Category Archives: Travel

Sailing With Eagles

Taking a break from books, we went for a sail with eagles on Bras d’Or Lakes in Nova Scotia.

Here are some pictures from that sail.

For the rest of the story–follow this link to  My Itchy Travel Feet.

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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.

Love of Food and Family: A Midwestern Memoir

Book Cover
Destination: Michigan and Anna Maria Island, Florida

Book: Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Love from an American Midwest Family by Kathleen Flinn.

 

 

I’m always happy to find a book that sheds life on real life in the Midwestern United States.  Too often those “fly over” states are ignored, or misunderstood. This food memoir understands life in Michigan–and as a bonus, life in Florida, too.

Since I grew up in Ohio, Kathleen Flinn’s life sounded might familiar to me.  She says in the introduction that she set out to write her parent’s life, but along the way discovered other generations were woven in so tightly that she had to include her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings as well.

Quote from food memoir

Each chapter tells a story that illustrates the importance of a particular recipe. For instance chicken and biscuits follows the story of her mother and father’s attempt at poultry raising and the downfall of a nasty rooster. You have to read the whole story to appreciate the denouement with her mother, half naked, locked in a chicken coop on a cold Michigan winter day.

Later this conversation in the kitchen between Kathleen Flinn’s mother and father:

“Did you fix the coop?” Mother asked, stirring a pot of soup on the stove.

“Yes, and I fixed the rooster, too.” Dinner the next day was chicken and biscuits.

And you also have to read the entire story to appreciate a honeymoon spent fishing in an Upper Peninsula lake and hanging out with the bride’s parents. But it all makes sense when you get a look at Grandma Inez’ recipe for fried fish with almonds.

Kathleen Flinn had her grandmother’s recipe box, her mother’s notes and oral history, and her own and relatives’ memories to draw on. Additionally, she obviously has done a lot of research to provide the context for the life of her family who struggled to survive while living on a farm, thrived in town life, and finally lived part of their lives in Florida.

Because Flinn paints her family portrait with such telling details, we meet some very interesting people–some that sound familiar, because aren’t they in every family? and some that you’re glad were NOT in your family.

But her most potent memories involve food and the stories of why her parents and her grandparents and others cooked the way they did. Flinn realizes that her love of food and cooking comes with her genes.  Her parents had a restaurant in California for a time, both her grandparents (her mother’s parents) cooked, and her surroundings frequently influenced the food she ate growing up.

Flinn put a lot of thought into how circumstances influenced the food that her family ate.  When they lived on the farm and shopped at the Thrift Store (which her mother called a Department Store so her youngest daughter wouldn’t be ashamed) her mother raised vegetables and chickens and canned hundreds of jars of food each year.

When Flinn’s parents got better jobs and moved into town, they began to eat things that formerly had been considered out-of-reach luxuries, like frozen TV dinners, or meals at McDonald’s.

Because the family joined a German-American club, even though they were  not a bit German, sauerbraten and hot German potato salad  played a role on their menus.

As she grew up, much of Flinn’s cooking was influenced by watching Julia Child’s  shows on a black and white, snowy TV set with a hand-turned antenna and reading  Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eventually she achieved her dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu in France. All these experiences taught her that the best food was not always the most trendy or the most expensive. Fresh caught fish would always beat out frozen fish sticks.

Each chapter ends with a recipe. After describing the origin of the recipe, she gives us a slightly modernized version. For instance, she skips a lot of the mushroom or celery soup that seemed to be a prime ingredient in just about everything in the 1960s.

On the other hand, she doesn’t fancy-up the recipes, these are American comfort food–Midwestern staples.  You are not going to find the latest  ingredients (no salted caramel or kale and blueberries) or fanciful presentations here.  Instead, you get homey recipes for dishes like stew (see the recipe for that one at Ancestors in Aprons), refrigerator biscuits, apple crisp, oatmeal cookies, panfried steak or spaghetti sauce.

Apple Crips Recipe

I love the way she recreates a time and place.  And I felt so connected to the people in her family that when I cook one of these recipes, it will be like borrowing from a friend.  Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good provides a great example for anyone planning to write a memoir or a family history–even if she is only intending to write it for her own children.

Two quotes from the end of the book sum up the author’s most important lesson.

Like Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I’m pieces of my parents, siblings, grandparents, and great-grandparents. 

 The people in my past helped make me tough, passionate, and endlessly optimistic.

And, she might have added, in love with food and family.

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I have included links to Amazon for your convenience. You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so any purchase you make through my links helps A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.

The insert with a quote form Grandma Inez and the recipe for Apple Crisp are used with the permission of the publisher,  Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Kathleen Flinn, 2014.