Seventy-four years ago, on Dec. 1, 1943, Benito Mussolini ordered Italian police to arrest all Jews in the country as enemy aliens.
One of the Italian Jews rejected by his government that day was Emanuele Artom, a young Torinese scholar of extraordinary intellectual power who possessed a startling sensitivity, as well as the impulse to write about his life. If reading about brilliant young academic Jews from wartime Turin makes you think of Primo Levi, you are not far off; Artom and Levi were friends, part of the same close Jewish community. In the autumn of 1943, both men joined the partigiani, and both were arrested in 1944, in separate incidents, in the Alps outside their occupied city.
Artom, then 28, was not sent to Auschwitz; instead, the Nazis tortured him to death. He’d fought in the Italian Resistance as a commissario politico, in charge of disseminating the message of the struggle. An unlikely hero, he told his brief life story through diaries that have not yet been translated from Italian, though they have been published a couple of times, most recently in 2008; I read an earlier annotated version in Italian online from the Artom archives. He was an extraordinary human being with a keen awareness and expressive ability that, had he survived, would surely have placed him squarely in Levi’s company as one of the greatest Jewish chroniclers of the wartime experience.
Emanuele was the elder child of mathematicians Emilio and Amalia Artom. Together with his brother, Ennio, he founded a Jewish culture group, which included Primo Levi and his sister Anna Maria. Ennio died young in a hiking accident, leaving Emanuele to care for his parents and crippled by his own grief. He had learned Hebrew to read and discuss Talmud and Torah with his father. Levi’s biographer, Carole Angier, says that the Artoms were a devout family but that Emanuele didn’t develop his personal religious feeling until adulthood. She also quotes one of the women in the culture group speaking of “the brothers Ennio and Emanuele Artom. Ennio was even more intelligent than Emanuele, Emanuele even more unattractive than Ennio, but both were more intelligent and more unattractive than anyone else.”
Here is the second entry in Emanuele’s diary:
December 29, 1940
Dedication for the book “History of Israel.”
Dear Ennio, I had been weeping for you for just a few weeks when I received an invitation to teach some classes in Jewish history at our Hebrew school. In the course of reading and preparing for them, I discovered, more even than relief from my grieving, the possibility of creating a work that you, with your greater vision and ingenuity, might have completed yourself, had you lived. In fact, among the many tasks you set your versatile brilliance to accomplishing, you devoted enormous energy and many hours to this aim: making Judaism understood, by Jews and non-Jews alike. This took on for you, in addition to the value of a rigorous pursuit, a strictly moral significance. Of the tendency of Jews to assimilate, you found an explanation rooted in the ignorance of both groups with regard to Judaism. If they only dedicated themselves to studying it, you believed, they would find out that Judaism represented throughout human history the aspirations toward Justice and Brotherhood. The Prophets uncovered and revealed moral law within the pages of the Bible; our ancestors for 2,000 years of exile upheld it, bravely consecrating themselves to it, and eschewing from generation to generation the seductions of conversion, either forced or bought. If men of good faith, Jews and gentiles, knew all this they would neither flee nor oppress Israel, but rather turn back to it in recognition and with emotion, adopting its norms as a moral compass. These thoughts of mine, also your thoughts, so often discussed and explored during our conversations together, inform and enlighten my studies in Jewish history, the composition of my lessons, the writing of this volume; and in order for your own voice to be heard again, nearer and more vividly, I link your language to mine from time to time, inserting in quotes some of the phrases taken from your writings. May these portions of your posthumous message, brought together and presented by me, serve to open the heart and the mind of the one who reads them!
Subsequent entries include his literary musings—on Dostoyevsky, 19th-century Italian poetry, a French edition of A Thousand and One Nights. He records dreams, worries about his parents, meditates on Zionism, and references his engagement to a woman he shyly refers to as “M.” He writes of skiing vacations in the nearby Alps with young friends who would soon become partisans, too (“ … the first day, snow, and the second sunny and breezy; but I had a good time, and now I am writing at my table, still aching from all the falling down”).
Eventually, along with all these ordinary experiences of being an extraordinary young man in wartime Italy, he begins to write about the darkening political scene and the Jews’ place in it.
In the fall of 1941, anti-Semitic posters appear around the city. One shows a caricatured Jewish face with giant ears; the text reads: “Shh! The Jew is listening to you!” Another features a hand cutting off a Jew’s tongue with scissors. Artom and his comrades debate what should be done; a group of students who tear down some of the posters gets hassled by the authorities.
October 20, 1941
… Twenty or so young Jews, some nights ago, pulled down some posters; I was against it, because it seemed to me that it wasn’t Jews who should be taking them down, but maybe I was wrong.
The diary entries for the next couple of years can be painful to read: An articulate and frank writer, Artom draws you almost too close—his honesty is bracing and sweet. He jots down fragments of his own poetry, carefully wrought, classical lines. He often struggles to understand aspects of his moral self:
February 24, 1942
… I keep thinking about my conscience; to get past this state of crisis and of torpidity I know the only remedy is to improve myself, but it seems that if I do this not for the sake of being useful to others, but just for myself, then the remedy can’t possibly succeed.
September 22, 1942
I’m glad to have fasted on Yom Kippur because turning one’s back on Judaism always ends in impoverishment.
The first portion of the diary stops at Sept. 8, 1943, when Italy reached an armistice with Allied forces and became Germany’s enemy. The Nazis swiftly occupied the northern part of the country, and immediately the Resistance movement throughout the nation turned its energy toward thwarting the Germans. Primo Levi, Emanuele Artom, and many of their friends joined in the armed struggle.
The diary picks up again (portions were lost or destroyed) with the Resistance in full swing, and Artom at first seems almost unrecognizable, so wrapped up is he in the cause. Stationed by an arm of the Partito D’Azione in a tiny hamlet, he spends days keeping a low profile, occasionally participating in daring action, like retrieving and hiding a cache of donated guns. Resistance life is dangerous, but he manages to jot down the particulars of day-to-day life: what the accommodations are like, character sketches of resistance leaders, the nature of the work. And amid the continuing fretting about his family, he chronicles infighting between various partisan factions, complains about the exasperating idealism of the Communists he encounters, and details incidents of moral weakness among his fellows.
December 20, 1943
… Yesterday with ***, and I asked him, “Is it true that a while ago you guys beat up a couple of prisoners just for talking?”
“Not as far as I know.”
A boy who was there said he had been present when it happened, and so *** had to confess.
“What would Pisacane say?” I asked him. [Pisacane was a noted Garibaldian whose philosophy contributed significantly to Italian and European political thought.]
“Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do,” he replied, and he seemed very annoyed at being asked about it.
I began to get uneasy reading the diary as 1943 becomes 1944, the way you do when you’re reading something you know ends badly. The entries come to an abrupt stop in February, when the Resistance forces get entangled in a series of engagements in the Alpine foothills. According to the Museo di Torino, Artom had been occupied largely with plans for “reorganization of civilian institutions, principally schools in the valleys that had been liberated from the Fascists at the beginning of the year” when he and two friends were surprised by a group of Fascist soldiers in the Val de Pellice. They fled, but Emanuele, rail-thin constitutionally and running on three days without sleep, collapsed, and he and one of his comrades were arrested.
A clear-eyed advocate for mercy, in the Jewish tradition, Artom during his tenure as commissario politico had persuaded some combat leaders to release prisoners rather than execute them, and it was one such freed Fascist spy who recognized Artom and outed him as a Jew to the Nazis. Although horrifically tortured, he kept partisan secrets safe, and another prisoner in the cells with him witnessed the bloodied and crippled Artom trying with almost his last breath to convert one of his captors to the Resistance cause. After suffering more fruitless torture, he died, and his crushed body was hastily dumped or buried, no one knows where exactly, in a remote area by the banks of the river Sangone, which some miles further on flows into the majestic Po.
Artom’s diaries are widely regarded among WWII scholars as one of the best accounts of partisan life in Northern Italy, and he was recognized for his heroism by the city of Turin, which named a road for him. In a preface to a children’s book on Jewish history that Artom wrote (it begins as a kind of Cliffs Notes for the Tanakh and covers the whole of recorded Jewish history; apart from this work and the Diaries, his publications consist of literary critiques and scholarly essays), the writer Max Varadi said of him:
Who would ever have seen in that modest figure, in that quiet spirit, that thoughtful soul, the temperament of a hero, the stuff of a warrior? … The children who read this book … will come to see in it … the mark of a pure soul, a Jewish soul…
Artom’s voice, in its immediacy and its intimacy, brings readers heartbreakingly near, inviting us to experience what it actually felt like to be brilliant, sensitive, conscientious, and Jewish at a time when none of those things was particularly convenient. Artom’s rare combination of personal vulnerability and intellectual and physical bravery make him a compelling hero for today—half young Woody Allen, half Daniel Craig in Defiance. Reading his diaries, I fell for him immediately, skinny legs and all, and I wager many more Jews would warm to him and come to mourn, as Jewish and non-Jewish Italians in Turin still do, the loss of this curiously tender, unexpectedly courageous heart.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Siân Gibby holds the position of writer/editor at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. She is the translator of Intimate History of the Great War, by Quinto Antonelli; The God of New York, by Luigi Fontanella; and Resistance Rap, by Francesco Carlo.