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Backyard Exiles

The poisoned pill of Jewish identity in the work of five authors from Fascist Italy

Fredric Brandfon
March 05, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Clockwise from top right: Carlo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani, Elsa Morante, Silvano ArietiTablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Clockwise from top right: Carlo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani, Elsa Morante, Silvano ArietiTablet Magazine

“I should be grateful to Mussolini. He made me realize that I myself was a Jew.” In one acerbic sentence, Elsa Morante, the author of History: A Novel, epitomized her wartime experience, surviving both Fascist Italy (1922-1943) and the Nazi occupation of Rome (1943-1944). Natalia Ginzburg said the same. “My Jewish identity became extremely important to me from the moment the Jews began to be persecuted. At that point I became aware of myself as a Jew.” Of course, if you have to thank Mussolini for discovering your Judaism, there is already a problem. During the generation preceding Mussolini, Italian Jews had traded some or all of their Jewish identity for what seemed like a secure place in a modern, liberal democratic state. That turned out to be a very bad bargain.

After World War II a cadre of writers—Silvano Arieti, Giorgio Bassani, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, and Elsa Morante—wrote about the tribulations of being Jewish during the years between 1922, when Mussolini grabbed power, and 1945 when both Fascism and the Nazis had been defeated. These writers, and the characters they created, had Jewish identities ranging from nonexistent to all-consuming. Yet being Jewish was a condition that none could escape.

The persecution of Jews in the 1930s and ’40s was often measured in the effort needed to resist gentile definitions of Jewishness, which could be demeaning at best and deadly at worst. One lesson taken from our five authors is that a Jew’s sense of self could depend primarily on how he or she was viewed by non-Jews, mostly Catholics. In such a world, half-Jews like Morante and Ginzburg who were children of mixed marriages were nonetheless defined as “Jews,” even if baptized. Levi, on the other hand, presented himself with no Jewish identity at all, except his name; yet, he was exiled in 1935, and in 1943-44 he had to hide like any other Jew in a one-room apartment in Florence to escape Nazi executioners. Bassani knew himself well as a Jew, but his fictional characters are either married to Catholics, or they are seeking, painfully, to find an entry into the gentile world. Of all the above authors and their characters only the Parnas, Arieti’s protagonist, was known for his deep devotion to Judaism. While that devotion did not prevent his murder at the hands of the Nazis, it was his solace.

However confusing and painful as navigating the Jewish-Christian divide can be in any Western society, Fascist Italy turned the Jewish existential quandary into a matter of daily survival. Mussolini’s Fascism was not murderous toward Jews. However, his goal was to remove as many Jews as possible from Italy—there were only 46,000 to begin with—and to segregate the rest from society as harshly as possible.

To that end, the Fascist government created a policy of confino di polizia, or “internal exile.” Jews and other perceived enemies of the state were ordered into exile within Italy itself. Between 1926 and 1943, 15,000 Italians—Jews and gentiles—were deported to small villages in southern Italy and to islands in the Mediterranean off the Italian coast. Internal exile meant life without family, friends, and books as surely as it meant a life where the basics of food, shelter, and water were available, but uncertain.

At the time confino began, the Jews of Italy were thoroughly assimilated. Jews held prominent positions in government, business, the armed forces, and at universities. They considered themselves no less Italian than anyone else. However, Jewish comfort in Italian society, a source of pride for the community, was exactly what Mussolini found abhorrent. Jews in Fascist literature were depicted as infectious invaders hiding in plain sight within Catholic families and Italian institutions.

Fascist propaganda made Jews out to be a longstanding and slow-growing parasite living within a complacent Italian host. What Jews perceived as contributions to Italy, the Fascists perceived as stealthy misappropriations of the national heritage. Confino and the Racist Laws of 1938 that identified Jews as non-Aryan and deprived them of their civil rights were policies fashioned to correct that situation.

Not surprisingly, the external stress of being both Italian and Jewish created by Fascist policy was internalized by Jews, who longed for a bourgeois, if not Christian, life, even as that dream was being denied. The public conflict between Fascist anti-Semitism and the Jewish community’s identification with Italy became an internal conflict for many individual Jews.

That divided Italian Jewish self is manifested both in the above authors and their characters. For these writers, the experience of being half Jewish and half Catholic, while particular to some Jews in a literal sense, was, in a greater sense, the experience of all Jews under Italian Fascism. Every Jew had an uncomfortable foot on either side of the Jewish Italian divide, no matter if they were observant or assimilated. Moreover, each of the five writers saw their predicament through the lens of exile, and for each, the exile they describe mirrored their divided Jewish Italian selves. They struggled to delineate the tangled relationship between the Jewish desire to make Jewishness invisible and the government’s desire to make Jews disappear.

Along with her husband, Leone, and their three children, Natalia Ginzburg, was ordered into internal exile in the small village of Pizzoli in the Abruzzi, a region east of Rome. Leone was an immigrant from Odessa and as a foreign Jew he was subject to confino. Natalia went with him. Winter in the Abruzzi was long and cold. Their family, their books, and their comrades were elsewhere, and without them, the exiles took long walks in the snow for want of anything else to do. The peasant townspeople thought it crazy to take young children outside in the dead of winter and they scolded Natalia. “What sin did these poor creatures commit?” There was no answer to that question; except, maybe the answer Natalia’s Catholic mother gave when, as a child, she was brought to confession at her boarding school. She had to confess so often that she concocted an absurd sin just to satisfy her confessor. “I stole the snow!” she told him, and she was allowed that joke. “Ah, how wonderful my boarding school was! How much fun I had.”

Unexpectedly, Natalia, when looking back on her exile, felt something similar. At the time of their exile, Leone and Natalia had been accomplished and ardent anti-Fascists. Leone was a professor, and Natalia, born Levi, was the youngest child in a family of outspoken, contentious, and public anti-Fascists whose idiosyncrasies are chronicled in her novel Family Lexicon. Anti-Fascism was Natalia’s sin, and her punishment was being exiled to an Italy far from the urban progressive Italy she grew up in. She was exiled to an Italy where poverty was everywhere, and, if you were not bound to the growing seasons, there was almost nothing to do.

Natalia made the acquaintance of every family in town and at the same time burrowed into her own family for warmth and protection. Whether she was in her home, or the home of one of her neighbors, there was always a fire in the kitchen. For her, the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, being forced temporarily to live anonymously in the way of an Italian peasant, accepted by other peasants, relieved her, if only momentarily, from her divided self. With the fall of Fascism, Leone moved to Rome. She chose to stay in Pizzoli until the Nazis occupied Italy, when she joined her husband by hopping on a German transport and begging a ride for her and her children. Not only her audacity but her identification as a simple peasant hid her from being taken for a Jew. But a few months later, Leone was killed by the Nazis. Looking back in 1944, she described her time in Pizzoli as a respite granted by God. Natalia wrote of her time in the Abruzzi:

that was the best time of my life, and only now, now that it is gone forever, do I know it.

Natalia survived the war hiding in Rome. However, as if to highlight the lasting predicament of a divided self, she became a Catholic in 1950 in order to marry her second husband. At the same time, she continued to use the name Ginzburg as an author.

Carlo Levi worked closely with Leone Ginzburg in founding the anti-Fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty). As a member, Natalia’s brother Mario was caught bringing anti-Fascist literature into Italy in March 1934, but he escaped by swimming across the Tresa River to Switzerland. Carlo Levi was subsequently arrested and exiled in 1935 to the village of Aliano (called Gagliano in his book) located in the mountainous Italian region of Lucania.

Aliano was so remote, its residents had a saying: “Christ stopped at Eboli.” A nearby village, Eboli appeared to the peasants of Aliano to be in an entirely different universe. Undoubtedly, it was equally impoverished, but to them, Eboli at least had the benefit of being human:

“We’re not Christians,” they say. “Christ stopped short of here at Eboli.” “Christian,” in their way of speaking means “human being” and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than a hopeless feeling of inferiority. “We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts.”

What they meant was that Christ, the savior of the world, made one exception. He failed to reach their town. His omnipresence did not include Aliano because, in his beneficence to all mankind, Christ forgot their village, stopped some miles away at Eboli, and thus deprived them of their humanity. In trying to express the depth of that loss, Carlo’s hosts did not mean that they were inhuman or inhumane. Rather, Levi understood that they truly lived in an alien ethical world where, “evil is not moral, but is only the pain residing forever in earthly things.”

That precept, while ascribed to the peasants of Aliano, could more readily describe the moral world that Levi inhabited after he was released on amnesty in 1936. The Fascist and Nazi world was much more frightening and amoral than Aliano, where he was admired, accepted, and respected. When the residents of Aliano were not bemoaning their loss of humanity, they addressed Levi as cristiano, a generic human being, neither Jewish nor Catholic, and, like Natalia in the Abruzzi, he was given a respite from being scorned as a Jewish leftist. Years later he recalled that respite and wrote a memoir adopting the persona of a cristiano. Within the pages of Christ Stopped at Eboli, religion or ethnicity did not exist. Jewish no longer, Levi was able to connect with his fellow Italians, who, in turn felt remote from Christianity, despite their use of the term cristiani. They were all just human. His memories of life as a cristiano read almost like a dream where being Jewish did not matter.

Indeed, Levi reversed Elsa Morante’s statement. In response to Mussolini’s oppression, Levi did not discover his Judaism, he eradicated it, if only momentarily. Nearly a decade later, as he was committing his memories to paper in 1943, he could not escape his divided self. When he was remembering his life as a cristiano he was living in a place where being a Jew mattered. He wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli when he was hiding in a garret in Florence, his life in danger from the Nazis who were hunting Jews in every city in northern Italy.

In 1943, Elsa Morante fled Rome and lived with her husband, Alberto Moravia, in the town of Sant’Agata. Their exile was not government ordered. She and Alberto went into hiding when fascism in Italy collapsed, and the Nazis rushed to occupy Rome. So many Roman Jews did the same that there was a joke prevalent in the community at that time: “Where is Michelangelo’s statue of Moses? For some days now, he has been in the home of friends.”

Elsa was born of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. She was raised as a Catholic and in 1941, she married Alberto in a Jesuit church in Rome. His father was Jewish, but his mother was Catholic. Of course, their sacramental marriage meant little to Mussolini and nothing to Hitler. Their ancestry defined them as Jews, and with that realization they hid in a small village where they were accepted in much the same manner as Carlo Levi was accepted:

We were finally given shelter by a peasant family. To them Jewish or non-Jewish, we were all cristiani.

After the war, Morante resumed writing novels. She did not write of her internal exile at Sant’Agata, but her Jewish awareness, awakened at that time, is, nonetheless, evident in her work.

In 1957, she wrote Arturo’s Island, recently published in a new English translation. It tells the story of Arturo, a teenager growing up isolated from history on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples. The narrative takes place during the few years prior to Italy’s entrance into WWII, but Arturo was absolutely ignorant of the horror that awaited him when he would eventually leave the island. A prison looms over his village and while it plays a role in the story, the reader is never told explicitly who is locked away there. Nonetheless, the reader’s knowledge of history, which is denied to Arturo, suggests that at least some of the inmates were “internal exiles.”

Where is Michelangelo’s statue of Moses? For some days now, he has been in the home of friends.

Jews do not exist for Arturo or in the book. However, Arturo’s Island may be read as a prelude to Morante’s next novel, La Storia (History: A Novel), where she bitterly recounts the fate of Rome’s Jews. Her protagonists are a mother and child. Like Morante, the mother, Ida, is Jewish on her mother’s side, with her father a Catholic. Consequently, her child, Useppe, is Jewish through his mother. His father is a Nazi rapist. Ida knows all this. But no one else in the novel ever discovers that mother and son are Jewish, nor do either of them ever directly bear the consequences of being Jewish in the anti-Semitic world they inhabit. All the action takes place in Rome, where they live below the radar, Ida hiding from, and Useppe oblivious to, the great events taking place around them.

History: A Novel is divided into nine sections. Each section covering roughly one year—1940-1948—is introduced by a synopsis of world history for that year. The remainder of each section is the story of Ida and Useppe, but there is almost complete disjunction in every section between the “History” and the “Novel.” Like Arturo, Ida and Useppe are exiled from history:

And in this autumn-winter, moreover our Iduzza lived surrounded by a haze, which blocked even her usual—and nearsighted—view of the terrestrial planet. Of that year’s events—political battles, changes of government—she knew little or nothing.

However, as in Morante’s personal life, history roughly intrudes in Ida and Useppe’s life and they are never the same afterwards. On Oct. 18, 1943, she sees the wife of a Jewish merchant dashing in a frenzy through the streets of Rome trying to find her husband and children. Ida follows her carrying 2-year-old Useppe in her arms. The heartbreaking sounds of wailing, crying, praying, mumbling and even a woman giving birth led the three of them to a train station, where Ida abruptly came face to face with boxcars crammed with Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. Useppe is mesmerized:

There was in the endless horror of his gaze, also a fear, or rather a dazed stupor; but it was a stupor that demanded no explanation.
“We’re going, Useppe! We’re going away!”

They run. But neither of them can escape what they have seen. For Useppe inchoate violent images filled his dreams, and for Ida unrecognizable memories of poetry recited in her childhood involuntarily crowded her mind. The reader recognizes fragments of “The Song of Songs.” Still, both of them did their best to ignore what they saw. In short, history intrudes and is then repressed. Life goes on until it doesn’t, because, for Morante, a life exiled from history, a self so divided, is unsustainable.

Ida and Useppe’s story can be seen as a commentary on Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. Even while he is hiding from the Nazis, Levi creates a world that history has forgotten, a village where Jews and Christians are indistinguishable. Morante vehemently objects. While Morante also hid in a small town, her characters stay in Rome, and are confronted with the brute facts that she and Levi escaped. That confrontation takes a mortal toll, and Morante wants her readers to feel its brutality. Instead of writing about her exile, she chose instead to portray the fate she escaped.

Giorgio Bassani managed to graduate from the University of Bologna in 1939 under an exception in the Racial Laws that allowed already matriculated Jewish students to complete their higher education. He taught in the school newly established for Jewish students in his hometown of Ferrara until May 1943, when he was arrested for anti-Fascist activities. In July 1943, he was released from prison, and he too hid in Florence, and then in Rome, in order to survive the Nazi occupation. His Novel of Ferrara, a collection of stories and novellas, explains what it was like to be an assimilated Jew in that city before, during, and after WWII.

Only one of Bassani’s characters experienced internal exile, and when his narrator meets her in the short story “The Final Years of Clelia Trotti” she is back in Ferrara, in 1939, being held prisoner in the home of her sister and brother-in-law, a condition known as “enforced residence.” It was the unanswered question of whether someone is Jewish or Italian—or better: How Jewish must I be before I cease to be Italian?—that Bassani found excruciating.

Most of his narrators, like the narrator of Clelia’s story, are young Jewish men on both the cusp of manhood and the cusp of learning the burden of being Jewish. Just as they were becoming adults and eager to enter Italian society, that society slammed its door on them. Consequently, Bassani’s characters are alienated from the part of themselves that once sought assimilation—an exile from self that took personal and chronological precedence over any government-imposed exile.

Exile for Bassani started at home in Ferrara. The narrator of his novella Behind the Door literally stands behind a closed door in the home of another boy, listening as his “chums” sneer at the oddities of his circumcised penis. With that, he ruefully comes to accept the social exile imposed on him. Unable to escape the Christian world, which was simultaneously rejecting him, he understands he has been

nailed by birth to a destiny of exclusion and resentment. It was useless to think I’d ever be able to throw open the door behind which I was yet again hiding.

In the novella The Gold Rimmed Spectacles, another young narrator befriends an older, single man, Dr. Fadigati, a Catholic and a homosexual. Fadigati’s persecution for his homosexuality is a stand-in for the persecution the narrator feels as a Jew. And just as the narrator finds his friend alien yet familiar in his persecution, so does the narrator see his once-familiar self now exiled beyond the bounds of humanity. Fadigati is discussing a stray dog.

“There’s a great deal of the animal in all men, and yet can we give in to it? Admit to being an animal and only an animal?”
I broke into loud laughter.
“Oh no,” I said. “It would be like asking: can an Italian, an Italian citizen, admit to being a Jew, and only a Jew?”

Not to be an Italian, but to be a Jew only, would be akin to not being human, but only a dog.

Here, Bassani disagrees with Levi. No, Bassani says, it is not the Italian peasant in remote and mountainous Aliano, who is a beast and less than human; it is the Jew, rejected by the Christian world, who feels like an animal.

At the end of The Gold Rimmed Spectacles, as the Fascist noose tightens around the Jews of Ferrara, the narrator becomes reconciled to his Jewish fate.

The sense of solitude that during the last two months had never left me, at that very moment became ... even more acute: absolute and definitive. From my exile I would never return. Never.

For Bassani, exile is intrinsic and internal to Jewish life in non-Jewish society. The internal exile imposed by Fascism on Jews concretized their exile from self, which was already a condition of life in Ferrara.

Silvano Arieti is the only writer considered here who did not remain in Italy during WWII and was never exiled. He received his medical degree from the University of Pisa and immigrated to the United States in 1939. His book Interpretation of Schizophrenia won the National Book Award for science in 1975. Four years later, he wrote The Parnas, the true story of the last days of Giuseppe Pardes Roques, the “Parnas” or “President” of the Jewish congregation in Pisa who, due to a crippling mental illness,could not go into hiding during the Nazi occupation. The Parnas suffered from a fear of animals, mostly dogs, that prevented him from leaving his house and its environs. He saw the world around him as rife with animal menace, and that fear kept him bound to his house and the very immediate neighborhood. Consequently, during the Nazi occupation of Pisa in 1944, while many Jews had left the city, he could do nothing more than go into exile in his own home.

When Nazi soldiers came to kill him, and several Jews and Christians living with him, he saw the Nazis as they truly were, the beasts he had run from all his life. After his friends, both Jewish and Christian, had been killed in his living room, the Parnas, in an echo of Psalms 22:17 (“Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me”) faced them down.

I see all of you around me. I am encircled not by men, but by animals. You are what I feared throughout my life, and what now I can finally face, you who have accepted evil and become the bearers of evil and evil itself. You no longer wear the image of God. You have become wolves.

As noted above, Bassani’s characters live with both Jewish and Italian selves, an irreconcilable division given Italian society under Fascism. The Parnas’ self is not divided along those lines. His self is divided between good and evil. Any evil he may once have acknowledged within himself had been projected onto the outside world in the form of wolves and dogs. While, sadly, this debilitating worldview accurately described Nazi Europe, it was nonetheless the product of a deeply conflicted self, that could only appear sane in an insane world.

Still, until the day he was murdered, the Parnas was safe at home. Nonetheless, the Parnas experienced a painful spiritual exile that he explained to a friend. On the night before he was murdered, his friend challenged him. “Why is God silent?” In reply, the Parnas spoke of his personal exile as an exile from God.

God is not mute! Each crime bespeaks his lament, “How far you are from me!” ... But we must choose to hear Him. ... The era Isaiah foresaw is not yet here, and the whole world is still in exile.

Yet it is in the internal exile he had devised in his home, that he was finally released from his exile from God. Through the deeds of his Christian employees who refused to leave him by himself, and voluntarily accepted the death that came the next day, he hears the voice Isaiah heard:

Why do they stay here? ... I’ll tell you why. They follow a voice that comes from the heart—and makes them risk everything. It is the voice of God, and we hear it, too, through them.

While Morante, Ginzburg, and Levi were forced to leave home and live with the peasants of Aliano, Pizzoli, and Sant’Agata, the Parnas’ neighbors came into his house to live with him voluntarily and share his fate. The gift of humanity that his Christian servants gave him was accepted by the Parnas as coming from the voice of God. It was a gift both social and spiritual, and, importantly, it came without strings. None of his friends, Christian or Jewish, asked the Parnas to deny his Judaism in order to be loved. Having no greater gift to give, they sacrificed their own lives to give him his full humanity.

The Parnas’ humanity, although cut short by the Nazis, is a lesson. One is not necessarily either Jewish or Italian. There is a third circumstance that encompasses the other two. Being fully human can accommodate both a Jewish self and an Italian self or in fact any number of other selves that should be allowed to flourish unhindered.

Fredric Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist at Beersheba, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa, and Jaffa, Israel, currently practices law in Los Angeles.