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Secret History

Natalie Danford’s glimpse into life of wartime Urbino

Stacy Perman
August 07, 2007

In Natalie Danford’s debut novel, the psychological thriller Inheritance, Olivia Bonocchio discovers a key and a 50-year-old deed to an Italian villa among her late father Luigi’s possessions. When she travels to Urbino, her father’s hometown, to find the property, she discovers not just the history of the house—it once belonged to a family named Levi, who entrusted it to Luigi during World War II in an attempt to skirt Mussolini’s race laws—but some unsettling truths about her father’s past.

Danford, who was hailed by The New York Times as an “old-fashioned storyteller,” lived in Urbino during and after college, and met her Italian husband there. She lives in New York City where she works as an Italian translator and writes about Italian culture.

The book centers on this question: How well do we know our parents? It examines family mythology.

I come from a family of great mythologizers. We tell stories. I have a sister and a brother and I think our spouses are bored to tears because we tell our stories over and over and in the same way. At the same time there’s broken mythology on both sides of my family.

My paternal grandfather created this whole story that he had come over here when he was 12 and that he didn’t speak any English and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Many years ago, after the Ellis Island records went online, my father idly punched in his own father’s name and it turns out that my grandfather came here when he was three with his entire family. He had come from Austria and the family name was Deutsche. Later he changed our name to Danford. My father asked a relative about it. It turns out in reality that my grandfather was part of a blended family. His mother died when he was an infant. His father, a widower, had remarried and between the two of them they had something like 15 children together.

It’s not the story that was so important as the idea that there was this family member who was not honest about his own past.

On my mother’s side, we always thought that my great-grandfather left Russia because he didn’t want to be conscripted into the Czar’s army, obviously a pretty bad deal if you were Jewish. One of my mother’s cousins did genealogical research in the late 1970s; it turned out that he actually killed somebody and hopped a boat.

I realize now that many people have similar backgrounds, but at the time these stories seemed really special to us. It turns out they were all built on—I don’t want to say lies, but miss-tellings of the truth. That can burn up inside you.

What compelled you to write about the Jewish community in Urbino through the twin narratives of an Italian immigrant in America and his American-born daughter, neither of whom are Jews?

There are not that many Jews left in Italy. There weren’t that many before the war and there are fewer now. When I started the book I knew that Luigi had a secret and I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until I was pretty far into the book that I figured out that it had something to do with the Jewish community and I went back and rewrote it.
I went to Urbino 20 years ago—between my junior and senior years in college—met the person who is now my husband, went back after I graduated, and lived there for a year. It’s a smallish town where everyone knows each other and I was fascinated by the way that in Urbino anything that your family did, your Great-great-great-grandfather did, is credited to you. I wanted the story to have something that was done to reflect on the family and I wanted there to be confusion about who had done what. In Urbino, it doesn’t matter who did something—if your great-grandmother was pregnant with your grandmother when she got married or if one of your great-grandparents committed suicide or drank a lot or stuck out in any way—your family will bear the mark of it for good or bad forever.

Everyone knows everything about everybody. Where I grew up there were 83 people in my graduating class and we all knew each other and each other’s secrets, but nothing I had ever experienced matched the degree to which people knew you in Urbino. One time it was snowing and I was walking down to town, and someone I had never met came up to me and said: “It doesn’t feel like this back in New York does it?” I was stunned. And everyone in town knows that my father is a doctor. On the other hand, Italians can be offhandedly anti-Semitic; it’s funny, they knew everything about me, but they never knew that I was Jewish.

Was it like that at all where you grew up?

I was raised in a really small town in Massachusetts where my family were the only Jews. I was never as Jewish as when I lived there and in Urbino. There is something about being the only one that I both loved and hated. Growing up I hated going to Hebrew school when everyone else went to catechism. But I also loved learning Hebrew and finding out there was this whole other alphabet in the world and having a bat mitzvah and this whole other set of friends. I went to a public school and the idea of separation of church and state was not respected. Christmas songs made me uncomfortable.

Is there much of a Jewish community in Urbino today?

There is one Jewish family left in Urbino. But the Levis were not particularly modeled on this family, except for the fact that they happen to be the only Jewish family left in Urbino. I spoke with the mother several times and she told me about Jewish culture there, and she gave me some articles about the Urbino synagogue and the one in the nearby town of Pesaro, and she pointed out how Yiddish words had embedded themselves into Urbino dialect. Like when you want to say something’s not right they say it’s not koshero. As for any Jewish ritual in Urbino, when they have one—like when their daughter got married—they have to borrow a rabbi from nearby Ancona. Interestingly, the mother converted to Judaism when she married and is the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery and the synagogue.

Overall, the Jewish community in Italy is tiny. The only really truly active community is in Rome and it has a fairly active synagogue. But the Roman Jewish community strikes me as cloistered, they only interact with each other. All Romans strike me that way. They stick within their neighborhoods.

Do you have any sense of what the prewar Jewish community was like in Urbino?

Much like it was in Germany. In Urbino, the Jews thought of themselves as Italians. It had been hundreds of years since they’d had to live in separate communities. Some Italian Jews were enthusiastic Fascists until the alliance of Italy with Germany, and even after it. They considered themselves well integrated, and like the German Jews tended to be well educated.

During the Renaissance the Jewish community was enormous. The duke at the time [Federico da Montefeltro], famous for the portrait with his nose cut off and his flat red hat, was kind to the Jews. I’m not sure if it was out of kindness of heart, but he recognized the importance of having a Jewish community. They were the bankers of the time and they brought commerce to the city.

By the 1930s there wasn’t a huge Jewish community in Urbino, there had been a lot of intermarriage. At the same time there’s always been a huge Jewish cultural influence. Most of the major postwar Italian literary figures are Jewish, like Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, and Giorgio Bassani. Though all of the region’s famous food products are based on pork, there is also this whole Jewish culinary influence of goose salami and goose prosciutto. Goose was the fattest kosher meat they could get.

What made you decide explore the impact of the Holocaust on non-Jews?

There were many gentiles, especially, in Italy who did protect the Jews, especially children. In Italy, children are revered and most were hidden in convents and Catholic schools. Very few children were taken. I was thinking of stories about people who did good things. Italians are so anti any kind of authority that I think they were sort of pleased not to follow the [Nazis]. Perhaps they didn’t necessarily feel a great affinity toward the Jews, but they didn’t necessarily want anyone coming in and telling them what to do. And I wanted Luigi to have had the experience of helping this family.

But I never conceived of it as a Holocaust book—I was really surprised when some of the earlier reviews referred to it as one—the Holocaust is part of the context of the story, not the story. If it were only the story of the Levis and what happened to them, then it would be a Holocaust book, but their story is a plot point for Luigi and Olivia.

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