Prisoners of Hope

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

In the preface to Consciousness and Society (1958), his important book dealing with the new social thought that introduced the twentieth century, Stuart Hughes wrote that “the only fitting attitude [for the writer of the history of ideas] is that of the cosmopolitan, detached intellectual.” Clearly cosmopolitanism and intellectual detachment are major virtues for Hughes, and he finds them, linked with compassion born from suffering, eminently present in a group of Jewish writers who survived World War II to become the outstanding Italian literary figures of their generation.

Each of these writers—Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani, and their predecessors, Italo Svevo and Alberto Moravia, who do not properly belong to the Holocaust generation—embodies a kind of cosmopolitanism. Born into bourgeois professional families long assimilated into the culture of the milieu surrounding them, they at once retained what Hughes calls a “residual Jewish consciousness” and an ironic, bemused distance from local prejudices and superstitions. Almost alone in the Diaspora, Hughes maintains, intellectual Italian Jews achieved a synthesis between traditional Judaism and the values of Western European humanism. Distrustful of all forms of clericalism, they represented an ecumenical-humanist-progressive form of mentality. Added to these qualities was their capacity for an eternal hope—the “hope” of Hughes’s title, to which his subjects are captive and because of which, by a bitterly familiar paradox, they are able to survive. Hope means the future, just as it may mean illusion and deception, as it did for those Jews who initially hoped to insure their safety by embracing Benito Mussolini and Fascism.

That many Italian Jews had such an expectation is not too surprising, given the unique position of Italian Jews in Europe since the mid-nineteenth century. As Professor Hughes demonstrates, Italian Jews historically enjoyed a relationship with their non-Jewish neighbors which, though certainly not free from periodic persecution and ostracism, was relatively enlightened. His conclusion is that, on balance, the Jewish experience in Italy was one of the happiest in the entire Diaspora. At the turn of the century, in Northern Italian cities such as Ferrara and Turin, Jews were counted among the leading families, very much a part of the cultural life of the community. Their Jewishness, when it was apparent—as was not always the case—appeared to many ordinary non-Jews as a kind of interesting eccentricity. Indeed, Hughes is at some pains to recover the Jewishness in the work of theriters he treats, most of whom were born to parents of different religious backgrounds and to whom religious observance meant little if anything.

What brought assimilated Italian intellectuals to consciousness and even assertion of their Jewishness were two events, and their consequences, which also offered Italian non-Jews the chance partially to redeem Italian history from 1922 to 1943. Harsh anti-Semitic measures came in two waves during Fascist control of Italy: The first, a set of anti-Jewish laws issued in the autumn of 1938, was the work of Mussolini, drastically limiting rights of Jews to contract mixed marriages, to teach or study, to hold jobs, and to own property. (The then-current Pope, Pius XI, opposed the laws only insofar as they encroached on Church perogative—in the words of Pius, on “one point alone: that of the marriages of converted Jews.”) Mussolini did not have plans to exterminate Jews, he did wish either to expel them from Italy or, failing that, to return them to the ghettos they had been forced to occupy in most Italian states from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Ghettos, the first of them in Venice, had developed in response to a papal bull by Pope Paul IV during the Counter-Reformation. With notable exceptions—for example, in Tuscany, where Dukes of the late Renaissance welcomed Jewish learning—Jewish ghettos remained in place in Italy until the mid-nineteenth century, when, following the liberalizing, secularing effects of the advent and fall of Napoleon, the 1848 revolutions, and Italian unification, they came to be seen as medieval and inhuman.

The second wave of anti-Semitism went far beyond Mussolini’s plans. From September, 1943, until the early months of 1945, the Germans, who as a retreating occupying force moved up the peninsula of Italy, meticulously imposed their anti-Semitic measures of uprooting and murder. Most Italian-Jewish victims of the Nazi onslaught were deported to Germany, where approximately 7,500 of them perished. Fewer than one thousand Italian Jews returned from the camps—among them one of Hughes’s literary figures, Primo Levi. Many Jews were able to escape, especially early in the war, through emigration. Of the more than thirty-six thousand who remained in Italy, just under four-fifths were saved—a record surpassed only by that of Denmark.

Hughes attributes this record to the special relationship that had existed historically in Italy between Jews and non-Jews, notwithstanding three centuries of Jewish ghetto isolation. Jews resided in Italy as far back as the Roman Republic; they were part of Italian life before the capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the massive influx of Jewish slaves. Rome is the home of the oldest Jewish community in the world. In appearance, Italian Jews and non-Jews are similar; they share a common language. For these and other historical reasons, especially the cosmopolitan sense Italian Jews had of being deeply and irrevocably Italian-European, anti-Semitism in Italy in the late 1930’s and 1940’s had shallow roots and was confined in its virulent form to zealous Fascists.

The truth of Hughes’s claims is testified to by the countless stories of generosity and risk on the part of peasants and ordinary urban people in response to the plight of panic-stricken Jews following Mussolini’s internment order in November, 1943, and the Gestapo roundup of Roman Jews for deportation on the Sabbath night of October 15-16, 1943. A report by the Gestapo described the “behavior of the Italian people” on this occasion as “outright passive resistance which in many individual cases amounted to active assistance.” The record of treatment of Jews by the Italian military forces...

(The entire section is 2608 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XXI, October, 1983, p. 286.

Kirkus Reviews. LI, February 1, 1983, p. 159.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, August 18, 1983, p. 6.

World Literature Today. LVII, Summer, 1983, p. 441.