I have three further reflections on what I learned from It Happened in Italy, which didn't fit nicely into my review.

The first is some thoughts on why the story of Jews in Italy during World War II is so little known.  These are my speculations only, and not from the book.

"Relative comfort" is perhaps one key idea.  Holocaust survivors from Italy would most likely feel a bit uncomfortable in a gathering of Holocaust survivors from anywhere else.  Can one talk about lost homes and possessions to one who has seen his children murdered?  Of wasted days to slave laborers?  Of hiding in a neighbor's cramped shed to those whose neighbors betrayed them?  There is a fellowship of suffering:  Amongst those who survived German concentration camps, I'd imagine those from Italian camps might feel they had not suffered "enough."

"The head of the camp in Ferramonti took the Jewish children away in his truck—but they went to get ice cream.  My little sisters were taken away from me immediately, not to go get ice cream but to go to an oven."

On the other hand, the Italians who hid and helped their Jewish neighbors might be reluctant to talk about that era because of feeling they had not done enough.  After all, the treatment of Jews in Italy would have earned mass condemnation had it not been dwarfed by Hitler's atrocities.  Elizabeth Bettinga's work in bringing the Jews and their neighbors back together released the stories on both sides.




Secondly, I have gained an appreciation for the Italian way of life that I never had before.  I've only been to Italy once, and then only to Como, so my experience is very limited—but that trip left a negative impression that has lasted more than 40 years.  The contrast with Switzerland, our previous stay, was dramatic:  spotlessly clean vs. littered and dirty, polite vs. rude (my point of view as a female), organized and efficient vs. disordered and unreliable.

I suspect the contrasts are still pretty much valid—though I'm willing to give Italy another chance under the right circumstances Wink.  However, I've learned that "organized and efficient" is not necessarily a positive attribute when the world has gone insane.  After a frustrating encounter with unhelpful police during a reunion visit to Rome, one Jewish survivor gently reminded his annoyed American companion, "That is why I survived.  I am here because things like that are not important to the police."  Official orders concerning Jews in Italy could be ignored, lost, or minimally obeyed because such attitudes were not unusual in Italy.  In efficient Switzerland, such behavior would have been discovered and punished at once.  What's more, I fear the law-abiding Swiss would not do as well as the more casual Italians when it comes to choosing obedience over compassion.  I hope I'm wrong, because I still like my country-in-law best.




Finally, there are the questions:  How do we best prepare for a time when our own country—whatever it may be—goes crazy?  There's no point saying that it can't happen, because there's too much evidence, from tribal Africa to highly educated and modernized Germany, that it can.  Is there a "tipping point" at which what I might call "ordinary" human sinfulness becomes otherwise unthinkable evil?  If so, how do we keep ourselves from reaching that point?  And what can we do to mitigate the effects of such evil?  Can we have sophisticated systems of surveillance for catching increasingly sophisticated criminals without giving our governments the control Hitler could only dream of?  Can we have trains that run on time and still have a bureaucracy loose enough to let innocent victims slip through?  Is the current obsession with controlling speech and thought (rather than merely behavior) a sign of proximity to the tipping point?  And how can we prepare ourselves to be the kind of people who will help their neighbors rather than betraying them?
Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Edit
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