The World War II Tragedy of Italy’s Jews, Preserved in Fiction

The World War II Tragedy of Italy’s Jews, Preserved in Fiction

In “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini,” Geo Josz, the sole survivor of Ferrara’s Jewish roundup, unexpectedly returns from Buchenwald. But his fellow citizens (who have seized his family’s properties) soon turn upon this Ancient Mariner, who haunts the Caffè della Borsa, importuning the customers with tales of the way each member of his family was exterminated.

“How forced and exaggerated, in short, how false, these stories of Geo’s were. And then what a bore!” say townspeople, eager to begin the promised “new era” — an era, Bassani seems to suggest, that can only be constructed by opportunists with good reason to bury the past.

Giorgio Bassani belongs to that extraordinary flowering of Italian Jewish writers, from Natalia Ginzburg to Primo Levi, who came of age under Fascism and thus grew up skeptical, allergic both to absolutism and pious rhetoric. Theirs was a strange twilit generation. Their parents, it might be said, were still riding what Bassani calls “the euphoria of civic equality” following the Unification of Italy, when Jews, recently liberated from the ghettos, threw themselves into public life as statesmen, scientists, scholars, entrepreneurs and, with their country’s entry into World War I, as soldiers. These were “modern” Jews, like the father of Bassani’s narrator, who belongs to a synagogue much as he belongs to the Merchants’ Club and who, “romantic, patriotic, politically naïve,” joined the Fascist Party on returning from the front in 1919.

But Bassani’s narrator has grown up in darker days. Still hard-wired with bourgeois codes of academic and professional achievement, he nonetheless feels himself “nailed by birth to a destiny of exclusion and resentment,” paralyzed by a bitter sense of futility and inertia. While his father, listing the “patriotic merits” of Italian Jewry, assures his family that the proposed racial laws will never pass, the son foresees a “future of persecutions and massacres” for Ferrara’s Jews, herded “like so many frightened beasts” back into the ghetto, “from which, when all was reckoned up, we had emerged only some 70 or 80 years ago.” It’s symptomatic of Bassani’s historical pessimism that his two finest novellas end with their respective protagonists’ suicide.

In “The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles,” we follow the fortunes of Athos Fadigati, a gentle, kindly doctor whose homosexuality is tolerated until he embarks on a masochistic and highly public love affair with a vicious local youth. As Proust did, Bassani likens homosexuality to Jewishness, and Fadigati’s tragic ostracization is played out in parallel with the growing isolation of the narrator’s own family, of their expulsion from all the activities and institutions that had formed their daily life.

“The Heron,” Bassani’s masterpiece, takes place on a single Sunday in the late 1940s, when Edgardo Limentani, a Jewish landowner who spent the war in Switzerland, goes shooting for birds in the Po delta. Over the course of the day, Limentani finds himself increasingly alienated from the new Italy he encounters. He is equally repelled by the Communist-inspired sharecroppers on his farm, who are demanding a fairer deal, by the former Blackshirt who owns the flourishing hotel-restaurant where he stops for lunch and by the restaurant’s new clientele, Milanese industrialists out for a day’s sport, who seem “a different race, stronger, more full of life, more attractive, more likable!” In a kind of anti-epiphany, Limentani realizes that it’s money that confers their superhuman air of well-being. Compared with this new god of money, all the old allegiances — religion, family, land, Fascism, Communism — are of little importance. It’s a new world in which he can find no refuge.

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