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New Novel Sheds Light on the Plight of Italy’s Jews During the Holocaust

While a few in the Ovazza family cheered fascism on, most escaped in the nick of time

Simone Somekh
March 28, 2018
Courtesy Centro Primo Levi.
A still from an Ovazza family home movie in the early 1930s.Courtesy Centro Primo Levi.
Courtesy Centro Primo Levi.
A still from an Ovazza family home movie in the early 1930s.Courtesy Centro Primo Levi.

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini took power of Italy in 1922, but it was not until 16 years later that the regime became openly anti-semitic.

For some Italian Jews, the regime’s anti-semitic turn in 1938 with the publication of the Manifesto of Race came as a surprise. (It may be too easy now, in retrospect, to list all the warning signs they missed.) Within the community, which amounted to 44,000 Jews, there were even a few card-holding Fascists.

The Jews of Italy unknowingly had a narrow window of time—between the fall of 1938 and the spring of 1940—to hear the silent alarm and flee their country. Those who chose to remain and those who did not have the money and connections necessary to leave had to hide during the war; thousands of them were killed in the Holocaust.

The Ovazza family, which belonged to Italy’s Jewish elite at the time, heard that alarm. Most of them fled, survived, and returned; thanks to their matriarch’s visionary will, the war did not disperse them. Their story, now featured in a book, sheds light on the different destinies that different choices and economic means led to during that short window of time.

Penned by Alain Elkann, a New York-born journalist and novelist, the novel Money Must Stay in the Family is a semi-fictional story inspired to this family’s history. The book first appeared in Italian in the Nineties, but it has now been translated into English and published by Centro Primo Levi (CPL) Editions in New York. Elkann focused on his mother’s branch of the family, who fled to Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1939 and returned to Europe after the war.

“While Jewish immigration from Germany and Eastern Europe is well-known, the immigration of Italian Jews to North America is lesser-known,” said Alessandro Cassin, director of publishing at CPL Editions. Most of these 2,000 refugees were anti-Fascist professionals. “But there was also a very small group of very wealthy, very privileged people who came to the States.”

The Ovazzas belonged to this group. A well-integrated Italian Jewish family, they owned a successful banking business. “Their experience was so anomalous,” said Cassin; they were “totally disengaged” from the reality of Fascism and the war.

In the family videos Elkann showed at the launch of his book at the Center for Jewish History in late March, the family members were captured on camera during the Fascist era as they enjoyed life in their stunning villas in the hills of Turin, in Northern Italy. The films also show them as they took luxurious vacations in the Alps, on the seaside of Liguria, and in Libya, which then was an Italian colony.

After Mussolini signed the Racial Laws in 1938, the Ovazzas suffered a harsh blow, which put their survival at risk. The limitations the regime placed on Jewish businesses forced them to close down their bank. Jews were banned from performing skilled jobs, banned from public institutions, often banned from shops and cafés, too. The Ovazzas left their beloved Italy. (Only Ettore, who had founded the Jewish Fascist newspaper La Nostra Bandiera, Our Flag, remained, and was killed by the SS as he tried to flee to Switzerland later in 1943.)

Money Must Stay in the Family is the fictionalized story the branch of the Ovazzas that came to New York and of the French Jewish family their daughter married into. Although its literary value does not compare to the Italian classics on Holocaust family histories—namely, Giorgio Bassani’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Natalia Ginzburg’s groundbreaking Family Lexicon—its value as a piece of historical memory is inestimabile.

“My mother, born in 1922, arrived in New York when she was 18 years old. She’d spent her entire life under Fascism, and it was the first time she lived in a democratic country, in a place with so many Jews,” Elkann told Tablet in an interview. “The family had to adjust to a new life as exiles, far from their native language and their privileges. But somehow, this was also a strangely happy time for my mother.”

Despite not being particularly religious, the family elected the Upper West Side as their home because of the synagogue they chose to attend, the Spanish and Portuguese congregation.

“Italian Jews are a minority within the minority,” said Elkann.

In Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz, Levi’s fellow prisoners in Auschwitz question his Jewish identity, wondering if there is such thing as a Jew who does not speak Yiddish. Little do they know that the Italian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the history of the Diaspora.

“Overnight, the characters of my book, from aristocratic, became pariahs,” continued Elkann.

As soon as the war ended, the family returned to Italy. After all, in the United States they had been welcome with suspicion: Not as refugees, rather as potential enemies. They saw the war as a parenthesis, and they tried to close it. But, just as many other Italian Jews who tried to rebuild their lives after the war, it was impossible to pretend the Holocaust had just been a mere parenthesis. In fact, the Holocaust was a deep, painful gash in the canvas of Jewish and Italian history. It changed everything.

The main character of Elkann’s novel is the grandmother, who predicts the dispersion of the family members, and conceives a stratagem to keep them together: She writes a will that will force the family to meet in Turin. Money therefore becomes a metaphor for the unity of the family. “The grandmother tries to control everything, to keep the family and its money together,” said Elkann. “I wanted to emphasize the role of the woman in Judaism.”

With this book, Elkann, who now lives in London and writes regularly for La Stampa, tells a lesser-known chapter of Jewish history and sheds light on the abrupt awakening of a well-integrated Jewish European family: “Jews must not delude themselves that they are like others,” he said. “Religion and family are the same. Their strength lies in their unity.”

Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.