Manuela Consonni, review of John Tedeschi’s “Italian Jews Under Fascism”

John Tedeschi with Anne C. Tedeschi. Italian Jews Under Fascism, 1938-1945: A Personal and Historical Narrative. Madison: Parallel Press, 2015.  Paper $35.00.  443 PP. ISBN: 9781934795699.

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John Tedeschi’s important volume deals with the years of persecution endured by Italian Jews, from the promulgation of the racist legislation in 1938 until the end of World War II in 1945. The work expertly weaves together different narrative levels and rigorously intertwines historical-documentary sources, eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, journalistic notes, and political memos.

The powerful text is both the personal and collective auto/biography of a Jewish world that is the sum of various heterogeneous geographical and cultural realities, which, at the same time, still holds an extremely meaningful place in the history of Italy. John Tedeschi, a noteworthy historian of the Protestant Reformation, born in 1931 in Modena, Italy, as Guido Tedeschi, son of Cesare and Piera Forti, tells us, without prejudice and with great courage, the story of his family, the Tedeschi from Ferrara and the Forti from Florence. A Jewish family of the Italian upper class, rich and cultured, integrated and linked to the traditions of Judaism but also to the new Italy of Mussolini, the father, Cesare, was a prominent professor of pathology at the University of Ferrara, a member of the fascist party “of the first hour” (della prima ora). On 12 September 1938, after the publication of the manifesto of racist scientists and after the enactment in August of the same year of the first repressive sanctions against Jews, Cesare, along with Goffredo Passigli, an industrialist from Ferrara and Cesare Costantini of Milan (who was subsequently deported to Auschwitz with his mother and his brother, from where he did not return) signed a letter to Federico Jarach, the president of the Italian Jewish communities, in which their loyalty to fascism was reaffirmed, placing the blame for the regime’s intransigence and persecution of the Jews on the Zionist leadership, i.e., Nahum Goldmann and Stephen Wise, high officials of the World Jewish Congress.  The mother, Piera Forti, was the daughter of a textile industrialist from Prato. She was a strong and cultivated woman, who translated Tolstoy’s Resurrection in her twenties. Her passion for literature is evident from the impressive list of books that she brought with her to her American exile: André Gide, Romain Rolland, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Giovanni Verga, among others. Unlike her husband, Piera Forti, was more aware of the danger inherent in the racist laws, resolutely pushing and pushed, in a resolute way, even against her husband’s family’s will, for an immediate departure from Italy in order to save her children: Luca, born in 1934; and John / Guido, three years older. The Tedeschis left Italy for the U.S., one year after the infamous letter to Jarach, in September 1939, from Lisbon on the ship Vulcania, after enduring many difficulties and obstacles, saving themselves from deportation and death.  A poignant book, composed of sixteen dense chapters, in which John Tedeschi reconstructs, with the help and support of his wife Anne, the rich and extraordinary networking that had characterized and, in a sense, still characterizes, Italian Jewry. The result is an imperious and epic voice, with its specific family sayings, echoing Natalia Ginzburg’s famous 1963 book.[1]

The first two opening chapters (“The Persecution Begins” and “The Gradual Unfolding of the Regime’s Antisemitic Agenda”) contextualize the history of anti-Jewish persecution, showing how the process of fascistization – which reached its peak in 1932 with the Doctrine of Fascism published in the Enciclopedia Italiana by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile – went hand in hand with the process of the racialization of the social, cultural, and political spheres, whose practical manifestation was, indeed, the racist laws in the summer of 1938. In other words, the construction of a deeply fascist conscience was the first necessary step towards the creation of a solid racial conscience, which led, after 1935, immediately to the formulation and implementation of a racial policy within the country.

The third chapter (“Explaining Fascist Anti-Semitism”) is historiographical and presents the dichotomous interpretation of the motivations and reasons for Mussolini’s antisemitism, which can be summarized as follows: intentional, that is, part of the ideological DNA of fascism already since 1919[2] or functional, a starting point, a new perspective, dictated rather by political opportunism and a sense of subordination to Germany. The answer is that both elements were present in Mussolini’s decision to persecute the Jews.[3] Tedeschi confronts Mussolini’s ambivalence through the Duce’s speeches, memoranda, and communications, such as the one on 1 September 1938 to the Council of Ministers, in which the dictator reiterated that Jews had nothing to fear because the measures were neither persecutory nor genocidal – a puzzling statement, in which the Italian dictator distinguished, allegedly, between the segregative aspect of anti-Jewish legislation and the destructive aspect. This distinction further emphasized his political ambiguity, denying what the racist laws were in reality: the implementation of the palingenetic idea of fascism, aimed at the creation of the New Man and the annihilation of elements of contamination and hybridity.

In the fourth chapter (“Harbingers of the Racist Decrees”), Tedeschi begins his journey into memory, rewriting family mini-biographies, unusual and difficult portraits, which describe the family’s readiness for uncommon personal compromises, even against their own co-religionists and against their own principles of morality in order to retain their social role. They face dilemmas that touch upon the Jews’ most intimate, core identity: these Jews asked not to be discriminated against, i.e., not to be part of the Jewish collective affected by the racist measures because of their personal merits and honors acquired during World War I or as part of the “Fasci di combattimento” from the very beginning. Tragic stories, permeated by a sense of anguish nourished by the uncertainty of abandoning the fatherland that did not want them anymore. For example, the composer and musician Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, John’s uncle, married to Clara Forti, Piera’s sister, who, confused and disoriented by the “betrayal” (the radio production of his violin concert in January 1938 was canceled by directives issued by Mussolini himself) tried in vain to understand what had happened, asking for explanations in a letter of 27 January 1938, to Alessandro Pavolini, his friend from adolescence, fascist hierarch, and future minister of the Minculpop (Ministry of Popular Culture) from 1939 to 1943.

In the fifth chapter, “Some Early Jewish Responses to the Racist Program,” Tedeschi tells the story of his father Cesare, recalling the tragic figure of Ettore Ovazza, also a fascist “of the first hour,” founder in Turin of the newspaper La Nostra Bandiera, who, like Passigli and Costantini, justified Mussolini’s behavior, attributing the Duce’s statements against the Jews to the behavior of the Jews, who proved ungrateful and disloyal to the regime, and to the initiative of Zionist troublemakers in the service of the “tenacious infamous and old  anti-fascist campaign of the pluto-democracies.” (83).

The sixth chapter, “Publishing and Scholarship Under Siege,” and the seventh chapter, “The Impact of the Law on Professional Life,” show how the racialization process progressed rapidly, due to the harsh academic-scientific censorship commissions that  sorted books and school texts, and eliminated Jewish authors and scholars such as Paul Oskar Kristeller, who was dismissed by the faculty of the Scuola Normale di Pisa and forced to publish his works under the pseudonym of “Lector,” despite being the philosopher of fascism’s student Gentile. Universities underwent massive purges that saw the removal of the best of Italian culture, such as Attilio Momigliano, Tullio Levi Civita, Vito Volterra, Giuseppe Levi, and Rita Levi Montalcini. A persecutory attitude affected the Giuseppe Laterza’s publishing house, which was threatened for not having expunged from its book catalogue not only modern Jewish authors but also sixteenth-century authors such as Leone Ebreo, the Portuguese Jehudah Abarbanel and his book Dialogues of Love. Tedeschi emphasizes the absence of a reaction from the Italian academic world and reminds us of Mussolini’s shameful declaration of July 1940, in which he scornfully derides all those who speak in favor of the Jews, defining it as a form of “pietism,” certainly in contradiction to the idea of the new fascist man (p. 105).

The eighth chapter, “Choosing to Emigrate,” mainly evolves around Jewish figures who actively engaged in helping the ones who decided to leave Italy.  One of the central protagonists of the chapter is Max Ascoli, professor of law in Rome and Cagliari, who emigrated to the United States in 1931 because of his anti-fascist convictions and taught at the New School for Social Research. Ascoli, the founder and the first director of The Reporter from 1949 to 1968, as John Tedeschi tells us, is certainly the most active and successful patron of a long and distinguished list of Italian exiles, mostly Jewish, but also of several leading antifascists such as Gaetano Salvemini and Lionello Venturi, among others. Ascoli unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Rosselli brothers and Leone Ginzburg to leave Italy. Tedeschi recalls the Jonas from Turin, David and his wife Anna – Vittorio Foa’s sister – who left Italy, while her brother was already trapped in a fascist prison from 1935, and who successfully immigrated to the United States with their two daughters Eva and Manuela, settling in Boston.

Chapter nine, “Daily Life After the Racist Decrees,” is a brief historical account that which tackles the question of the regime’s racial policy, including the war years, between 1940 and 1943 – when the Tedeschis were already in America. An extraordinary example of the Italian Jewish response to the persecution is the functioning of the Jewish schools, which is the subject of chapter ten, “The Jewish Schools”. In this dramatic situation, Jewish students – from primary schools to high schools, from Trieste to Rome, extending through Genoa, Milan, Florence, and Naples – benefited from the best teachers, all without exception university professors expelled from the faculties of the Kingdom of Italy. Tedeschi reconstructs this shameful part of Italian history through Elio Salmon’s diary, who was a close friend and neighbor of his uncles Giorgio and Raffaella Forti.

In the eleventh chapter, “Coping with the Prohibitions,” John Tedeschi speaks in the first person, recalling his life in Ferrara after having abandoned Florence – an experience imprinted in his memory, between joy and fear. Ferrara was a truly fascist city, governed by Renzo Ravenna, the fascist Jewish mayor (podestà), who was forced to abandon his position due to pressure from Rome, in spite of Italian politician Italo Balbo’s attempts to prevent it. Difficult memories for the author, in which he tries to explain his grandfather Guido Tedeschi’s request for differential treatment, presented on 16 December 1938, and granted to the entire family between March 14 and 24, 1939. Disconcerting family letters, full of troubling statements, punctuate the chapter, such as a letter written by Lucetta Amendola, John’s cousin, after her visit to their grandmother Giuseppina in the family home in Capalle, near Florence. In March 1941, Lucetta writes words full of hope “for a short war, final victory and the reunion of the family,” which, perhaps, as the author suggests, are addressed, in fact, not so much to the family as to the fascist censor who would have read them. The twelfth chapter, “Economic Consequences,” is Guido’s portrait of the Forti family, industrialists, present in the Italian peninsula from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, who left Spain rather than convert to Catholicism. Tedeschi remembers all the Forti:  from the beginning of the dynasty and its founding father Moise Leon to Giorgio Forti’s economic collapse caused by racist legislation (Article 10 of RDL 1728, 17 November 1938), which saw his expulsion from the presidency of the manufacturer’s association in Prato.

In chapter thirteen, “The Family: Political Aspects,” Tedeschi continues to describe the condition of Italian Jews, who, on the eve of the racist laws, were almost all fully assimilated, not only from a cultural point of view: one out of three had married outside the community. The discourse on mixed marriages and conversions allows Tedeschi to write about his own conversion, which brought him and his brother Luca, to the baptismal font, on 7 September 1938. The reader is struck by John’s courage in recounting the story, directly and without compunction, connecting it to his other religious experience: confirmation, in 1943, at the St. Edward ‘s parish of Medfield, Massachusetts, when he adopted the middle name of John, at twelve years old. His journey into memory does not stop at his personal story, but it expands to other braver choices of confrontation and struggle against the fascist regime, such the one presented by the tragic story of the Rosselli brothers (also a related family). Both were active antifascists – Carlo, the founder of Giustizia e Libertà, in exile in France since the 1920s, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and Nello, both of whom were murdered in France by fascist assassins in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, the 9 June 1937. He compares their courageous choice to that of his father Cesare who, instead, joined the Fascist Party in 1921, at seventeen years old, and whom, in 1938, even his wife Piera regarded in dismay, when, on returning home, she found her two children dressed in the uniforms of the fascist Figli della Lupa.

John’s memories end here. The following chapters, the fourteenth (“1943: The German Occupation and the Reconstitution of a Fascist State”); the fifteenth (“The Persecution Intensifies: Swiss Asylum”), and the sixteenth (“Survival in Hiding”) have a more historical orientation: the Social Republic of Salò, RSI, and the Swiss exile, recounting the history of the saved ones, while ending the study with a sense of defeat and despair about those who did not make it. Jews went to their death in the camps because of the leaden Swiss bureaucracy, which permitted or denied entry without any logic; and because of the indifference and hostility shown by the local Italian population.

Although written many years after the events, Italian Jews Under Fascism is an exceptional memorial force, which, by virtue of its methodology and choice of sources, provides an integrative history of the Holocaust of Italian Jewry between 1938 and 1945. Tedeschi expands the space of research both from a geographical and thematic point of view, devoting his attention to an analysis of the emotions and feelings experienced by the protagonists of this volume. In this monumental work, Tedeschi fulfills his duty as a survivor, and he does so by bearing witness with the declared aim of presenting, analyzing, and reflecting not only on the specific events but also on the world of emotions of the persecuted, on social, cultural, and physical upheavals suffered, on the choices made under pressures related to anxiety and fear, anguish for the present, without the certainty of the future. Tedeschi studies his sources with caution, attention, distance, without identifying with them, showing how the historical subject – persecuted, hunted, and exposed to the onslaught of endless violence, to extermination – acts and reacts. Starting from this relationship between language and experience, Tedeschi helps us to deconstruct the essentialist and universalizing vision that goes from the famous “great narratives” of Johan Huizinga and Norbert Elias to the recent neurostoria of Daniel Lord Smail.

The book immediately captivates the reader with its fascinating story of one of the most compelling, lesser known, and oldest communities of the Western diaspora: the first official documents of the Jewish presence in the Italian peninsula date back to 168 B.C.E., when Judea asked the Roman Senate for an alliance in the war against the Seleucids. This is a fundamental book of history and memory, recommended as a reading and as a study text for those who want to learn about Jewish history, culture, and identity before, during, and after the persecution.  It is a book that unveils before our eyes Tedeschi’s story, who has remained, despite having spent most of his life in America, tied to his Jewish and Italian roots, “poderose” to use Primo Levi’s definition, powerful as his book.

Tedeschi’s book Italian Jews Under Fascism 1938-1945: A Personal and Historical Narrative 1938-1945, restores the thread of a physiological memory and history of the Italian Jews, who, as Arnaldo Momigliano stated, became Italian with the rest of the peninsula’s population, from 1803 to 1870. These Jews were the creators of unified Italy and of their own emancipation, as Jews and as Italians. Many were socialists, and anti-fascists, many were fascists, few turned to Zionism; all were victims of racial persecution. Many among them shared the tragic fate of deportation and death in the Nazi extermination camps, and others, like the Tedeschis, managed to escape, taking refuge in the Americas, Switzerland, and even Malta. Among them are the founding fathers of post-fascist Italy. They were a very special intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic aristocracy that has marked and continue to mark Italian national history.

[1] Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare (Turin: Einaudi, 1963).
[2] Emilio Gentile, Il culto del littorio. La sacralizzazione della politica nell’Italia Fascista (Bari: Laterza, 1993).
[3] Manuela Consonni, L’eclisse dell’antifascismo. Resistena, cultura politica e questione ebraica in Italia 1943-1989 (Bari: Laterza: 2015).

Manuela Consonni, Pela and Adam Starkopf Chair in Holocaust Studies, Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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