a widow of a member of the wealthy Rosati family, holders of a title that is a relic of the glory days of Italy. The family has fallen on hard times since the war, accused by locals of too much coziness with the Germans, and by the Germans of failure to cooperate fully.

Sarafina Bettini, the only female police detective in the region, is scarred physically and psychologically from the war because of her actions as part of the resistance. She methodically tracks down leads in the case while discovering flashes of a part of her life that her mind has refused to face.

Etruscan painted tomb
Etruscan painted tomb from Flickr with Creative Commons License.

The ruins of the title most obviously refer to the underground Etruscan tombs on the Rosati estate, but symbolically link to the lives and property left in ruins by first the war and then a string of horrific murders.

The police work presents the reader with enough false leads to keep things interesting. The killer, who speaks directly to us from time to time, makes the spine tingle. The scenes in the 1943 with the specter of the Allies arriving and the Nazis fighting what they know by now is a battle in which they have nothing more to lose paints a heartbreaking picture of the despair in Italy.

Besides the gruesome murders, there is a verboten love affair, universal distrust of neighbors, revenge motives galore, pondering of social classes and of course the who-is-next suspense of a killer on the loose.  It is rather amazing how much delightful reading is crammed in to this fairly short book.

If the traveler who reads has been to Florence, or is yearning to go, the alluring descriptions of countryside in The Light in the Ruins will definitely appeal. But you don’t have to be in love with Tuscany to love this book. In fact, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Bohjalian’s prolific output of novels.

Note: The photos above are all used with creative commons or common use licenses.

Deciding to Live in Tuscany–Reality Check

Book Cover: At Least You're in TuscanyDestination: Tuscany, Italy

Book: At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life,  by Jennifer Criswell (Paperback 2012)

In a refreshing change for the live-in-Tuscany book, At Least You’re in Tuscany leads the reader through all the excruciatingly disappointments along with the joys of the landscape and the wine.

I sympathized with Criswell as I read the book, although I would occasionally find myself saying, as she did–“at least you’re in Tuscany.”  And, really, how sympathetic can I be with someone who is living the dream of pulling up stakes and moving from the United States to the hill town of Montepulciano?

Actually, quite sympathetic.  I just wanted to sit down with her and share some of her Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and a plate of pecorino cheese while she shared all her tribulations. And why am I so much more sympathetic to Criswell than to other authors of ex-pat books? Because she did not go to Tuscany with endless resources or a fat book contract, for one thing.  She went there to really live in Tuscany. And because she has such a delightful writing style, reading At Least You’re in Tuscany definitely feels like sharing gossip with your BFF.

Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy
Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy

When you’re dreaming of moving to Tuscany

  • you think of Italian fashion
  • balmy summer days with poppy fields stretching over the hills
  • chatting with outgoing neighbors who will teach you to cook old family recipes (“This was Italia,” she says, “where every woman seemed to spring forth from the womb with a ladle in one hand and innate sense of the tradition of cooking in the other.”)
  • dining on all those Italian dishes
  • meeting a charming man who sweeps you off your feet.

What you DON’T imagine will happen when you live in Tuscany

  • the problem of fishing in laundry that has frozen on the line stretched out your window
  • freezing inside a charming old stone building that is nicely cool in the summer but icy in the winter
  • subsisting on tuna fish when your money runs out; not being able to get a job “under the table” because the economy has gone south
  • waiting interminably for a work permit because of a combination of Italian and American bureaucracy.
  • When you’re dreamy of those charming men, you don’t think about the old men who make inappropriate remarks and grabs and you certainly don’t count on falling for a very married man.
  • Those are just some of the misfortunes that befall Criswell in her first year in Italy.  Not to mention struggling to learn Italian at the local language school, and to adjust to the reserved personality of the Tuscans who are slow to warm to a stranger.

Needless to say, Criswell survived to share her adventures. No doubt a great deal of that is due to her faithful companion, the Weimaraner, Cinder. Sadly, Cinder recently died. You can read Criswell’s very touching eulogy to her Weimaraner here.) Because she has her own canine companion whose life we learn about along with Criswell’s, she notices other animals as well.

Italians have a strange relationship with animals.  On the surface they seem to adore them.  They rush over to shower dogs with attention, they alow them in shops and cafes, they welcome them on trains, but then in summer many go on vacation and abandon their pets on the side of the road.  And I don’t mean fifty or even a hundred.  I mean over 300,000 cats and dogs each year.  I don’t get it.  I can’t even imagine booking my summer vacation to the beach and then just dropping Cinder off on the side of the highway. ‘If you start walking now, and you don’t get killed by a car, we should both get back to the house around the same time. Buona fortuna.’

Colorful characters abound in the small town, and Criswell captues them well. A next door neighbor:

Alrigo was tall and thin with weathered skin like a deeply tanned rhinoceros and spoke of a lifetime of laboring outside.  Eight if he was a day, he wore the same uniform without fail: green camouflage pants, green sweater, and black Nike sneakers that seemed a size too big.  Sometimes he added an old khaki-colored cap for variety.

Another thing I liked about the book is that it gives you a bit of a language lesson now and then.  She explains how she makes purchases at each of the stores in order to have an excuse to try to speak a little. However, most of the people assumed to begin with that she was a rich American. When she mentions she is a writer, they talk about Under the Tuscan Sun, a book which she discovers the Italians did not like.

They felt she’d unfairly stereotyped the Tuscan people in the book.  And they really disliked the movie.  A lot of the Cortona scenes had been shot in Montepulciano and they took umbrage at how Italians were portrayed as archetypes and not as true people.

So anyone who is a traveler who reads should definitely add At Least You’re in Tuscany to their bookshelf. Perhaps it will serve as a lure to live in Tuscany. Perhaps it will serve as a warning to be careful what you wish for. But either way, you’ll be entertained.

The publishers provided me with an electronic version of the book for review.  I am under no obligation to say other than what I think.  The links to Amazon here are affiliate links. You can shop easily without it costing any more, and support A Traveler’s Library at the same time. Magic!

Photos are from Flickr.com, and used with a Creative Commons License. Please click on the photo to learn more.