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The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010

The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010

by Robert Gordon

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The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944–2010 is the first major study of how postwar Italy confronted, or failed to confront, the Holocaust. Fascist Italy was the model for Nazi Germany, and Mussolini was Hitler's prime ally in the Second World War. But Italy also became a theater of war and a victim of Nazi persecution after 1943, as resistance,


The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944–2010 is the first major study of how postwar Italy confronted, or failed to confront, the Holocaust. Fascist Italy was the model for Nazi Germany, and Mussolini was Hitler's prime ally in the Second World War. But Italy also became a theater of war and a victim of Nazi persecution after 1943, as resistance, collaboration, and civil war raged. Many thousands of Italians—Jews and others—were deported to concentration camps throughout Europe. After the war, Italian culture produced a rich array of stories, images, and debate through which it came to terms with the Holocaust's difficult legacy. Gordon probes a rich range of cultural material as he paints a picture of this shared encounter with the darkest moment of twentieth-century history. His book probes aspects of Italian national identity and memory, offering a new model for analyzing the interactions between national and international images of the Holocaust.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A]n outstanding guide to the last 70 years, full of insight, subtle distinctions, and always readable."—David Cesarani, Modern Italy

"Gordon's novel contribution to the field of Italian Holocaust studies is a needed overview of the dynamics underscoring the national struggle between the historical position of the witnesses (epitomized in Gordon's work by Levi) and the pull of those ahistorical perceptions that slowly but surely end up constituting, one decade after another, the edifice of what Maurice Halbwachs famously named 'collective memory' (La mémoire collective, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1950)."—Federica K. Clementi, CLIO

"There can be no doubt about Gordon's erudition or scholarship, and we must be grateful for his having written the first comprehensive account of Italian responses to the Holocaust . . . Ultimately the great value of Gordon's book lies in the fact that he brings some structure to the extremely diverse mosaic of Italian memories of the Holocaust."—Christian Goeschel, European History Quarterly

"A major strength of Gordon's book lies in moving smoothly between the different foci of his subject, providing chronology and historical detail where necessary, highlighting debates and, above all, making historical complexity and its cultural manifestations accessible to the general reader through short systematic introductions, summaries and recapitulations of the main points of each of the ten chapters of the book . . . We are all indebted to Professor Robert Gordon for his remarkable elucidation of the interconnected, multifaceted links joining contemporary Italian culture with the Shoa. His book is an indispensable, standard reference and guide to future developments in this area of Italian public life."—Jacques Roumani, Sephardic Horizons

"This outstanding book fills a critical gap in the literature and has profound significance for the study of Italy and for the memory of the Holocaust."—Marla Stone, Occidental College
"Gordon has written an important book on memorialization of the Shoah for Italians and non-Italians alike."—R.J.B. Bosworth, Jesus College, University of Oxford
"This book will change the way the relationship between the Holocaust and Italy is understood. Through the use of a wide range of materials, Robert Gordon analyses the tortuous and complicated ways in which the Shoah was narrated, remembered, misunderstood, forgotten, and then rediscovered. This is a fascinating story, told here with great elegance, verve, and passion, but also with scrupulous attention to detail. Essential reading for all students, researchers and historians working on post-war Italy."—John Foot, University College London

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Stanford University Press
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The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944–2010

By Robert S. C. Gordon

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6345-5

Chapter One

§1 The Shape of Italy's Holocaust

This book is about the wide field of cultural responses to what we call the Holocaust or the Shoah, as it emerged in Italy over the long postwar era. In recent years, a great deal of research has been devoted to Holocaust legacies, memories and cultures in key national arenas such as Germany, Israel, France and America, and an array of other countries and areas, including, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nations of Eastern European and Russia. But relatively little work of either analysis or synopsis has been produced on Italy. Although varying widely in discipline and methodology—from history, to literary or film studies, to sociology, political theory or cultural studies—this body of work dovetails sufficiently well to allow us to shape out a common, cross-border chronological template of phases in the cultural elaboration—what the Germans call 'working through' (Vergangenheitsbewältigung)—of knowledge about the Holocaust:

1. Mid-1940s: following the camp liberations of spring 1945 and the rapid spread of horrific newsreel and print imagery of the survivors and the dead, there is widespread revulsion at the Nazi crimes, elaborated further at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945–46. Early testimonies appear, but very few gain a wide readership.

2. Late 1940s to late 1950s: in a period of reconstruction and Cold War tension, there is a widespread indifference to, even silence surrounding, Nazi crimes against Jews and the camp system. An exception is the spreading international reputation during the 1950s—as book, Broadway play and Hollywood film—of Anne Frank's diary. The establishment of the State of Israel is linked to the Holocaust (as will be the counternarrative of the Naqba, the displacement of Palestinian populations in the war of 1948).

3. 1960s: the Final Solution begins to emerge as a key historical phenomenon and as a distinct subject for memory and historical understanding. Most accounts point to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 as a crucial turning point, but also relevant are the generational politics of the 1960s, with the young challenging the settled narratives of the war and their parents' complicity; and the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War, which brought the very survival of the Jews back into vivid play, before Israel's dramatic victory.

4. 1970s–80s: awareness of the Holocaust emerges on a wide scale as a newly central feature in national histories and memory. France 'rediscovers' from the early 1970s, through books, films and trials, the extent of Vichy's collaboration and complicity (e.g. Marcel Ophuls' Le Chagrin et la pitié, 1971). In 1978–79, America, Germany and much of Europe learn the term 'Holocaust' through the hugely popular television miniseries of that name. France and Germany struggle with scandals of negationism (the Faurisson affair of 1979 in France) or revisionism (the Historikerstreit, the historians' debate, in Germany in 1986–87).

5. 1990s–2000s: mass awareness peaks in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, and translates into a pervasive Americanisation of the Holocaust, through the global success of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) and the opening of the Washington Holocaust museum in 1993, among many others. Following the events of 11 September 2001, as well as accelerated globalisation and multiculturalism, there is a geopolitical shift away from the 'postwar' paradigm, towards a new phase of war and tensions between Muslims and the West: the Holocaust remains, however, a powerful shadow over the West and its newly uncertain role in the world.

With many local variations, this broad-brush 'history of memory' flows with remarkable consistency across different national contexts, perhaps especially in the 'Western' sphere (US, Western Europe, Israel). The story of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was tellingly different, since until the revolutions of 1989 the Soviet vulgate of the war as a heroic struggle of Communism against Fascism left little room for the racial aspects of Nazism. A very different account would also be needed for a history of responses to the Holocaust in the Arab world or beyond. Never theless, one of the striking features of the field of Holocaust memory seems to lie in its transnational, deterritorialised dynamics, frequently decoupled from local history.

This macrohistorical picture should not, however, preclude national particularities: on the contrary, as Arjun Appadurai has argued in relation to local-global intersections, the two levels are in constant symbiosis. At the local level, the microhistories of each nation which confronts the Holocaust interweave highly specific national discourses of culture and tradition, history and politics with this emerging transnational phenomenon. The particular mediators and operators within a cultural sphere have a crucial role to play in the timing and nature of local engagement with the Holocaust; and the particular inflections of a national setting determine how talk about it will, in turn, spread back into political and cultural spheres and into the collective cultural memory. Furthermore, elements of particular, national discourses can then emigrate in turn to become global Holocaust artefacts or events in their own right.

* * *

The relative neglect of Italy within this field is surprising, not least because it presents compelling instances of continuity and discontinuity with the template above.

Fascist Italy was the model and origin for Hitler's totalitarian racial state and adopted many of the latter's racist laws from the late 1930s onwards, although debate still rages as to how far, and how early, Fascism was (or was not) inherently racist. Fascist Italy was also Nazi Germany's prime European ally as the genocide of the Jews was undertaken and was responsible for administering anti-Slavic and anti-Semitic policy in several occupied regions (e.g. Slovenia), often with ferocious violence, just as it was responsible for horrific colonial crimes in Africa, and just as it had operated forms of racial politics and ethnic cleansing in home border areas, such as Alto Adige, before the war; although important historiographical work has also proposed that Italian officials—up to Mussolini himself—did much to frustrate deportations and massacres of Jews during the early phase of the war. Italy was, then, both part progenitor of and collaborator in genocide, and part uncertain fellow-traveller, even filibusterer. After July 1943, this already complex status was made notably more so as Mussolini fell, and Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and found itself split in two, invaded from the south by the Allies and occupied in the centre and north by Germany (with the help of a restored Mussolini and the diehard Fascists of the Salò Republic), with a civil war or partisan Resistance war raging. The Nazis now started deporting Jews from Italy (mainly to Auschwitz), although the numbers were relatively small, in the thousands; and also approximately 30,000 political prisoners (mostly partisans), deported to Mauthausen, Gusen and nearby; and large numbers—up to 750,000—of Italian soldiers were imprisoned in brutal internment camps. Now Italians were victims of the whole gamut of Nazi violence, although the Salò Republic was also an active perpetrator of deportations and massacres, and the racial bureaucracy of the former Fascist state was still in place to abet the deportation of Jews. Once again, however, alongside this picture of complicity runs an alternative narrative of many individual or local acts of solidarity with the Jewish population, the product of an apparent Italian immunity to racism built into the Italian 'national character'.

This tangled history left Italy with an immense baggage of unresolved questions about itself, its historical responsibilities and its future after the war. It is commonly argued that the entire postwar era in Italy, up to the turn of the 21st century, was spent working through answers to those questions. Initially, as elsewhere, what was later termed the Holocaust did not separate itself out as a discrete event within the mire of the war's and Fascism's history and legacy; but once that distillation process did begin, the Holocaust too would pose deep and troubling questions to the polity and collective identity of Italy and Italians, adding layer upon layer of complexity and daunting challenge.

In response to this history, postwar Italian culture has thrown up striking clusters of writers and filmmakers, artists and architects, historians and intellectuals intent on coming to terms with the phenomenon of the Holocaust. Several of these have taken up prime places in the vast international spectrum of responses to the genocide—authors such as Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani and Natalia Ginzburg; and directors such as Vittorio De Sica, Lina Wertmüller, Francesco Rosi and Roberto Benigni. Merely for this weight of cultural production, the relative neglect of Italy in accounts of the spectrum of Holocaust culture is surprising.

But the aim of this book is neither to restate the history of Fascist Italy's entanglement with Nazi Germany; nor to collate a canon of the worthiest works about the Holocaust to have come out of Italy. It aims rather to survey and embed those works in the wider field of responses that produced and shaped them, and thereby to trace the progress of the slow, but profoundly illuminating encounter between Italian culture and the Holocaust. The field it draws on includes a wide range of cultural artefacts, agents, works of testimony, events and practices, collectivities and debates. And this field is presented as in turn embedded in a series of other local fields, giving local inflections to the reception and understanding of the Holocaust. So, talk of the Holocaust in Italy is shown persistently to mask questions about Fascism, the anti-Fascist Resistance and its legacies, national character, Cold War politics, the role of the Church, European identity, immigration, multiculturalism and so on.

The book describes the circles of production and reception of this field of knowledge and representation of the Holocaust in Italy, tapping into the work and activism of concentration camp survivors and their associations, the Jewish community and its organs, spreading outwards into the wider culture through culture industries and media, civic commemorations, institutions and all the varied arenas of modern cultural practice. It traces how, by the late 20th century, a vast tranche of Italians—from ageing survivors to young children—came to know something of what was referred to by the terms Holocaust or Shoah, to have some sense of what Norberto Bobbio meant when he described the genocide as 'the monstrous event in world history'.

As indicated above, the Holocaust can never be wholly contained at the 'national' level, neither in its history of perpetrators, victims and bystanders, of individuals, groups, ethnicities and states; nor in its a posteriori cultural representations. It is and was always a porous, plurilinguistic, transnational phenomenon. This is evinced by the extraordinary, migratory global reach of the pivotal cultural events in our template, from the liberation photographs to Anne Frank's diary, from Eichmann in Jerusalem to Holocaust on TV to Schindler's List at the movies. This book, then, looks not only at the specifics of Italian responses to Italy's role within experience of the Shoah; but also at the interactions of this field with that larger, transnational phenomenon. In Italy as elsewhere, these two strands—the Holocaust at its broadest and the Italian case at its most local—co-exist and are mutually dependent layers in history and in the production of discourse around it; and the nature of this co- existence is central to the story told here. To give two examples, as Manuela Consonni has shown, Italy had its own responses to the Israeli—and global—media event of the Eichmann trial, even as the Italian press reflected on the extraordinary global attention it was garnering. Conversely, an Italian film such as Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella, 1997) was a product of deep and largely hidden local and generational histories, masquerading as a Holocaust story (Benigni's father was a military internee);17 and yet as it was marketed across a global circuit of cinema festivals and mass distribution, filtered through American success, it entered the sphere of transnational Holocaust culture, acquiring new meanings along the way.

This mutual dependence operates wherever the Holocaust establishes itself as a datum of cultural knowledge; but it seems to be charged with particularly interesting dynamics in the Italian case, because of the strange interplay of centrality and marginality in Italy's encounter with the Holocaust. As we have seen, Italy was ostensibly marginal to the mainstream history of the Holocaust (certainly in bald numerical terms) but was also bound to its core through key figures, moments and alliances; similarly the Holocaust has been ostensibly marginal to the mainstream of Italian culture, as has the small Jewish community (hovering for two millennia around 30–40,000 people, or 1/1000th of the modern population), and yet the stories and voices of Italian Jews have at times loomed surprisingly large within the dominant national culture. The web of oblique connections, indirect transmissions, displacements and graftings these telescopic interrelations throw up are at the core of this book's interests.

The same displacements, both within competing fields of national conversation and culture and between national and transnational fields, suggest further that 'memory' is not necessarily the only, nor the best, framing vocabulary for talking about how the Holocaust has taken on cultural form, despite the fact that a language of memory has come to seem de rigueur in research in this area. The cultural emphasis in this book is, in part, designed to challenge assumptions about mechanisms of collective memory, seeing instead cultural form as a means to shared knowledge about or awareness of aspects of the past, which become part of a shared cultural conversation (with its own codes and markers), of which 'memory effects' are only one element.

* * *

Before setting out the structure of the book, we need to set out the scope of meanings around the term 'Holocaust' itself, in general and as it concerned Italy in particular. Instead of attempting a potted history of events—from Fascist anti-Semitism to war, occupation and deportation, alongside the rise of the Nazis, the Nuremberg laws and the Final Solution20—it seems more pertinent to gauge this history and its legacy through some questions of definition. Even this preliminary task is fraught with problems of inclusion and exclusion, echoing issues of 'uniqueness' or comparability in the wider field of Holocaust historiography. 21 We need to know what precisely is being named, and what is stake, when the Holocaust—and cognate terms that cluster around it—is named in Italy and in Italian. In asking this question, it swiftly becomes clear that we are also asking questions of agency, identity and belonging— whose Holocaust is it?—since it can variously be read as an event in Jewish history, German history, also Israeli prehistory, but also Italian history (and many other national histories), Italian-Jewish history, European history, global history, human history, and so forth.

Here are four possible parameters of definition for the Holocaust, each touching on events of the Holocaust in relation to Italy, and each with differing purchase in particular corners and moments within the field of cultural responses this book maps out.

1. The Holocaust has narrowly been taken to refer to the Nazi genocidal project to murder the Jews of Europe (and beyond), the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, particularly as enacted after the Wannsee conference of 20 January 1942. As noted, Italy was a prime ally of Nazi Germany and had already became a 'racial state' in 1938 with the passage of drastic anti-Semitic laws akin to the Nuremberg Laws. As noted also, each phase from 1938 to the early war years to the Salò years produced counternarratives of Italian opposition to the genocide, of moral heroism and resistance. Thus, even under the umbrella of Italy's direct involvement with the tightest definition of the Final Solution, we find in circulation competing narratives and historiographies, each with claims to authenticity. Even simple dating is of consequence here: the backdating of Italy's involvement with the Holocaust to 1938, pushed in the historiography of the 1980s, marks a crucial stage in redefinitions of Fascist complicity and of the definition of the Holocaust itself as viewed from Italy.


Excerpted from The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944–2010 by Robert S. C. Gordon Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert S. C. Gordon is Professor of Modern Italian Culture at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. His most recent books are A Difficult Modernity: An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Italian Literature (2005); and Bicycle Thieves (2008).

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